Lots of people with learning disabilities make it to the top of the heap in the creative fields, so it is no surprise that Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schultz is dyslexic.
I had one of those driveway moments when I was listening to an interview with him on the local public radio station. I couldn’t leave the car ‘til I had heard all of it. Then I went out and bought his book My Dyslexia. Most of the many books I have read on dyslexia were from the point of view of a parent dealing with a newly diagnosed child. This one is from the point of view of an adult, undiagnosed sufferer, like me.
You can find lists of dyslexic smart people on line, so I won’t list but two: Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Neither of these people could have known why their mind was so unruly. Mr. Schultz didn’t know he was learning disabled until he was in his fifties. He thought he was just Dumb.
My mother, who loved to read, tried to teach me before I started school. She gave up in frustration and left it to my equally frustrated teacher. I was the Dumb Kid before I even started first grade. My father, who was taking education classes on the GI Bill, gave me all the tests he had at hand and pronounced me to be Smart. So, why I was I finding it so hard to read? No one knew. My label shifted from Dumb to Lazy.
Like Mr. Schultz I didn’t find out what was really going on until Dumb Lazy me was in graduate school. In an early childhood education class I came across the word “dyslexia” for the first time. I was 26.
I had one advantage he didn’t have. Mine was a family of intellectuals who loved learning. His parents were working class and bought into the Dumb Kid image.
Lots of what he lives with doesn’t fit with my particular constellation of symptoms. Some of what he said really hit home. Things I hadn’t thought of before, but which were an integral part of my life.
Anxiety is the prime symptom of a learning disability. If anyone calls my name, I am sure it is to reprimand me for something. If someone asks me to do something that is either timed or closely observed, my mind goes blank, which escalates the anxiety. Don’t ask me to do a math problem at the board. Don’t ask me to read out loud without warning.
The other thing he said was that dyslexic people are better problem solvers because they have always had to figure out ways around their short comings. They have never been able to depend on what they learned in school because it could vanish at any moment.
I have a great vocabulary because I need substitutes for common words that vanish when I need them. In the above paragraph I substituted “vanish” for “desert” because I can’t tell if there is any difference between the words for an arid place, the sweet course of a meal, or to withdraw.
I can list almost every mistake I made from the 1960s (La Scala is an opera house, not an opera), to the present (mistaking kilograms for grams) but none of the intellectual triumphs.
No matter how successful we are, we never get over feeling Dumb and Lazy.