So, some of you already know, and some of you undoubtably have figured it out along the way. You have seen it crop up here and there and you’ve been polite and you haven’t said anything, or you’ve been kind and you’ve gently pointed it out. Some of you haven’t seen it at all either because of the nature of our correspondence or because it hasn’t shown itself. I didn’t think I was ashamed of it, I didn’t even think I was hiding it really. Not until I asked myself, “Then, why don’t you tell your students? Why do you just avoid writing on the board, but offer no explanation?” The answer is simple really. I just didn’t know how to say it. How to put it into words.
Yesterday I was writing vocabulary words on the board. They were already on the board in one place, I was just rewriting them in categories to help the kids. I think they noticed that I had to stop and focus on each word before I rewrote it. And then I had to go back and look at it again. And again. And still I couldn’t tell. I had never said the words before and I felt like it was time, not for them, but for me. “I have to keep looking,” I said finally, “because I’m dyslexic and I can’t tell if what I wrote is correct”.
The kids didn’t bat an eye. They didn’t care. They just wanted the words down so they could study. But for me it was a milestone. I had never put it in words to my students. And, for as much as I would chastise anyone for feeling this way, it was for one simple reason, I was embarrassed. I have always thought that being a dyslexic teacher made me somehow a little bit less. Not subpar, not unqualified, but a little bit less. How can one teach the mechanics of language when that language has always been both a companion and a curse?
The first time I became aware that I was “different” was in seventh grade. I was a strong writer and my seventh grade teacher loved my writing. But, on every paper she’d write some variation on the theme of, “I wish I could give you the A that you so sorely deserve but I can’t because of your spelling. Use a dictionary!” (That’s a direct quote). Here’s a thing though, a dictionary would do no good, I knew it then and I know it now. I didn’t care back then, grades meant nothing to me and it never occurred to me to explain to her that a dictionary is useless for someone like me because nothing looks wrong. If I spell “like” “lkie” it looks completely the same. My mind moves the letters around (I guess) until it looks like what you probably see when you look at the word. Nothing looks wrong. You know that internet meme that goes around every so often? Well, when I first read that I had no idea what the point was. That paragraph looks completely normal to me. I had to reread it several times to understand why it was a “thing”. That’s what dyslexia is for me.
“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae…”
In college I made sure that I “dumbed down” my vocabulary in all of my exams. Sure, I could use the word “esoteric” but because I couldn’t be sure that I could spell it properly and I’d never know, I’d default to “complex”. I avoided writing notes to professors because I worried that they’d judge me based on my spelling, so instead I was sure to attend office hours.
Even now, as a teacher, I don’t write on the board and I don’t grade students’ papers by hand. Everything is electronic because I can count on the faithful red line to tell me if something isn’t right.
I always just accepted that about myself and I never really thought I was intentionally hiding anything. Technology is a useful way of corresponding with students after all and writing on the board makes for a less student-centered class. These are things I told myself but really, I didn’t want to face the reality that something happens in my brain that makes me process words differently.
Not every dyslexic is the same. Letters don’t dance or jump on my pages and I’m actually an extremely fast reader (perhaps because my brain isn’t bothered by things like the order of letters in a word), but I do switch “b” and “p” quite often when I’m tired and if I’m writing by hand it’s likely that around 40% of my words will be misspelled (example…I just misspelled “misspelled”). And, most frustrating to me, words just don’t “look wrong” so I always run the risk of looking functionally illiterate when I write by hand.
So, why am I putting all of this out here now? Why “come out” when I have effective methods for navigating my world? I think it’s because I still struggle with the stigma. If I as a teacher with two masters degrees who is a published writer and who has been successful in a world that relies on the written word still feels ashamed of this part of myself, then what does that likely say about all of the others out there? How do our students feel when we write them off as “lazy” and we make claims about their effort when really they are working harder than 80% of their peers just to hit the same bar? How do our kids feel when we send them the message that maybe they’re just not college material because no matter what they do they simply can’t seem to achieve the same (arbitrary) levels as their peers in the same way? Are we sending them messages that empower them and are we looking for ways to help them or are we simply taking the easy way out by writing them off as unmotivated so that we don’t have to do the difficult work of untangling their challenges and finding ways to help them?
I would contend that one of the biggest challenges we face when confronting dyslexia is that the vast majority of dyslexics are very intelligent so they (we) find ways to compensate for our challenges. This is a fantastic skill, but it doesn’t really help when it comes to getting assistance in working through some of those challenges. And, let’s face it, it’s easier not to address one more thing in our already overtaxed classrooms. If a student is doing mostly okay-ish and is pretty compliant that child is pretty likely to fall through the cracks, or to get interventions that, while well-meaning probably aren’t going to help a whole lot. This isn’t because teachers don’t care, it’s just not an area that most teachers are trained in or fully understand and it’s always easier to pass the buck back to the kid.
As for me, I don’t know. I find it empowering to be able to give voice to what my world looks like rather than always trying to hide that reality. But, I also know that people do make judgements, I see it all the time, and I know that acknowledging one deficit means raising the bar in five other areas just to balance it all out to prove that you’re not “flawed” in some way.
The more I examine my own world the more I wish that my young self had had a name for all of this. I think that knowing that it was an actual thing would have gone a long way toward making me feel whole and competent. But, who knows. Labels hold stigma too, and they can be limiting. Would I have pursued writing and teaching if I had allowed myself to say the word “dyslexic” out loud? I’m not sure. I’ve know for a long time that that was the word for it; it’s one of my strongest family traits, and in my mind I’ve said it thousands of times. But out loud? That’s different. That’s a level of ownership that you can’t pull back from. But, there it is. I am dyslexic and I come from a long line of dyslexics. I can spell my name backward and it will still look like it’s mine. And, I am going to do my best to own that part of myself and to not be ashamed of it, because I have daughters who count on me to model for them the ways they should see themselves, and because I am not flawed. And really, the one who needs to hear that most is me.