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The Gift of Dyslexia

By Mitchell Miller


“Mitchell, pay attention, sit up straight, stop talking, try harder, focus, sit still, stop tapping your pencil, your feet, you’re moving too much, you’re annoying your classmates, behave, get out, go to the office”. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you acting this way? Why didn’t you study?  You didn’t do your homework! You don’t care! You’re lazy! No recess for you! You’re grounded!”


 I didn’t always see dyslexia as a gift. No, on the contrary, I believed it was a curse and that there was something seriously wrong with me.  It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how much I studied, how many hours I read or re-read to understand what I was trying to learn, practiced my spelling words longer, learned my times tables over and over, tried hard not to fidget or blurt out answers, there was simply something wrong with me and I really hated school.  No one seemed to understand my struggles, not my parents, nor my friends and certainly not my teachers.  I quickly developed the reputation of class clown and my friends seemed to enjoy my classroom antics. I was easily distracted in class and delighted in interrupting the teachers’ long -winded lectures, which I inevitably couldn’t sit still long enough to pay attention to. I had developed and earned the bad boy reputation and spent my elementary and early middle school years living up to that reputation.  Not because I liked it, (well maybe a little!), but because it was what was expected of me, and honestly, I’d rather have been noticed for something, anything, other than being called out for being stupid.


I spent the majority of my elementary and early middle school years being told I wasn’t good enough. That I wasn’t trying hard enough and that I was just plain lazy. On the inside I was dying! I didn’t understand why I couldn’t do or learn the things in class that seemed so easy for everybody else, and most of the time my brain hurt from trying so hard. Reading, writing and spelling were torture and math seemed to be a foreign language. I had no self- esteem or confidence (except when I was getting into trouble), and things began to quickly spiral downhill as the workload and homework expectations increased. I was also getting older and my behavior was getting less and less acceptable to the adults in my life as well as to my friends who were taking school more seriously. 


While my parents were frustrated with me for my laziness and apparent lack of effort, they were starting to suspect that perhaps there was a bigger issue going on with my learning that needed to be investigated by a professional. During the summer between 6th and 7th grade, they took me to a neuropsychologist who performed a series of tests to see what was going on. It didn’t take very long for the doctor to determine that I had dyslexia. At the time, I had no clue what this condition meant (I was only 11), but at least I now had a name and a diagnosis for my apparent lack of effort, and this has changed my life forever.


My doctor and parents reassured me that this “condition” of dyslexia was a gift!  Testing results revealed that I was in fact quite intelligent, as proven by my IQ scores, and that I should now embrace my special learning differences. It really just meant that I would probably always struggle with reading, writing, and spelling, but that I would definitely overcome these due to my giftedness in creativity, social skills and ability to think and learn outside the box!  Yeah, right!! Just the name dyslexia connotes a major problem, and I didn’t see this dyslexia as a gift, but yet another label that would undoubtedly make me look and seem different from my classmates.  A diagnosis to make me stand out from the norm and embarrass me further as teachers would have to make accommodations to my workload. I was not happy at all and didn’t want to embrace this diagnosis. For a few moments, I wanted to pretend I didn’t have dyslexia and could return to school with my reputation for being lazy. At least my friends and teachers had come to accept me this way. While I knew deep down that I wasn’t lazy, and really did struggle with my academics, it was an easier façade to portray than to try to explain that I had a learning disability, which would definitely make me look stupid!


With the diagnosis in hand, my mom set up meetings with the doctor, principal, and teachers of my upcoming 7th grade classes to map out a plan for my learning, and decide on ways to help me be successful. With all good intentions, my teachers agreed to make the necessary accommodations for me when school started back, but it quickly became evident that like so many people, they didn’t really understand dyslexia, and once classes started things quickly slid back to the same old ways. 


With the excitement of summer over and school beginning, I was nervous about starting 7th grade, particularly with my new diagnosis. While teachers had assured me they were prepared to help me get through, I walked into my very first class of the day, English, armed with several novels we were already supposed to have read, and understood, in preparation for class discussions.  As I had done so many times in my schooling history, I headed for the desk at the back of the room and tried to hide behind one of my taller classmates hoping the teacher wouldn’t pick me to read or answer any questions.  I had done the required reading, with my mom’s help, but could not remember any information from the novels we were going to discuss. I still remember vividly the fear and humiliation I felt when the teacher assigned me to read a short passage from the novel out loud and could hear the sniggers and laughter from my classmates along with the eye rolling as I struggled over every single word. They were waiting for me to make the mistakes I undoubtedly did, and I lived up to their expectations.  Inside I was frustrated and mortified that I had been called upon to highlight my reading inadequacies in front of the entire 7th grade English class. I was also angry because the teacher had promised during our earlier meetings with my parents and doctor, that she wouldn’t do this. I could feel my face burning bright as I struggled through this passage trying to block out the snide comments being made all around me. It didn’t take long before I realized that this joke of a gift they said I had, was nothing but a curse and if I was going to survive 7th grade, I would have to revert back to the disruptive, uncooperative, lazy kid they all believed I was. At least I was getting attention from this behavior!


Several weeks into 7th grade, I had become quite depressed and had lost all desire to go to school. I tried hard to keep up, and took hours to complete unfinished class assignments and homework. I dropped all afterschool activities so that I could spend more hours dedicating myself to reading and re-reading information that I would inevitably forget and then fail. Things at home were tough, and while my parents were super supportive and tried really hard to encourage me, things seemed hopeless. My friends were beginning to treat me differently and I felt really alone. I didn’t want this gift of dyslexia; I just wanted to be normal like everybody else!


Behind the scenes, my mom who is an educator and Principal, was researching different options for my education as she had seen the light go out of my eyes. She understood how sad I had become and that her once happy, energetic, and confident son, had lost all feeling of self-value. I’m sure it broke her heart to see and hear the many tears I shed behind the closed door and sanctuary of my bedroom.


As luck would have it, my mom found a school in our neighborhood that was established specifically for dyslexic and gifted children. Their mission seemed to focus on the key strengths of the dyslexic student and they prided themselves on identifying and acknowledging abilities, encouraging and supporting outside-the-box thinking, allocating time to nurture strengths, and providing alternative ways of acquiring information. 


My mom met with administrators and teachers at Assets School to see if this school might be a better fit for me, and we had a tour of the campus and all their classes K-12. The first thing I noticed was the small, friendly learning community.  Every classroom had no more than 10-15 students in it, along with two teachers so that individual attention could be offered when needed. Also of note were the cool art, drama, music, photography, woodwork, and technology rooms that were an everyday requirement of the school curriculum. All subjects that I was really good at but had not been given the opportunity to explore in my current school. Assets seemed like the perfect fit for me, but I was apprehensive about making the change and nervous about leaving my friends to be placed in a school where I believed everybody was as stupid as me. Boy, was I wrong! This new school, Assets, changed my life, my attitude, and my understanding of dyslexia. 


I attended Assets from 7th-12th grade and can honestly say that this school helped me come to understand that dyslexia is truly a gift. While I’ll always struggle with reading, writing, spelling, maths and handwriting, I have learned and developed tools to help me overcome these difficulties, and gained strategies to be successful in these skills. I have also come to understand that true learning is not only about being able to pass a test, or read a long novel, write extended essays, or quickly recite and remember your multiplication tables (all skills which I now have the confidence to do), but more importantly, it’s about discovering your strengths and using these to overcome your areas of weakness. After all, education is supposed to be about gaining knowledge, and understanding how to apply this knowledge to the real world. Making connections and applying them to new situations using your talents and strengths is definitely a gift and the most important lesson I have learned about having dyslexia. 


I may never be good at reading, or writing, or spelling, (thank goodness for technology), but I’m creative, have great critical and analytical skills, am good at making big picture connections and imagining how processes will play out over time. I also have a special talent in spatial reasoning, putting together three-dimensional spatial perspectives and because I see things in pictures, am able to remember facts and personal experiences that others may forget. 


Through my personal experience, and the nurturing school environment I was fortunate to attend, I’ve come to understand that I’m far from stupid. My brain is just wired differently, not better or worse, just differently. And it is this difference that has helped me understand that my dyslexia is a gift! The ability to see and learn things in a unique way has given me the confidence to be successful, and I’m proud to be among the many famous dyslexic people who have changed our world. My goal is that I too will one day make a difference because of my gift of dyslexia.

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