My Life as a Dyslexic
Memories of School
Among my earliest memories growing up in Seattle, was as a grade school student, being taken by my teacher to the library. I couldn’t read and must have been holding the rest of the class back.
When we got to the library, another woman met us outside the library and the two women began discussing why we were there. Even though the two of them thought that I either couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand their discussion, I distinctly heard one of them say, “This is a case of mild to moderate retardation”. I pretended not to have heard as they ushered me into the large library room and sat me down amongst a group of children. Several were hydrocephalics, many were mentally and physically challenged. None were “normal” as I thought I was to that point. I don’t remember how many days I spent in that classroom, but the damage was done. From that point on, I vowed to myself never to trust anyone, or to let anyone get to know me, for fear of being “discovered”. It was me against the world. I became elusive, and said very little to anyone until I felt comfortable that my retardation wouldn’t be verbalized or confirmed.
The middle child in a family of five boys, I was basically on my own from the age of three, when my parents, in a last attempt to have a girl, had twin boys. My father was a surgeon, my mother, an only child who ended up with, at one point, four boys under the age of five. So, somewhat understandably, I received no support from my family. I was the big disappointment; always with bad grades, always in trouble for some reason, and unable to retain the facts to win in an argument.
A War Ends. So does College... with Mixed Emotions
Fast forward to age 21. It’s 1973, and the war in Vietnam just ended. Finally, I knew that I would not be drafted into the army. Staying in school (university), to that point, was only to avoid being sent to the war. I dropped out with mixed emotions; glad to have the agony of school behind me, but knowing that I could do better.
I could barely read, and I graduated from high school by the skin of my teeth. I was fairly talented with right brain activities such as drafting, geometry, art and design, but math was a nightmare and I flunked algebra hands down. To this day, I don’t know my multiplication tables. Sometimes the class clown, I also diverted attention away from me by being a good liar (or so I thought), or I used other somewhat devious techniques. I adopted any means necessary to aid in my survival.
In college, I must have set a record for the most times on academic probation. I just didn’t get it! I knew on some level that I wasn’t stupid, but I just couldn’t seem to operate as others did. There were flashes of brilliance… or at least competence, but then everything would come crashing down! All of this only helped to reinforce my chronically crippled sense of self-confidence and self-esteem.
Work, Relationships and Teaching Myself to Read
I have worked since the age of 13. I was gone every summer working on a ranch or up in Alaska and I worked my way through high school and college sometimes by holding down two or three jobs to make my way. I had no help from family, student loans, etc. It never occurred to me back then how extraordinary that was for someone so young. It was all I knew and it reinforced my aloofness.
The next ten years of my life were spent as a carpenter and manual laborer, then a general contractor. This fit in with my thought that maybe this was all I was capable of, but my total inability with numbers proved to be insurmountable. I worked very hard to the point of physical ill health. I enjoyed the creative/visual side of my work but not the business side. If I had not had a friend back then who committed suicide, I might very well have done the same myself. The world was a totally unnurturing place to me at that period in my life.
I moved from one romantic relationship to another during those years. I felt I had no choice but to move on as the women in my life began to get to know me. I still couldn’t risk being “discovered”. Believe me, fear of commitment was not the issue! I know I hurt some people, but it was even harder on me! During this time, I taught myself how to read by using a geometric/ relative parts of the whole approach of my own design. It has taken many years, but now I am an avid reader.
Higher Education and Pivotal Moments
In 1983, at the age of 30, and ten years after I dropped out of school, I re-entered university study with the belief that I deserved better and that I was capable of more. I really don’t know how I mustered up the self-confidence to take on additional schooling! During my first year, I saw a notice about an event on dyslexia at the school. I attended not really thinking it was relevant to me.
A holistic doctor asked for a volunteer and I raised my hand. He proceeded with a demonstration in Applied kinesiology for which I became the subject. Applied Kinesiology is the study of the electrical energy in the body- it’s surpluses and its deficits. As I was instructed to raise my arm, the doctor gently pushed down with 2 fingers after he said, “now hold”. My arm moved very little. Then he wrote an “X” on a blackboard. He said, “concentrate on this”, then “now hold”, and pushed with his 2 fingers. I couldn’t even hold my arm up when he pushed lightly. He tried other symbols, some strengthening, others weakening. He explained that the “X” is a weakening symbol to dyslexics. “They don’t totally understand why” he said, “but if it’s true, you have a severe case of it”, he said to me.
This was a pivotal moment in my life. I realize that Applied Kinesiology is a controversial topic and certainly not a mainstream science based discipline. I would not recommend it to anyone as a definitive diagnostic tool. It did however alert me to the fact that more testing needed to be done. I subsequently underwent testing with a psychologist in Los Angeles, and testing with an educational specialist in Denmark. With a confirmation of learning difficulties, (dyslexia; dyscalculia & ADD were suspected), I went through an entire metamorphosis. It began with emotional upheaval… including lashing out at my parents, the Seattle public schools, and our educational system in general, to reading all I could get my hands on about the subject. Unfortunately, the “wisdom” at that time, (the early 80’s), seemed to be that it is geometrically more and more difficult to “overcome” dyslexia past the fourth grade. I was told by several special education teachers and administrators trained in the area of dyslexia, “you’d better do the best you can with what you have.” I will never settle for this advice.
The effect of having a confirmation of my dyslexia was life changing. Finally, there was a word, a condition, a reason for my frustrating disorientation and lack of self-confidence. I began to forgive myself and give myself permission to venture out into the world and discover who I was and who I could become.
It took me three years to achieve an undergraduate degree from UC Davis in environmental design, a degree I achieved with honors. I also received a fellowship for research I undertook at UC Davis. I worked in San Francisco on Fridays and on the weekends, and studied Danish at UC Berkley two mornings a week in anticipation of graduate work in Denmark the following year. I did subsequently study furniture Design and interior architecture in Denmark at the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture, and at the School of Architecture in Aarhus, Denmark. I then worked for a time there as an architect until my residency permit ran out.
Returning to the US, I could not find work to save myself. I ended up conducting a feasibility study for US Aid on manufacturing furniture in Honduras, C.A. for export to the US under the Caribbean Basin Joint Venture Initiative. US Aid reneged on their agreement with me and I was never paid.
Searching for the Right Fit
I returned to Seattle and still was unable to find work. I moved to Los Angeles to work as a project manager in construction. A year later, I was recruited to study and teach at UCLA in Industrial design. Although difficult, I managed to finance my education in Los Angeles while teaching for a meager salary. I worked on movie sets, took on freelance design work, and built custom furniture in the shop at school. I received my MA in Industrial Design in 1990, and continued to teach in the department for two more years. At this time, UCLA closed its Department of Design. I spent several years looking for and applying for teaching positions without success.
Since that time, I have had several short-term jobs working for a variety of companies for very low wages. None of these utilized my education and / or experience. I have never found gainful employment in any field, perhaps due to the fact that I was too old to enter the job market in my 40’s when I was done with my education.
Another possibility is the chronic unemployment or underemployment dyslexics tend to experience due to various factors too long to go into here. In education I believe, the catch 22 of not having had continuous employment prevented me from procuring teaching jobs. And now in this world of the near totally computer oriented job market, it is as if I am an alien from another world. Due to dyscalculia and my visually oriented thought process, I remain in some ways, in the world of isolation that I created when I was a young boy.
I make my living at present by designing and building furniture, cabinetry, interior remodeling, and other design / build projects. Because of my spouse, Mary with whom I have discovered that total openness is a good and healthy thing, I can ask her and others for help with numbers and business problems and no longer risk being “discovered”.
Moving Forward and Making a Difference
I act as an advocate for children with dyslexia, and I’ve served on the board for a school for dyslexic children. I have a certificate in nonprofit management and continuously seek positions with nonprofits. I hope to start a nonprofit in the support of dyslexics and their families. In the mean time, I am researching teaching methodologies for dyslexics, and legal avenues that will necessitate that our educational paradigm include effective special education for dyslexics.
I believe that there are as many ways to take in information as there are people, and until we learn to respect these differences and realize that we can all learn and grow as a result, we will continue to experience foreshortenings of our cultural, intellectual and spiritual possibilities.
At 63, I am a bit resigned, and saddened by my lack of ability to have fit in to the mainstream of society. But I am also proud of my accomplishments. I have made my own way in life, and I continue to attempt to make a difference in the lives of others. I have learned that I must take responsibility for myself, and for my life, and not wallow in what might have been. I also choose and try not to live with negativity or cynicism. Even in the darkest of times, there has always been a glimmer of hope and optimism that has left the door open for new opportunities. Giving up has never really been an option. I believe success and fulfillment are always attainable.
I continue to educate myself by taking classes such as jewelry making, nonprofit management, autobiography writing, and I occasionally assist in teaching a furniture design studio at the University of Washington.
Thank you very much Dane, for sharing your story with our community.
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