For more than 15 years, I have had a secret. My wife knows. My family knows, as do a few close friends. But what would my co-workers think? My editors? My sources on the science beat?
When I imagine them knowing, I can’t get an image out of my head: My seventh-grade English teacher, glaring at me, with a look that needed no words. You are lazy and stupid, Gareth. Why are you even wasting my time?
I am dyslexic.
Reading is slow for me. If I try to read aloud, it is halting, even with children’s books. I can’t spell.
I was never able to learn cursive, and I am virtually unable to take handwritten notes while someone is talking. If it weren’t for a strange quirk in the disorder – I can type notes and listen – I could never have hidden my struggles at work, because I wouldn’t be able to do my job at all.
In the last few months, there has been a burst of interest in dyslexia, with cover stories in Time and Newsweek inspired by a new book, Overcoming Dyslexia. The author, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, is one of a group of scientists who have made tremendous progress in understanding the disorder over the last few years.
I spoke with Shaywitz recently. The stigma is just starting to lift, she says. There is no reason to be ashamed. And that’s when I decided: time to come out of the closet.
For a long while, I had no idea what was wrong with me.
It started in the second grade, with spelling quizzes. I had to bring home the papers, awash in red corrections, for my parents to initial.
In fifth grade – an awkward enough time of life – there was the pure humiliation of spelling bees. I always went down in the first round. Everyone expected that.
As I got older, the spelling problems persisted – something that teachers marked down for and some English teachers took almost personally. I also found that I couldn’t really take notes, so I often teamed up with somebody else to study, trading help in math or science for his social-studies notes.
It was not until college, a decade and a half ago, that I learned what was behind it all. A friend of mine had just been diagnosed as dyslexic and was describing the collection of problems he was having. I remember thinking: Wait, that is me.
Dyslexia involves a problem with how the brain translates sounds and those funny squiggles on a page. Shaywitz has found that as someone learns to read, he moves from a laborious process of figuring out what each word is to fluency, where the brain instantly, effortlessly recognizes a word.
Dyslexics, for reasons that are still mysterious, have trouble making this transition. In her lab, Shaywitz has scans that show the brains of dyslexics activating in surprising patterns, as unusual parts of the brain jump in to help.
“Dyslexics learn to read, but they are never fully fluent,” says Shay witz. “It is like getting off I-95 and using the secondary roads. You can get there, but not as fast.”
This can be intensely frustrating. Reading has not been as hard for me as for many dyslexics, but if I try to write notes by hand while someone is talking, I am hit with a jarring, confused feeling. If you have ever tried to talk on a bad phone line, where your own words echo back at you, then you know this sensation.
I also have another embarrassing problem common to dyslexics, which is a profound inability to navigate around town, even relatively familiar places.
I often fantasize about these afflictions suddenly lifting. But Shaywitz believes that the unusual wiring of the dyslexic brain confers advantages as well, such as an increased ability to think conceptually and “outside the box.” I can’t get “Michael” right without the spell-checker, but sometimes I can see an entire story in my head at once and mentally rearrange the paragraphs.
I am writing this column reluctantly, because I don’t know what people will think; a part of me probably still believes that I should be ashamed.
But I also have to write this, because I know there is at least one kid out there who is feeling the despair that clawed at me for so many years. I want this kid to know: It’s never going to be easy, but put your heart into it and you will blow them away.