One day a substitute teacher picked me to read aloud from the textbook. When I told her “No, thank you,” she came unhinged. She thought I was acting smart, and told me so. I kept calm, and that got her madder and madder. We must have spent 10 minutes trying to solve the problem, and finally she got so red in the face I thought she’d blow up. She told me she’d see me after class.
Maybe someone like me was a new thing for that teacher. But she wasn’t new to me. I’ve been through scenes like that all my life. You see, even though I’m 17 and a junior in high school, I can’t read because I have dyslexia. I’m told I read “at a fourth grade level,” but from where I sit, that’s not reading. You can’t know what that means unless you’ve been there. It’s not easy to tell how it feels when you can’t read your homework assignments or the newspaper or a menu in a restaurant or even notes from your own friends.
My family began to suspect I was having problems almost from the first day I started school. My father says my early years in school were the worst years of his life. They weren’t so good for me, either. As I look back on it now, I can’t find the words to express how bad it really was. I wanted to die. I’d come home from school screaming, “I’m dumb. I’m dumb—I wish I were dead!”
I guess I couldn’t read anything at all then—not even my own name—and they tell me I didn’t talk as good as other kids. But what I remember about those days is that I couldn’t throw a ball where it was supposed to go, I couldn’t learn to swim, and I wouldn’t learn to ride a bike, because no matter what anyone told me, I knew I’d fail.
Sometimes my teachers would try to be encouraging. When I couldn’t read the words on the board they’d say, “Come on, David, you know that word.” Only I didn’t. And it was embarrassing. I just felt dumb. And dumb was how the kids treated me. They’d make fun of me every chance they got, asking me to spell “cat” or something like that. Even if I knew how to spell it, I wouldn’t; they’d only give me another word. Anyway, it was awful, because more than anything I wanted friends. On my birthday when I blew out the candles I didn’t wish I could learn to read; what I wished for was that the kids would like me.
With the bad reports coming from school, and with me moaning about wanting to die and how everybody hated me, my parents began looking for help. That’s when the testing started. The school tested me, the child guidance center tested me, private psychiatrists tested me. Everybody knew something was wrong—especially me.
It didn’t help much when they stuck a fancy name onto it. I couldn’t pronounce it then—I was only in second grade—and I was ashamed to talk about it. Now it rolls off my tongue, because I’ve been living with it for a lot of years—dyslexia.
All through elementary school wasn’t easy. I was always having to do things that were “different,” things the other kids didn’t have to do. I had to go to a child psychiatrist, for instance.
One summer my family forced me to go to a camp for children with reading problems. I hated the idea, but the camp turned out pretty good, and I had a good time. I met a lot of kids who couldn’t read and somehow that helped. The director of the camp said I had a higher I.Q. than 90 percent of the population. I didn’t believe him.
About the worst thing I had to do In fifth and sixth grade was go to a special education class in another school in our town. A bus picked me up, and I didn’t like that at all. The bus also picked up emotionally disturbed kids, and retarded kids. It was like going to a school for the retarded. I always worried that someone I knew would see me on that bus. It was a relief to go to the regular junior high school.
Life began to change a little for me then, because I began to feel better about myself. I found the teachers cared; they had meetings about me and I worked harder for them for a while. I began to work on the potter’s wheel, making vases and pots that the teachers said were pretty good. Also, I got a letter for being on the track team. I could always run pretty fast.
At high school the teachers are good and everyone is trying to help me. I’ve gotten honors some marking periods and I’ve won a letter on the cross country team. Next quarter I think the school might hold a show of my pottery. I’ve got some friends. But there are still some embarrassing times. For instance, every time there is writing in the class, I get up and go to the special education room. Kids ask me where I go all the time. Sometimes I say, “to Mars.”
Homework is a real problem. During free periods in school I go into the special ed room and staff members read assignments to me. When I get home my mother reads to me. Sometimes she reads an assignment into a tape recorder, and then I go into my room and listen to it. If we have a novel or something like that to read, she reads it out loud to me. Then I sit down with her and we do the assignment. She’ll write, while I talk my answers to her. Lately I’ve taken to dictating into a tape recorder, and then someone—my father, a private tutor or my mother—types up what I’ve dictated. Whatever homework I do takes someone else’s time, too. That makes me feel bad.
We had a big meeting in school the other day—eight of us, four from the guidance department, my private tutor, my parents and me. The subject was me. I said I wanted to go to college, and they told me about colleges that have facilities and staff to handle people like me. That’s nice to hear.
As for what happens after college, I don’t know and I’m worried about that. How can I make a living if I can’t read? Who will hire me? How will I fill out the application form? The only thing that gives me any courage is the fact that I’ve learned about well-known people who couldn’t read or had other problems and still made it. Like Albert Einstein, who didn’t talk until he was 4 and flunked math. Like Leonardo da Vinci, who everyone seems to think had dyslexia.
I’ve told this story because maybe some teacher will read it and go easy on a kid in the classroom who has what I’ve got. Or, maybe some parent will stop nagging his kid, and stop calling him lazy. Maybe he’s not lazy or dumb. Maybe he just can’t read and doesn’t know what’s wrong. Maybe he’s scared, like I was.
A passage from Moby-Dick as it might look to one dyslexic child on a particular day. Problems differ from day to day and child to child.
It is a thiug uot nucommouly happeuiug to the whale-doats iu those swarmiug seas; the sharks at timesaqqareutly followiug them iu the same qresciut way that vnitnres hover over the dauiters of marchiug regimeuts in the east. Bnt these were the first sharks that habdeeuodsrved by the Pepnob siuce the White Whale habdeeufirst becrieb.
Here is the passage as Melville wrote it:
It is a thing not uncommonly happening to the whale-boats in those swarming seas; the sharks at times apparently following them in the same prescient way that vultures hover over the banners of marching regiments in the east. But these were the first sharks that had been observed by the Pequod since the White Whale had been first descried.
Raymond, David. “On Being 17, Bright and Unable to Read.” New York Times, 25 Apr. 1976, p. 433.