At the beginning of September, my fiancé and and I drove from Seattle to Minneapolis. We arrived at our new apartment late in the afternoon on Saturday, September 5th. Less than 48 hours later, before our furniture had even arrived, we both went to work: Paul at the University of Minnesota, and me at my new job of tutoring and counseling college students with dyslexia.
On my first day, I was expecting to do paperwork and have some sort of orientation to the program, but instead, twenty minutes after arriving, I found myself helping a student with his Calculus homework… GULP. I hadn’t done Calculus in over a decade, so I babbled crazily at the poor guy while frantically searching through some dusty, old files in the back of my brain. I felt stupid and self-concious, but somehow I managed to help him with most of his assignment.
By the end of the week, I was pretty much running the show at work. And by that, I mean I was actually running the show. Both the director of the program and the other tutor were out sick, leaving me in charge of the room full of college kids. I talked to a student about test-taking tactics, helped make some flash cards about quadratic equations, and tried to counsel a student on how to best organize his essay on e-cigarettes for Freshman Comp.
This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with students with dyslexia and other learning disorders, so I know that their disabilities can make classes and assignments difficult and frustrating, and that this program is likely what will help them get through college. But as a writer and a life-long book-lover, I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand what it’s like to be dyslexic. For people with language-processing disorders, reading isn’t easy or fun; it’s a constant struggle.
Most people think of dyslexia as “that thing where you reverse your letters,” but dyslexia is actually a general term for any difficulty with words when reading, spelling, and writing — despite having average to above average intelligence and ability. It’s a neurological disorder with several subtypes, and dyslexia can manifest itself in different ways and with varying severity.
Dyslexic readers spend more time and effort decoding language. They have trouble with directionality (left, right, up, down), symbols, and breaking words down into phonemes. They often have trouble comprehending what they’ve read because all of their mental energy goes into deciphering each word. Furthermore, I’ve had dyslexic kids tell me that the words “move around on the page,” and once a few years ago I caught a student reading her paper upside down. I flipped it around, and she continued reading like it was all the same to her. Because it was. Just imagine for a moment if you thought reading upside down was the same as reading right-side up.
And maybe you can imagine it, because it’s estimated that 10 to 15% of the population struggles with some form of dyslexia. If you can’t imagine it, like me, here is a little peek into the world of a dyslexic. Try reading the following passage (a translation can be found at the end of this post):
We pegin our qrib eq a faziliar blace, a poqy like yours enq zine.
Iq conqains a hunqraq qrillion calls qheq work qogaqhys py qasign.
Enq wiqhin each one of qhese zany calls, each one qheq hes QNA,
Qhe QNA coqe is axecqly qhe saze, a zess-broquceq rasuze.
So qhe coqe in each call is iqanqical, a razarkaple puq veliq claiz.
Qhis zeans qheq qhe calls are nearly alike, puq noq axecqly qhe saze.
Qake, for insqence, qhe calls of qhe inqasqines; qheq qhey’re viqal is cysqainly blain.
Now qhink apouq qhe way you woulq qhink if qhose calls wyse qhe calls in your prain.
If you didn’t give up, you’ll find that you CAN read it — or get the gist anyway — but it takes effort and time, and it’s easy to get frustrated and mentally exhausted. That’s probably what it’s like for the college students I’m working with now. A lot of these kids also struggle with their self-esteem and motivation. They’re not stupid, but too often in their school careers they’ve felt stupid and self-conscious and overwhelmed.
Luckily, we live in an age of audiobooks and podcasts and assistive technology. One of my students found Plato’s Republic read outloud on youtube and is (somewhat) happily listening to it and taking notes for class. Other students use a program called Kurzweil; you scan in a set of book pages and wait a million years for it to process, and then the program can read the text outloud (although a lot of the students dislike it because of Kurzweil’s “robotic” voice.) So Dyslexia is not something that can be “cured,” but there are ways to live with it.
Still, it makes me a little sad that some of my students may never know the joy I feel when I snuggle up with a good novel. Podcasts and audiobooks are great, but to me, there’s nothing quite like the experience of reading. It’s ironic that that I happily spend so much time reading and writing, and yet I work with a population who tends to avoid and/or dislike those very activities.
The other day, I told my students that I’m a writer and my plan is to write in the mornings then work with them in the afternoons. “When I get my book published, I expect you all to buy it,” I joked.
“Oh, we will,” they promised.
I hope they’ll read it, too, but I know I’ll never quite understand what it feels like for them when they sit down with a new book.
To learn more about dyslexia, check out these links:
Translation of passage above:
We begin our trip at a familiar place, a body like yours and mine.
It contains a hundred trillion cells that work together by design.
And within each one of these many cells, each one that has DNA,
The DNA code is exactly the same, a mass-produced resume.
So the code in each cell is identical, a remarkable but valid claim.
This means that the cells are nearly alike, but not exactly the same.
Take, for instance, the cells of the intestines; that they’re vital is certainly plain.
Now think about the way you would think if those cells were the cells in your brain.