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Seeing Red

I was halfway through college when I was diagnosed with a condition known at the time as auditory dyslexia. Believed to be caused by an impairment in the neural processing of auditory information, it is characterized by difficulty processing the basic sounds of language, letters, and groups of letters, resulting in slow and labored reading. It was my Spanish professor who suggested I get tested after she noticed an odd disconnect between my level of effort and my achievement. Luckily, the Mayo Clinic was nearby and my family income qualified me for free educational testing, which I undertook gladly, driven as I am by a curiosity to understand performance.

I was surprised when the results came back, having never imagined that I had any learning differences. But the surprise faded quickly and was replaced by a wave of relief, a phenomenon that educational psychologists called demystification, which occurs when a person’s unique neurology is made plain to them and then suddenly their education experiences make a lot more sense. I now understood why learning languages, math included, had been such a chore for me. I understood why I read slowly. I also hypothesized about the blessing it offered me, imagining that, somehow, the dyslexia was also responsible for outstanding scores in reading comprehension and writing that placed me at the graduate school level, though I had no evidence to support that notion.

I didn’t much care at the time, nor since, because I understood that the dyslexia was hard-wired into my nervous system. I was less concerned about cause and effect, and more preoccupied with learning how to make adjustments. Just knowing that there was a reason for my subjective experience as a learner was all I needed. I didn’t pursue any of the accommodations the testing suggested because I didn’t feel like I needed to. I continued as a history major because it stoked my enthusiasm, the massive reading load be damned.

Jump forward 25 years. When I learned that October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and that one can show support for the event by wearing red, I was thrilled. I hopped online to buy a red tie when I found none in my quiver of neckwear. For the rest of this month, I’ll be sporting red proudly to acknowledge the struggles and victories we dyslexics have experienced, both those who are aware of their diagnosis and, just as importantly, the undiagnosed.

I am particularly proud of Darrow School’s history of helping dyslexic students achieve genuine and hard-earned success, as they realize the sense of accomplishment that comes from celebrating their wins. One of those students came to the Mountainside in the late 1940s, having been expelled from another boarding school for failing most of his exams. Although dyslexia wasn’t well understood in those days, the student found here a place that accepted his learning difficulties and discovered a way to help him overcome them. Charles “Pete” Conrad, Class of 1949, graduated from Darrow, went on to study aeronautical engineering at Princeton, became a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, and was the third man to walk on the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 12 mission.

I’d love to hear the stories of those close to you who have learning differences to hear how they embraces theirs. Please leave a comment below or email me at holzapfels@darrowschool.org.


2 Comments

  1. vedwight says:

    Both of my boys have dyslexia, which is their story to tell, of course. But I will say that when we told Tim (8 years old at the time) what he had, I basically said, ‘your brain learns differently from most brains. But you have a great brain. The problem is, most teachers know how to teach to those typical brains, so we have to help them learn how to teach in a way that works for your brain.’ I saw an instant wave of relief. He always knew that *something* was wrong, but he had no words for it. Learning what it was made all the difference.

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