Jennifer Widemire Smith
The Power of "I Am Dyslexic"
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
Declaring the words, “I am dyslexic” is not a self defeating, self limiting, or self hating label.
It is no different than saying, “I am a swimmer” or “I am a mother” or “I am a writer.” I am of course more than just these things, but they are in fact big statements on my life right now, and saying them brings focus to my purpose in those areas.
Saying “I am dyslexic.” has brought the same amount of focus, clarity and freedom to my intellectual goals.
It brought an explanation: I use 5 times as much energy to learn a language-based lesson that others seem to learn easily. It means I have reduced plasticity when it comes to learning anything new. It effects how I concentrate and for how long I can keep that concentration focused. Knowing these things are powerful weapons as I work towards my goals and encounter obstacles.
In fact these things explain why I failed classes, despite by best efforts, I sometimes failed epically. When I went back a second time to learn, I failed exactly in the same way, by doing the same methods I was taught were the best. These methods all my teachers kept telling me would work, IF, I just put in the right amount of time and effort. See that’s an “if than” statement that prevents the teachers from being held accountable. Because, clearly, if I fail, it’s only because I didn’t put in the right amount of time and effort. Not because their “time honored” methods failed.
Dyslexic brains use 5 times the amount of energy average brains use to study anything that involves language. Sooo for instance, say I’m in Biology 101. The vocabulary of biology will stop me from learning in the first week if I can’t keep up with the memorization required. That vocab is a different language—sometimes literally.
Now remember when I said dyslexics don’t have the same plasticity as average brains? We don’t learn through repetition. No matter how many times we see the same word we can forget it in an instant. We don’t memorize new vacob without first knowing the why and how to tie the information with something we already know. We need to have some form of visual or other five sense engagement to connect the new information in order to prevent it from going in one ear and out the other. Without a tether to how, why, or what something looks like, feels like, smells, tastes, or even emotionally feels like, the information doesn’t stick around no matter how many times we see it on a flash card.
I wanted to learn, I think biology is fascinating. I’d go home and drill myself on the vocab. I’d spend hours writing the flash cards. More hours drilling myself. But good lord, I could never make sense of the weird, non-english words like eukaryote, prokaryote, coenocytic, amoeboid, and amphiesma. It was literally all greek. And all things I couldn’t master in the time allowed. Then I’d get told, “Sorry, you should have tried harder.” Whenever I’d go to the professor and ask, "what else can I do?"
“Try harder” was something I often heard.
In a literature course, I was super excited to have the accountability to read. Something I always felt like I lacked from myself. I thought, if I take the course, I’ll feel obligated to read, I’ll be more committed, maybe I’ll finish the book this time (for the record this is a major red flag for dyslexia. If don't finish books you're excited to read you might be dyslexic).
The book was written in old english. I could not make heads or tails of the world the author had created. I found myself falling asleep often, so I’d set alarms to wake myself up and move around a lot (another red flag). I was re-reading paragraphs constantly (again red flag on the play), unable to comprehend what I’d just read. I was halfway through the week when I realized I had just 2 days left to finish the book that I was not even through the first chapter of and couldn’t even tell you who the main character was even though I'd been faithfully reading each day. I timed myself reading 10 pages. Then multiplied that out just to see how long it was going to take me to read the book. At the end of the 10 pages I realized I still didn’t know who the main character was or the plotline yet, but who cares maybe if I just keep reading it will click. Then I did the math. If I did nothing else for the following 2 weeks but read. And I mean nothing, no eating, sleeping, showering, work, or class. I still wouldn’t be done or ready for the test that was in 2 days and would be in essay format.
I ditched the book and watched the movie.
Then I googled, what the movie left out. Then I read articles on why the book was an important institution in the world of literature. I watched the movie again and then I read the scenes the movie had left out. I walked into class. I wrote my essay. The following class, my professor held my paper up and said, “Now this person read the book!” I had the highest grade.
Instead of basking in my accomplishments I immediately felt like a cheater. I erroneously believed there was only one way to learn something. That to get the most out of a class meant I was suppose to sight read all the books, all the material, and all the chapters, of all the textbooks. Failure to do so was simply that, failure. Doing it by movie, was doing the bare minimum and I hated that. I wanted to learn it all, not just skate by.
I confessed to my professor, who laughed, and said I deserved to have 10 points added to my grade for being an outside the box thinker and coming up with a way to master the subject given the setbacks I was encountering. She tried to encourage me to keep that up but I couldn’t get past the idea that she didn’t find it to be a short cut.
It felt like a short cut to me.
It wasn’t. I was in a no win situation, I made the best of it, and won anyways. I should have been proud of myself! Jim Kirk would have been.
During history classes I would often put into practice the use of documentaries to learn the subject matter of the period we were in, mainly because I'd fallen behind again. Documentaries were so much better than reading the textbooks. I'd participate in class discussion in more lively ways when I'd learned through the screen, but when the professor would ask how I knew so much about the topic and I said, this documentary or that one. I’d get scolded for not reading the textbook. Emotionally I wasn't strong enough to handle being fussed at like that. So I’d try to read the book for the next time then get dinged for not being able to write an essay on why something was important on a particular day in history. I could not win.
I learn best through stories. Documentaries are mainly just stories and explanations of how and why. The textbook only taught dates and facts.
I was always at war with myself and with the ways the school wanted me to learn. And it showed in my grades.
My art history professor once chastised me. I usually made low B’s to high C’s with an occasional A. This was totally unacceptable to him. “You are too smart to have such low grades!” he told me. “I expect more out of you. Stop procrastinating. Study more.”
I always studied. Art History was and still is my FAVORITE subject of all time. This is an area I have pursued even after leaving college. Now, I loved this professor who always fussed at me. I followed him. I waited until his name showed up on the classes I needed to take. This was because he always used stories to teach why art was so important. His stories are still information I reflect upon when I teach my kids the love of Art. He was simply a great teacher.
Later in life he began teaching in his retirement years and I decided to place myself under his tutelage again. Only this time it was for fun and this time, I knew I was dyslexic.
Now learning I was dyslexic was one of the greatest moments of my life. It set me free from so much garbage and junk learning methods. It put me on a path back to my love of learning. It came with a road map, tools, and ways around the obstacles I encountered, honestly, I’ve also developed a bit of an attitude. Call me lazy or tell me I didn’t try hard enough and I’m likely to tell you to take a long walk off a short pier.
My favorite professor and I embraced in his new laid back classroom. I throughly enjoyed bantering back and forth. He’s always been a bit feisty and I was always willing to dish it back. After the class he and I talked for hours.
“So you’re dyslexic? And you only just found out?”
“Yep. Kind of crazy right?”
“Yeah. But it explains a lot. I think I might owe you an apology.”
“Really? What for?”
“I use to get so mad at you when you took my classes. I’d see your name on my roster and I knew I had to study the subject matter harder than other classes all because you would be in the audience.”
“Seriously. You’d ask me questions that I didn’t know the answers too. Questions that made me feel dumb and I was teaching it. They were always reflective of how much you understood and I could see the love of the subject matter in you. Then you’d bomb my test. And usually for stupid stuff. Like you’d write this brilliant essay and forget to name the artist or the pieces you were referring too.”
I laughed. I remembered the surge of adrenaline I got because I felt so stupid when I saw my grade on a test I thought I’d aced. 10 points because I forgot to name Leonardao da Vinci.
“Yeah. I’m still highly likely to forget names and titles.”
He laughed. “I always had to study to teach you. Your tests never reflected your aptitude. I always assumed that was because you didn’t put enough effort into it, even though I would watch you study in the break rooms, you’d study the slides more often than any student I’ve ever had. I wish I had caught the dyslexia in you.”
I forgave him for not knowing what he didn’t know, and I forgave myself for the same. I also took pride in the fact that I'd made him work for it.
Never again will I let someone convince me to study for 45 minutes and break for 15, this leads to exhaustion.
The dyslexic way: study for 20, break for 5, actually get some where.
Never again will I use flash cards to memorize.
The dyslexic way: Draw it in picture forms, make connections, create a brain map, etc…
Never again will I apologize for asking the question, “Why?”
Never again will I assume working around an obstacle is cheating when the task and obstacle combine to form a Kobayashi Maru.
Never again will I let someone make me feel I didn’t do my best for not being perfect.
C’s and D’s earn degrees too.
Dyslexia is not an excuse but an explanation. With explanation comes knowledge, which beget strategies. New strategies beget different outcomes. Not knowing I had dyslexia put me on an impossible path.
It took getting pregnant unexpectedly to realize how much I was treading water, not swimming. I’d been married for several years intending to start my family after I graduated, but life had different plans, and I’m so grateful for it! For it is through my son’s existence that I found my passion. My son’s struggles that brought my own into focus. And it is because of my struggles that I will keep my son and my daughter from following down the same horrible path.
During college I never finished a book. Now? I read 100+ books a year.
I will teach my children the dyslexic way. I will teach them the strategies that work. I will teach them to never apologize for who they are. I will teach them to continue saying the words "I am dyslexic." For the label of dyslexia is powerful—from it we draw our strength.