What is your story, or the story of a dyslexic in your life?
Here's my story of dyslexia. My journey illustrates many of the points about dyslexia's strengths, challenges and myths.
The Dyslexic M.I.N.D. Strengths
Before we begin, here is a little review of the dyslexic strengths explained, courtesy of Brock L. Eide, MD and Fernette F. Eide, MD from their book The Dyslexic Advantage:
- You can use the link right here or those embedded in the story to learn more about the Dyslexic M.I.N.D. strengths.
- Here is a little video by Dean Bragonier where he talks about the Dyslexic M.I.N.D Strengths in a nutshell video: https://youtu.be/f8ijgzZCjjw.
- And right here is a mini-review of the dyslexic strengths explained:
M-Strengths: Material Reasoning
- Great 3-D or spatial reasoning.
I-Strengths: Interconnected Reasoning
- Seeing unique connections that others often miss.
- Using different perspectives and approaches to create a big-picture view.
N-Strengths: Narrative Reasoning
- Being able to create vivid mental scenes to display important ideas and concepts from the past, present and future.
- Having a great personal memory (a.k.a episodic memory).
- Being able to write so vividly that others imagine it clearly.
D-Strengths: Dynamic Reasoning
- Taking information and accurately making predictions about the past and the future.
- The ability to notice patterns, even where some information is missing, and correctly make predictions.
- Understanding how to deal with change and uncertainty from looking at qualitative data.
- Having and following insight.
I, (as is common with dyslexics) have many dyslexics in my family. Both of my parents are dyslexic. As a kid, with my great 3-D spatial comprehension and boundless curiosity, I took apart literally everything in the house and put it back together again, including the toaster, most of the plumbing, all my bicycles, a camera, and my first motorcycle (my dyslexic M-strengths at work). I couldn’t help taking things apart and reassembling them—it was really fun! I checked out ever single thing in the house. My mother was nervous about me having my first motorcycle. When she’d seen that I’d taken apart literally every piece of it and it was spread all over the garage, she was relieved because she thought I wouldn’t be able to put it back together again. In a few days I had it put back together and it was running in better shape than ever!
The Hell of School
What follows is a recognizably dyslexic story of creative thinking, achievement, and struggle with a school system which shamed me, blamed me and discarded me. My story is one where adults told an eight-year-old boy that I “would never even be able to be a garbage man because when you grow up, Joey, even sanitation workers will have to have college degrees and you can’t get one.” I got the message at that young age that I would “have no future” (a common fear of dyslexic kids). To this day I still feel grief from teachers repeatedly telling me I was “stupid.” Once I was tested and found to have a very high IQ, the same teachers then told me I was “lazy” and it was because I “didn’t try hard enough” (a common and hurtful misunderstanding of the dyslexic learning process) that I couldn’t read. This about a boy who longed to read and spent hours and hours struggling to do so.
A kind, polite kid, I responded to questions in class with more advanced information than was being taught due to my astutely dyslexic observations of life, watching TV (a really helpful learning tool for dyslexics because it is a visual format), easily picking up any visual information being taught, and being a member of the adult work force long before other kids. I had a broader vocabulary than some of my teachers. I offered creative and astute answers in classroom discussions. The reaction to my creative, accurate, and advanced level responses was that my teachers labeled me a “smartass” because I could verbally answer but couldn’t express myself on written tests. A teacher in junior high told me that I wasn’t doing my homework because I “must feel that doing homework was beneath my intelligence.” No one knew how to teach me how to read and write though I longed to, and they didn’t understand that this was why I couldn’t complete assignments and tests.
Here is a typical and frequent story of my school experience: A teacher went to great lengths to explain a concept to the students, but they just didn’t understand. I, who appeared to be “daydreaming and looking out the window,” (that great and often misunderstood dyslexic D-strength processing system!) raised my hand and offered a great metaphor which all the kids immediately understood (N-strengths at work, easily finding a metaphor that others understand). The disgruntled teacher responded with, “Mr. Feusi, how is it that you have the answers in class and don’t write them on the test!” Soon after, this same teacher assigned me to tutor a fellow student in biology. Biology was taught visually with lots of pictures and diagrams on the board (a great way for dyslexics to learn) which I easily understood. I not only knew the material, but was a natural and friendly teacher. I helped the girl who was struggling to get an A+ on her exam. I got a D on the same test. I knew all the answers but I could not read the questions nor write the answers. The teacher knew I was smart, which was why he trusted me with tutoring his prize student, but the teacher was unable to give me the help I needed and blamed me for my “failings.”
Another teacher paid for braces for my straight-A sister when our divorced mom couldn’t afford them. I also needed braces, but I got Ds, and didn’t get the braces. Instead, one day when I was struggling to read this same teacher came over with the teapot he used to water the plants in the class and dumped the entire pot on top of my head in order to try to compel me to do my homework “better.” Faced with belittling comments by teachers, and the horror of being asked to read aloud when I couldn’t, pretty soon I learned to become “invisible” and not respond (invisibility is a way dyslexics often learn to cope).
The student I tutored went on to become high school valedictorian. I had a different fate. I articulately lobbied my high school vice principal to find some way to help me learn to read and write. I always understood the value of education throughout my schooling. I entered the workforce masquerading as an adult so that I could be paid higher, adult wages. I held jobs of high responsibility. But I realized that I really wanted a college education and in order to do that I needed to read and write. So I had a meeting with the vice principal of my high school and expressed my concern that the school wasn’t doing a very good job of educating me and preparing me for the world. As a student, I learned to survive basically by being invisible and making sure I didn’t get in any kind of trouble. The vice principal’s response to my concerns about my lack of education as I prepared to enter the adult world was to label me a juvenile delinquent and angrily told me that they were not going to create a special program just for me, even though the State of California mandated and authorized such a program, and there were other kids who would have benefited. I pointed out to the vice principal that I had never been in trouble of any kind! Indeed, I was the farthest thing from a delinquent as you could get—I was out working as an adult! The vice principal refused to help and simply signed my graduation certificate to get rid of me (letting dyslexic students fall through the cracks, or dismissing them, is a common injury; in addition, parents of dyslexics may find that their child’s needs will be addressed by the school system only when hiring an attorney, an option not available to me).
Entering the Adult World
Meanwhile . . . I had entered the adult workforce quickly for family economic reasons—my parents had gotten divorced. While attending school and spending a lot of time trying to read and write, I also was working and having adventures. I began to hitchhike to Los Angeles and the Haight-Ashbury from my home in Pacific Grove at the age of fourteen. I rose from dishwasher to manager of an entire restaurant at age sixteen, and tended bar at another restaurant at age sixteen, supplying myself with a fake ID which showed I was twenty one, a mustache, my six foot five frame, and my innate emotional intelligence. My astute understanding of people’s motivations based on my dyslexic gifts made me easily appear older than I was. My ID allowed me to get paid higher, adult wages. At age seventeen I had a year stint at an old Italian fishing and fish processing company in Monterey. For a month I worked on a fishing boat, but was quickly moved to fish filleting, and within a few months I was promoted to union journeyman fish filleter. This was the highest position of fish filleter. It was a job generally reserved for skillful old-timers, but I could do this based on my dexterity and panache (my dyslexic strengths at work once again).
Finding The Gifts of Being Dyslexic
After working for the fish company, I left California for Alaska and learned carpentry on-the-job in three years, was licensed and bonded and formed a construction company, and built my first house at the age of twenty one (using my 3-D M-strengths). Completely self-taught, I designed my first home and built it at age twenty three. At one point, I was asked to correct the problems for plans of another architect which would have resulted in the structural failure of that company’s project. When the other architect discovered this, he tried to justify his erroneous calculations by the fact that he’d gone to architecture school while I, who had saved the building, had not (an example of the nonlinear nature of the dyslexic learning process, and the disbelief of nondyslexics who do not understand their process).
All of this was before I learned to read, which happened at a rare-at-the-time class for adult dyslexics when I was twenty five. I did learn to read, though my reading remains slow, and I cannot spell (dyslexics exhibit a range of reading and spelling abilities). While in this class, my fellow adult students, discarded by their school systems, were angry and sad that they had repeatedly been given the message that their only choice for employment was to become a janitor, dishwasher or line cook, or who had to turn to prostitution because they could not fill out an employment application. I quickly learned I had a natural ability to counsel my fellow students (counseling is an N-strength dyslexic profession). I was subsequently able to complete several years of college thanks to the proactive help of the Anchorage college (which offered the kind of help a dyslexic needs to succeed at college) I attended at the time. I then headed south from Alaska to Oregon when I was offered an opportunity to become an alternatively-trained counselor with the help of an also-dyslexic therapist (an example of the life-changing influence of having a mentor who is also dyslexic—this man was of enormous benefit to me). Meanwhile, for two years I was a successful associate lobbyist at a boutique Democratic lobbying firm that specialized in lobbying for nonprofits. One of the things I was known for was explaining complex concepts to politicians in a simple way that they could understand and then convey to their constituents and colleagues (combining my dyslexic abilities to see the big picture and give informative and entertaining explanations).
After I completed my training, I moved to Whidbey Island with a relational partner. Here I became the second highest producing real estate sales agent out of a field of 127 agents within one year without being able to fill in the real estate documents!—This was before the days of computer documents. I was so good at sales (another dyslexic N-strength) that I’d take a deposit check without a contract, explaining to the broker that he’d get the contract signed later. The broker would get anxious, stating that a check did not constitute a contract (he worried they’d lose the sale). I would fax the info to my girlfriend and she’d fill out the contract and fax it back. Then I would fax the contract to the client who would sign it. It always worked and I only lost one sale out of many due to the lag time between check and contract signing.
I then went north to settle once again in Alaska in 1994. I quickly had a lengthy waiting list of clients in my alternative counseling practice (the counseling profession is an N-strength) while skiing the black diamond slopes, becoming a triple black belt and teaching martial arts to the elderly and teen girls for their protection (some dyslexics are great at athletics because they are able to use their bodies in a physically-felt 3-D way). Then the laws of Alaska changed to require formal licensure and grad school for counselors. Faced with the overwhelming prospect of reading, I let go of finishing college and going to grad school—I decided to forego formal licensing, and focused instead on being a Mentor in 1997, a word I prefer to Coach. I was one of the first Mentors/Coaches in the United States (using my dyslexic entrepreneurial skill). I excel at being a Mentor because I see the big picture instantly and have the empathy and clarity to walk my clients step by step through what they need to do to achieve their dreams and goals (combining my N-strengths, D-strengths and I-strengths). My clients included Hollywood box office directors and actors, corporate boards, writers, photographers, artists, and well known musicians. I also helped entrepreneurial people open their own small businesses of many kinds. I helped others advance up the ladder in their corporate jobs. I worked via phone and Skype all over the world as well as locally. With the help of Dragon Naturally Speaking (a word to text software program really helpful to dyslexics) and a personal assistant (also really helpful for dyslexics) I wrote four film scripts and began a self help book. I write in my head, remember it all, edit in my head, and remembers the edits (using my dyslexic N-strength gifts of narrative, storytelling, and scene-based memory). For example, the information on this Mentoring/Coaching website has virtually all been written and edited in my head. It is only a final step for me to dictate into Dragon. My partner spell checks in case Dragon hasn’t picked up something.
One of the unique and dyslexic talents I offer clients is to help them write letters and applications of all sorts to influence people to be sympathetic to their needs and causes, even when my clients have already been denied. This includes home loans, business loans, college applications, and asking for abatement of medical costs. Pretty much anything that a client has gotten turned down for, I have a knack in my research methods and my writing style to see the big picture of what is needed and help the client express what they need to prevail in their quest. I read about and research the person who is being asked for something—I use my dyslexic gifts of understanding an issue from multiple facets and disciplines, and my great memory to access my huge store of knowledge about life and about human personality. I then write a letter that I know the recipient will respond to favorably, and then rewrite the letter as though it was written by the client, and in the client’s style so there is no disparity between how the client speaks and writes. When what is being asked for is granted, the client’s verbal communication style matches their written communication style. I am able to do this because of my dyslexic gifts—I have highly developed dyslexic narrative strengths. I see the whole thing in my head like a theatrical performance, edit in my head, remember the edits, and dictate it to Dragon Naturally Speaking or an assistant.
Around 2011, I took a partial sabbatical to dive into some writing projects. I moved down to San Francisco when I began a my current relationship and have reinvented my Mentoring practice to include a spiritual and conscious awareness component and to offer a specialty in helping other dyslexics as well as all kinds of business owners, artists, and entrepreneurs. I work via phone, Skype, and in person.
I have done all this and still sometimes struggle with self esteem and the “impostor syndrome” (lifelong challenges of many dyslexics)—in my darker moments I wonder if all I have done doesn’t really count, or I am deficient, because I did all of this without formal schooling. However, through my own heroic journey I have also come to claim my many gifts. I am committed to my lifelong practice of taking the high road through both the dark times and times of great joy and creativity.
You can learn more about my Mentoring/Coaching business at: http://motivationalmentor.com