Because of my dyslexia, I see space differently. In my version, I struggle with math and spatial orientation. A Doctor’s appt. in a hospital complex can turn into an anxiety filled quest for the right door, the right hallway, the right building. Reportedly, 50% of NASA employees identify themselves as dyslexic. Supposedly, dyslexics are sought out for our unique spatial awareness and problem solving abilities. My dyslexia isn’t too problematic, some tasks just take a bit longer.
Without a GPS app, it’s a struggle to drive. I use it for biking and walking, (embarrassingly) but it’s not a fail safe. I’m often to be found mumbling down the street, trying to talk myself into being kind for walking the wrong way and having to return to the beginning. Taking a deep breath, I look at the four corners of my starting point, telling myself, I ‘ve gone the wrong way, all I need to do now is go opposite. Seems simple. But, it doesn’t seem like the right way.
This last bit is much like a game I play on Lumosity where your player tries to get out of a maze. This seems easy enough until they flip the board around so that left is now right, up is down. This game is my arch-nemesis, a frustration loop I know too well. In order to win at the game you have to tell yourself to use the opposite direction when your eyes “see” something different. The thing is, when they spin that game board around to try and trick you it then becomes my normal. My dyslexia has made me mistrust my instincts and reject what I see in order to function.
What is it about this peculiar way of seeing that makes dyslexics NASA bait? It’s been described that we view the world as if in 3D, always sensing every angle, every viewpoint of the space around us. It’s hard to explain but if someone describes a road with a right and left lane, I would not initially see this as having a right and left as I would picture it from every angle, from behind the road, underneath etc, leading me to think that the right and left is different depending on which way you are looking at it. In order to function, drive and take directions I have to re-imagine space as flat and it takes a little more time to compress it onto a map.
My background as a Special Education teacher has given me many chances to work with dyslexic kids. None of them were labelled as dyslexic as the No Child Left Behind movement has made everything in special education less individualized in it’s quest for absolute equality. In this case, the thought is that teachers and the child her/himself will have a more challenging time with the “label of dyslexia”. Most of my students were learning disabled.
In my experience, school was a hated ritual. I was first put into a special reading group in elementary school. I’m not sure what the reasons were for it exactly. I do know that I memorized so I didn’t have to read aloud, my handwriting was (and still is) atrocious and I didn’t understand or take directions well. This first experience seemed like a punishment and the materials given to us in my little group were shockingly easy and boring. It was soon found out I could read quite well and I was shuttled back into the mix and placed into an advanced reading class. I wasn’t pulled out again until the fifth grade, at Duniway. This time it was for my low performance in math and I was taken out of my regular classes completely.
My new classroom at Duniway was much like all my assigned classrooms as a SPED teacher (I taught in storage closets with cracked blackboards, roaches and mice). The walls in my new homeroom lacked color and life without all the proud testaments to mind expansion on the walls. The students were sparsely placed with elbow room to spare, as if someone were afraid of them getting too close. Everyone smiled and welcomed me mischievously into this hollow feeling room and someone whispered that I didn’t have to do any work if I didn’t want to. It was horrifying. I lasted exactly one day before crying to my parents and being placed back in the General Education setting.
In high school however, I would have benefited from an IEP and a diagnosis of dyslexia. It might have saved me from some of the “hard living” experiences soon to follow. As it happened, I picked up a pattern of failure and self hatred that followed me for years. It all started with this one little Algebra class I flunked. I tried, but things with abstract non visual elements were impossible to me. My teachers didn’t understand my failure to get the concepts and blamed it on laziness and a lack of following a homework regimen. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to do the homework if I didn’t understand it. My father and I had the only screaming and yelling fights we’ve had over it. I took Algebra in summer school and failed once again, miserably. To make a long story short, I gave up after that, on the concept of school and pretty much everything else.
It didn’t make sense to me that I could be bubbling over with creativity, filling notebooks with screenplays and storyboards and at the same time made to feel like a failure all because of one little subject I would never ever use. Suffice it to say, my self image changed when I realized I wouldn’t be able to pass my classes. I started my freshman year hanging with the nerds and geeks, I ended it with the smokers.
The idea of having a society built like this, with institutions set up to churn out people judged by these same subjects with no individual choice or care for the differences in the students being taught was horrifying to me. I also saw the way out of these public institutions and it was paved in money. I wanted to go to an expensive private school that provided students with more choice, where they could tailor their classes to their interests. I saw some of my childhood friends going to this school and thriving as I wished to. My parents didn’t have the money for it but they weren’t alone, most people don’t have the money to save their kids from public education.
I wonder what it would have been like for me if I accepted a label of dyslexia early on and came to understand how that made me different. Instead, I fought with my parents, trying to convince them that there truly was something wrong with my mind but I didn’t know what it was. I now know I see things a little differently. Math (And Science to some degree) became difficult because I visualize everything to understand it and I couldn’t picture formulas or an unknown “x”.
Why is it then that 50% of NASA’s employees are dyslexic? I wonder how their school careers were. I wonder if they attended good colleges before getting noticed by NASA. I wonder if they came from wealthy families where there were more resources to attend to their learning disabilities. I’m asking this as someone with a learning disability and as a special education teacher who has lost faith in the system.
I would love to hear stories of dyslexics that have felt appreciated by their schools, that have soared inside this current education system. I know too much about the marginalizing of us folks, the horrifying lack of resources (my South Bronx high school waited a year just to have a school psychologist available to us) and the climate of fear and psychosis that NCLB has left in our schools. For example, the Vice Principal of a middle school I worked at told me I needed to stop teaching phonics to my class of emergent readers as they were now required by NCLB to study seventh grade test material to prepare for the tests, regardless of if they could read it.
This one little fact about NASA has opened up a window to my own disability. To be clear, I’m writing about it now as I’m not currently in the school system and safe from judgment. I didn’t feel the need to reveal it when I was studying for my Masters as the teachers and curriculum were the worst I’d ever experienced. I want to believe that there are places where students are appreciated and held up for their strengths and not rammed into the ground for their deficits. I used to feel the need to pipe up when an administrator told me I needed to change some kiddo’s schedule, taking away core and elective classes to put them into three periods of remedial math or reading. I’d shake my head saying, would you want to spend most of your day doing the one thing you struggle with over and over because the administration here demands you get better at it? That’s not learning anything except how to feel bad about yourself. I for one, feel encouraged by the opposite, that dyslexics can be picked out BECAUSE of our differences. That’s the society I envision thriving in one day.