GREENWICH, Conn. — Teachers said he was mentally retarded. Some of his nastier classmates called him dummy. Today, Dannel P. Malloy is called something else: governor of Connecticut.
Malloy, who still struggles with reading and calls writing "almost impossible," credits his lifelong struggle with dyslexia for developing listening skills and memory tricks he uses every day with constituents and legislators.
Despite reaching his state's top elected position, he still has lingering embarrassment over his learning difficulties, Malloy told students Tuesday at Greenwich's Eagle Hill School, a private campus for children with language-based learning disorders like his own.
"I have to tell you, I'll be right up front about it: I'm the governor of the state of Connecticut and I can't write anything well," Malloy told the rapt students. "This is who we are. I can't write things. I'm embarrassed all the time about that, particularly if people don't know that about me."
Although he has never hidden his dyslexia, Malloy's election as Connecticut's governor last year placed him on the national stage as an increasingly public face for awareness of learning disorders. He's also a vocal advocate for early intervention to help students compensate for those disabilities.
Malloy's tactics entail dictating his correspondence to others, jotting a few words on a scrap of paper to jog his memory for his off-the-cuff speeches, and memorizing short greetings to write on autographs – usually, "Keep up the good work!"
The International Dyslexia Association says perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability like Malloy's, in which people have difficulty decoding and recognizing words. It's believed to have neurological and genetic causes.
Malloy, who is 55 years old and the youngest of eight children, also was born with coordination problems that made it difficult for him to even button clothes and tie his shoes until about fifth grade.
"I had great difficulty and people thought I would never be successful in life," he said of his teachers. "'Mentally retarded' was the term that was used. That's what I was thought to be."
Malloy spoke candidly to the students Tuesday about his struggles growing up in Stamford in the 1960s, recalling when teachers would post his failing scores on the classroom board, or how he stayed away from collecting baseball cards like many other boys because deciphering the words and statistics was so torturous.
"Honestly, it was just terrible. I was embarrassed most of the time," he said.
He credits his mother and other adults who saw his potential, encouraged him to pursue his passions for public speaking and government, and refused to let him be defined by his learning disability.
Agnes Malloy, a school nurse, also gave her son a radio because she knew he was a good listener and wanted to encourage that skill. Each night, Malloy has said, he would go to bed listening to talk radio and news radio shows.
As he grew older, he found he could absorb information easily and quickly through audiobooks. He eventually graduated with honors from Boston College, got his law degree and became a prosecutor. Later, the Democrat became Stamford's mayor and, in the fall, defeated Republican Tom Foley to become governor.
Today, much of what's on paper is still challenging for Malloy, but even political opponents are impressed by his memory for detail and ability to absorb information verbally.
Malloy delivered his message to the students Tuesday without written notes, like many of his official speeches and complicated budget presentations.
His advice to the students revolved around a basic theme he says has held true in his life: "If you're nice, if you like yourself, if you treat other people well, you're going to be successful. I guarantee it."
It's a message that hit home with 13-year-old Katie Nelson, of New Rochelle, N.Y., and 15-year-old Hannah Katzman, of New York City.
Both girls have attended Eagle Hill for five years and will be returning to traditional schools next fall.
"It's cool that someone who's so successful in his life had some of the same difficulties that we do," Katie said.