On October 25th, I caught a preview of the moving new documentary The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia in a beautiful auditorium at HBO headquarters, just off Bryant Park in Manhattan. Ten minutes into the show, while listening to Skye -- one of the young people with dyslexia profiled in the film -- tell her story, I was flooded with memories of my pitiful career in elementary school.
First grade felt like a POW camp. Being forced to sit up straight for hours and prohibited from getting up without permission felt like torture. Worst of all, no matter how I tried. I could not learn to read.
I had trouble sounding out the simplest words. I sounded so awkward and stilted when asked to read aloud that I did my best to remain silent and avoid humiliation.
No matter how I tried to hide, though, my handwriting gave me away. Long, large, broken and awkward; it looked like some weird piece of modern art depicting snakes and twigs. It was illegible. I was also untidy and disorganized. My desk was a hopeless mess of chipped crayons, twisted paper, dirty chalk, and broken pencils.
I was the dumb child, the slow learner. Other kids were not only bigger and stronger but also learned with ease, gliding by me effortlessly. I sat in the back, alone and miserable, while the well-mannered children at the front of the classroom received As and compliments.
I hated school and would have done anything to escape its clutches and tyranny. No matter how hard I tried, it just didn't work for me.
Fortunately, I had educated parents who loved me. My mother was a gifted special education teacher for the Ann Arbor public schools and my father was a financial analyst at the Ford Motor Company. She and my dad had the foresight and patience to take me out of school and homeschool me, instead.
After a year of tortured struggle and thousands of hours working with my parents, I finally learned to read. Some place deep in my brain said, "OK," and the symbols became sounds, and then words that began to make sense.
My mother often said, "You're unique -- make the most of it. You will find your niche." That is what The Big Picture gets across so beautifully -- those of us with this disorder must identify, use and even embrace our dyslexia. The film also subtly argues that dyslexia and other learning disorders are civil rights issues, as well.
Brilliantly directed by James Redford, produced by Redford and Windy Borman, and executive produced by Karen Pritzker, The Big Picture profiles two of the world's greatest entrepreneurs -- brokerage house founder Charles Schwab and Richard Branson of The Virgin Group -- who are dyslexic. The film also sensitively profiles several young people with dyslexia, including Pritzker's daughter Allison Schwartz, who describes how she cried herself to sleep after overhearing her fourth-grade teacher tell her parents that she would never be able to master geography or study a foreign language. Determined to prove the teacher wrong, Schwartz armed herself with determination and countless boxes of flash cards. Diagnosed with dyslexia at 23, she learned Hebrew, Farsi and Arabic and is a graduate of the University of Chicago with a master's degree in American Studies from Columbia University.
The Big Picture also presents the latest findings from Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz of The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, who have used MRIs to identify a neural signature for dyslexia and argue for allowing students with dyslexia more time to complete standardized tests. Shaywitz has created the "Sea of Strengths" model of dyslexia, which emphasizes the array of higher critical thinking abilities and creativity found in dyslexic children and adults who struggle with written language. As she explains, "You may be dyslexic if you read slowly and with much effort. But you're often the one to solve the problem. You can't spell and have messy handwriting, but your writing shows terrific imagination. You have trouble remembering dates and names, but you also think out of the box and grasp the big picture. You have difficulty retrieving and pronouncing spoken words, but you also have an excellent vocabulary and great ideas."
The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity is a bright light for dyslexics and I was very excited to meet Dr. Shelly Shaywitz and her husband at the screening and share my admiration and appreciation for her work. As far as I'm concerned, she's a hero. I love her "Legalize Dyslexia" button, which she wears proudly.
I can't imagine how different my own youth might have been if she had been around back then. Despite my breakthrough in learning to read with my parents, learning issues dogged me for years. I was back in school full-time by junior high, but found myself unable to focus on the torturously long lectures. I would sit in back and surreptitiously read books on the subjects that most fascinated me -- political theory economics and statistics. My mind would be miles away from the classroom, thinking about how to make money. My free time was spent selling different products and solving math problems for money.
In The Big Picture, both Schwab and Branson credit their dyslexia with enabling them to see opportunities where others see only problems, and helping them to develop a natural aptitude for entrepreneurship. Because of my own aptitude for entrepreneurship (although I didn't know that word at the time), I learned to work with teams and organize people around a vision. I intuitively understood financial incentives -- for my business finding golf balls in the Flint river and reselling them, I had eight other young sales people, all on commission.
I became president of all my classes from 10th grade forward. I knew I was different and began to accept it. And so did others.
It was not until graduate school, however, that I heard the word "dyslexia." I was sitting next to a fellow student who looked at my clumsy, childlike handwriting and the large drawings I made in a sketchbook and said, "My brother has dyslexia, too."
I pretended I knew what she was talking about, but after class I ran to the library to look up this strange word. Reading about dyslexia for the first time was a miracle and an epiphany. It explained so much.
Some 35 years later, my mother's words have come true. I have found a niche for which I am uniquely suited due to my learning disability. I have spent much of my adult life trying to help low-income children -- many without parents to help them -- identify their learning issues and turn these to an advantage in business.
When I founded The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in 1987, I had two huge advantages: I knew what it was like to be a learning-disadvantaged child, and I had worked as a special education teacher in the New York City public school system. As a teacher, I discovered that most of the dropouts and almost all the students incarcerated at Rikers Island or other youth prisons have learning problems, and many have dyslexia. In fact, I think a good way to forecast the number of prisons that are constructed in ten years is to analyze the reading levels of second graders today. My guess is that the lower the reading levels of second graders in a community, the more prisons will be needed ten years later as these young people become adults.
As a public high school teacher, I discovered that I could engage the attention of even my most tuned-out students by teaching them how to make money. Just like me, they found this topic fascinating and it inspired them to tune back in to school and become better at reading, writing and math. They, too, seemed to have a natural aptitude for entrepreneurship.
I felt I had found my life's mission -- to raise young people's consciousness regarding their unique gifts and encourage them to appreciate their learning styles and work with, not against them. And to teach them how to think out of the box so they would never feel like failures again or be afraid that they would have to live in poverty if they couldn't succeed in the typical nine-to-five workplace.
Here are the three main things I have learned that I share with many NFTE students:
1) Your brain is wired. You have been given dyslexia. Embrace it and use it to help you further your goals in life.
Your wiring is not something you have created but
something that has been given to you. No matter type of wiring you have,
know that it is a blessing.
2) Understand the different learning styles and know your own. See a specialist who can help you figure it out and understand how to work with it. Embrace your learning style and explain it to those around you. If you accept it, so will others.
3) Think in terms of understanding and looking for an answer to a
problem, not just about factual learning. You will excel in creative
problem-solving and critical thinking if you give yourself a chance to
do so. Learn to work with others, in teams. Realize that any
embarrassment and humiliation you have felt growing up is a gift, in
that it will enable you to empathize with others who are in pain and be
humble and tolerant, which are perhaps the greatest gifts of all.
The Big Picture premiers on HBO October 29th at 7:00 p.m.