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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.