Succeeding With Dyslexia

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It’s 1993, and my 11-year-old brother is frustrated, pounding the kitchen table as he tries to complete a short reading assignment. My parents try to help, but they grow equally frustrated with their son’s constant struggle. I’m a year younger, and I hear emotions flying about from my room upstairs.

Jeff has dyslexia, a learning disorder commonly associated with difficulty reading and writing. After he receives an official diagnosis, my parents enroll him in Carroll School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which specializes in primary language learning disabilities. There he will work harder and smarter than any of his peers, refusing to let dyslexia determine his fate.

Jeff will move on to excel as a student-athlete at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, one of our nation’s best and most innovative boarding schools. His skills at lacrosse allow him to play at the college level, and after four years, he graduates from Wheaton College, equipped with a degree in Political Science.

A year later, he earns a master’s degree in integrated marketing from Emerson College—all while being a graduate assistant for the New England Patriots. After graduating, he becomes one of the first to work for Going.com, a major online event forum acquired by AOL in 2009.

Shortly thereafter, Jeff moves on to serve as the director of digital media at fama, PR, a high-tech public relations firm in Boston. But to advance even farther, he continues working full-time while earning an M.B.A. from Northeastern University.

He is now one of the youngest executives at Team Epic, one of the most prestigious sports and lifestyles marketing firms.

“We have offices all over the country,” he says. “My team is responsible for finding new and creative ways for our clients to grow in the digital space. I hope my success gives hope to others who have dyslexia. Don’t let this disorder control your life. You can do anything anybody else can, and in many cases you can do things even better.”

For inspiration, just look at Jeff’s LinkedIn profile.

For further insight into Jeff’s remarks, I turn to Abigail Marshall, author of When Your Child Has…Dyslexia, which I cannot recommend highly enough for parents, teachers and sufferers.

“I imagine that with all of his troubles, over time Jeff ended up probably being better at his job than a lot of other people,” Marshall says. “If he’s like most dyslexics, he probably has a very creative, imaginative view. It’s probably easy for him to come up with ideas that other people are saying: ‘Wow. How’d you ever think of that?’ To him, maybe it’s natural to make a lot of connections.”

Without question, Jeff is the most creative person I know. He’s always thinking of new ideas. My favorite “Jeff project” is his fashion and lifestyle blog, The_Yipster, which he manages with several friends. Much of the site is dedicated to trendy footwear, and I’m amazed by all of the high-profile events he attends.

Jeff oozes success, but this very success makes me question what mistakes or assumptions are made with dyslexic students. I ask Marshall for some insight:

Teachers: From the teacher perspective, the most common mistake is the idea that it is a permanent limitation on the ability of the person, and that that child is just never going to be as good as others in reading, math, or spelling no matter what. That sometimes leads a teacher to have lower expectations, or to accept very slow progress as a sign that the teacher is doing something right when maybe the child or the student would actually progress much faster with a different approach.

Parents: We’d assumed our kids would grow up, be smart, do well in school, and go on to college, and all of a sudden we’re confronted with a fourth or a fifth grader who cannot learn to read. We’re starting to think, “Oh, my, gosh, what’s going to happen?” When you get past that and you find the right approach, you realize that just because that child is not doing as well as others in subjects taught to eight year olds, it’s not a lifetime sentence.

Students: The kids feel that there’s something wrong with them. They’re stupid. They go to school every day, and they see other kids doing better. . . . Then it becomes a very rewarding experience. I think it’s especially rewarding for someone who’s had to struggle to get to a point, and then get to that point where they realize, hey, they’re just as good as anybody else. They might be better than others around them at whatever it is that they’re trying to study or accomplish.

Marshall also serves as webmaster for Davis Dyslexia Association International, which is dedicated to raising awareness of “the perceptual gifts, talents or potentials for genius that accompany and give rise to dyslexia.” The site includes an impressive list of accomplished individuals who have dyslexia, including Albert Einstein, Robin Williams, George Patton, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, and Henry Ford. Before long, I’m sure my brother’s name will appear there, too.

“You never beat dyslexia but you can overcome it,” Jeff says. You have to work twice as hard as everybody else, and you have to be very good at developing a support system—whether its friends, teachers or family. It takes hard work, focus, and dedication.”

This is the first in a series of articles about dyslexia.

Interview transcript 

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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