Talking to Myself...

Ryan Masa

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, a time when we share resources and stories in hopes of raising public awareness of, and ultimately support for individuals with dyslexia, those that serve them, and those that love them. I wanted to write something to kick-off the month, but what story should I tell?

There is always a tension when writing about dyslexia because there is not one universal story. I could choose to write the classic story, the one about people living with dyslexia and all their successes. I did a version of this seven years ago, on an old Assets blog, about how former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was a struggling reader who decided to give the State of the Union address as a speech, instead of a written report, which was the first time it had been done that way since John Adams.

I could write about how famous celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, Tom Holland, Kiera Knightley, Maya Hawke, and Channing Tatum are dyslexic. That’s fun and it does not stop at Hollywood. Who knows the real numbers but it seems successful CEOs and entrepreneurs are disproportionately dyslexic. Did you know that half the Shark Tank investors are dyslexic?

This type of story is feel good and helpful in conveying that our children with dyslexia have gifts and bright futures in whatever career path they choose. Some may even be gifted. This story is often one about the lessons gained when we preserve, learn to manage, and overcome. Down the road, some people may even come to think about dyslexia as their “superpower” that helped them see the world differently and as the cause of their success!

But NO, I don’t want to tell this story alone because this story runs the risk of whitewashing the pain and struggle. Most of these famous and successful people reflect on incredibly difficult school experiences. I have gotten to know many successful people with dyslexia. They may not be A-list famous but they are successful in our community, by any measure. They often still carry the wounds of their experiences, and because of the shame and guilt that often accompanies it, are not particularly “out” with their learning difference in the public civic life. 

Sometimes I hear adults tell kids their dyslexia is a gift. If well-intentioned adults are allowed to unquestionably tell children their dyslexia is a “gift,” then children should be able to reply to those same adults, with impunity, if they have the receipt and where can they return it?

So, what’s the other story option? What about the hundreds of thousands of kids who don’t win an Oscar, star in the biggest TV show on the planet, or found Virgin Airline? What about the hundreds of thousands of kids who don’t receive proper instruction, accommodations, and support? 

We know they, as a group, are at disproportionately high risk for poor health outcomes.  People with learning differences are much more likely to drop out of high school, and much less likely to enroll in or complete college. They encounter the justice system at incredibly higher rates than their neurotypical peers. We see more unwanted teen pregnancies, and higher rates of depression and anxiety. 

Whew. NO, I don’t think I’ll write that story either. It’s too ugly, and no matter how many disclaimers you put in those stories, you always run the risk of people not appreciating the nuance and having it reinforce some false, deterministic stigma about who our kids are and what their futures hold. 

So I’m 0 for 2 on story ideas, though both stories are true. That’s when it hit me. I’ll write about the most enduring quality that I’ve seen from having worked with students with dyslexia for many years - their Courage. These kids are undoubtedly the most courageous people I’ve met in my life. 

What so many people fail to acknowledge is that quitting is a typical, and often quite appropriate, response to something that you find difficult, unpleasant, or embarrassing. How many of us have taken a surfing lesson, bit it hard, and never paddled out again? How many people own a keyboard or guitar that they still don’t know how to play? How many people avoid public speaking, or cooking for company, or never tried out for the high school basketball team or school play?

Now think about what we ask children with dyslexia to do. Learning is a vulnerable process because it involves taking risks, and we ask them to come to school, day-after-day, to work on something that is neurobiologically difficult for them. Reading quite literally does not come naturally to them. Not only that, sometimes schools ask kids to do this with a teacher who does not understand them or have the skills to teach them. Even in the best circumstances, schools ask these kids to practice their emerging or lagging skills in a fairly public way with their peers. Do we give these kids the same grace we give ourselves when we rationalize why we had to quit that job or when we stare at the Learn to Speak Italian book collecting dust on our shelf?  

This is the magic of Assets. Of course, there is a focus on reading intervention, but you can get that through tutoring, too. You are dyslexic your whole day, not just for 45 minutes. The magic is the strengths-based approach that helps a child feel understood and affirmed, with their tribe, so they can learn to accept themselves and then advocate for themselves. You can’t skip the line in this process. 

I remember watching an interview once, where the interviewer asked the interviewee what he thought the highest virtue was. What a question! The interviewee wasn’t sure and proceeded to contemplate the worthiness of several. Sometimes in my nerdy daydreams, I imagine getting asked this question. Because I have my answer ready to roll:  Courage.

Aristotle wrote a lot about courage, most notably in Nicomachean Ethics.  It’s alleged at some point he said, 

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”

I don’t know if that’s true but I know that 2,000 years later, Maya Angelou had a similar thought.

"One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest." 

I’m not inherently excited or sad for a child when I learn he is dyslexic; instead, I’m in awe because I have some insight on what the journey has been or will bring. The students I’ve worked with have not only been brilliant, funny, caring, and resilient, but they have been of the highest virtue - courageous. What courage to keep coming back and giving yourself for learning! They are an inspiration, and that courage is going to serve them well in their lives, as it is the tip of the spear for all other virtues. 

I often think about what the psychologist Susan David says about courage: “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking.” It is a privilege to walk alongside our students and those that love them. 

For our children, 

Ryan Masa