I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was in second grade. My earliest memory of not getting things as quickly as everyone else was in kindergarten, when, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the days of the week. As I struggled to remember and shouted out, “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday,” I began to feel the temperature of the kids and teachers around me. I noticed how they giggled, how they shook their heads in confusion, and how they reacted to the way my brain failed to process the knowledge that came so easily to them. I did not fully understand what was happening at the time, but I know it rocked my little brain, because here that experience remains, a vivid memory, safe and preserved in my hippocampus. It was my first experience feeling not smart!
I knew things were getting real when men I’d never seen before, with mustaches and brown ties, began calling me out of my second grade classroom. They asked to read words for them out loud off a clinical-looking booklet held together by thick metal rings, and recreate pictures out of multicolored blocks. I’d return back to my classroom, where my desk was so disorganized that the papers and workbooks spilled out and made the desktop slope backward toward the front of the classroom. The wooden polyurethane plank would ride up under my arms, making it difficult to write.
Once a month, as a punishment for my messy habits, my teacher would spill my desk onto the floor, turning it completely upside down in front of the class. Old lunches that had mysteriously disappeared into the abyss were dumped out for all the kids to see, and I remember their screams of disgust as they witnessed the decomposition of my two month old sandwiches—green and sad on the floor. I’d later discover that a lack of executive functioning or organizational skills is a symptom of neurodiversity.
That was also the year spelling bees started, when I’d be called into the front of the room, along with my more confident peers. I’d twist my body to try to squeeze the anxiety out or make myself disappear. Then the word would be called out, and, no matter how easy it was, I inevitably screwed it up—making the rest of the class laugh. No matter how hard I studied my spelling words, the combination of pressure to perform, along with incorrect or complicated connections in my brain, made it impossible for me to recall them correctly. I was not smart!
I wouldn’t know true hell until I hit seventh grade, when we’d spend an entire forty-five minute English class doing read-alouds of Johnny Tremaine—each student reading a page at a time. I spent all of my time calculating which page I’d end up with and practicing it before it was my turn, praying no one would get up to use the bathroom and throw off my calculation.
Within the span of those seven years, kindergarten to seventh grade, I had gotten the message loud and clear. No matter how much my parents tried to reassure me about my intelligence, the verdict was in: I was stupid. And, just to make sure I got the message, I was told so many times in the hallways between classes. Boys I had secret crushes on asked me why I was so dumb after I’d stumbled through my designated read aloud page. My flattened soul still hangs in those cold green hallways, right outside my messy locker, just as I left it.
The most painful part of a dyslexia diagnosis, and my struggle to read the high stack of books resting on my nightstand, was that locked within their pages, were the tales of young girls just like me, desperate to find their place in a frightening and confusing world. Every memorable tale of a young girl struggling as an outsider, the likes of Scout Finch and Francis Nolan, sat right in front of me, but I could not crack the code.
When I was thirteen, my mom enrolled me in a program called Reading for the Blind. The awkward tape machine arrived with oversized buttons marked in Braille, wide comfortable pillow-like headphones, and a small booklet listing all the books I could order. A new world was opened up for me. I could finally follow along with the stories I was reading instead of trying to decode the words in each sentence. I could understand the intricacies of the characters, hear the cadence of the words cascading like melodies. My love affair with books was ignited. I would sit with my big headphones on and imagine I had the eloquence and oral fluidity these readers had. Like a young girl lip-syncing to Madonna, I imagined it was me reading with such ease as my whole class looked on in awe.
Once I had my books on tape, I started contributing to conversation in class, getting 100s on quizzes, and reading extra books for extra credit. But there was no undoing the years of torment in my past, and I couldn’t ease the repeating voices echoing in my head. My self-confidence was below ground level.
Still, regardless of my complete inability to wrap my head around grammatical structure or understand how to spell words (which seemed more like puzzles than a form of communication), I fell in love with creative writing—especially poetry. Despite all the complexities of the English language, I began using words to sculpt the feelings freely flowing around my mind.
Hi Skol and colage
Throughout high school, I managed my struggles with reading and writing with tutors and special classes during the day, where I’d receive one-on-one help, and my love for reading and writing grew. Still, I steered clear of high-level English classes, mostly because I couldn’t understand grammar—diagramming sentences was my own personal hell. I did join the poetry club after school one year and listened as others quoted famous poets I’d never heard of. I tried so hard to catch on, to learn as much as I could, but before I could write down the name of a poet someone had mentioned, they were on to the next and I was back, circling the hollowed out holes in my brain that echoed the old sad songs of insecurity. I quit before the end of the year.
In college I loved any required English class. I felt smart, reading and discussing Camus and plays by Tennessee Williams, and I received high grades on any poem we were asked to write during the inevitable poetry section of all 101 courses. I always received glowing remarks on my alliteration or understanding of poetic devices, but they were hidden beneath what felt like hundreds of tiny red strikes across misspellings—although my phonetic versions of the words were sometimes genius, and always understandable. Regardless, not being able to understand the secret code of all the humans around me made me feel small and other, and I shied away from choosing English as my major—I had already suffered enough at the hands of the grammatically superior.
Like most kids, I graduated college with no direction and no understanding of where I wanted to be in the world. I tried finance out for a while because numbers do not involve as many irregularities as language. But, because my brain flipped everything backwards and upside down, it was easy to get very important things very wrong. So I gave up and returned to something I was always good at: waiting tables. Yes, there were times I got orders wrong or forgot to bring someone a set of silverware or an extra plate. But I am damn good at customer service and letting people see who I was without the pressure of written words or having to read out loud. Unfortunately, waiting tables was hard on my feet, and I needed insurance, and to pay back my student loans and to move out of my parents’ house in New Jersey. So, I found the next best thing to waiting tables, following in the footsteps of other waiters and waitresses before and after me—and ventured into sales.
I got a job selling telephone systems to corporations, and although I struggled with spelling and grammatical errors in my emails and proposals to clients, I never struggled with talking to strangers, and I never feared standing in front of people and getting them to trust me. It would be years before I realized that everyone compensates for their weaknesses in some form. All the people around me were doing the same thing, and the kids in school who were always so naturally good at reading and spelling bees I’m sure struggled in other areas too—though I was unaware of that. The difference is reading and writing carry so much weight in our society and in our educational system that if you can’t do it as fast as everyone around you you are seen as deficient.
The wild thing about finding out what I was good at, was that it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. What I wanted and craved in every inch of my body was to write and study poetry. I craved the knowledge of this ancient craft but couldn’t figure out how to properly tap into it without feeling like I didn’t belong. That was when I was introduced to the world of spoken word.
In the early aughts I began writing lines that flowed from my hands, memorizing them and delivering them in a cadence that always beat in my head and flowed through my fingers. I drove over the George Washington Bridge from my northern New Jersey town, took the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe during open mic night, and watched as eyes laser-focused on me, while friends who were sharing tables nudged each other to quiet down and listen. I walked off the stage, took my seat, and gladly received the low-down, anonymous high fives around me.
Once I had found my place in the world of poetry, I couldn’t get enough of it. I read and wrote as much as my mind could handle, giving myself my own Intro to Poetry class on the green carpet of my childhood bedroom. I read works like On The Road and Naked Lunch and filled my ears with MP3s of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl and Saul Williams performing Release as I jogged the streets of my small suburban town. At night I traveled all over New York City to open mic nights, finding my way onto the stage at The Knitting Factory and then to the basement of St. Marc’s Church in the Lower East Side. That was where I was handed literature for Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, and it glowed in my hand like a rare gem.
Everything about my brain and how it learned did not belong in an MFA program for Writing and Poetics—but I didn’t care. I just wanted to study what I loved. I began applying to graduate programs all over the country—but only the ones that didn’t require I take the GED to get in. Writing anything but poetry, which I only did in free form and never presented on paper because I knew how bad my spelling was, made my brain harden and my mind lock. Writing an essay, like the one you’re reading, was pure torture for me at the time. But I needed to go and learn the craft I so adored and I needed to write an essay in order to do so.
How the essays formed, I’m not sure, and I do not have access to them today, thank God. But along with my printed-out versions of all the poetry I’d written over the years since graduating college, I sent a tape of me reading my work aloud, which I had recorded in a friend’s recording studio using my spoken word cadence. I’m not sure if that was what got the attention of the wonderful people in admissions at Naropa University, but I was sent a letter admitting me into the MFA program for Writing and Poetics, and I placed it right on top of all the other rejection letters I’d received from all the other schools I had applied to. I was off to Boulder, Colorado, with my seventh grade reading level, to prove that maybe I was just a little bit smart.
Without even thinking, I passed my dyslexia to my children, and my husband added his own spin to our two boys, topping them both off with a serving of ADHD. Over the past twelve years as a mother, I’ve been forced to revisit the word “smart” more than I ever cared to. Teachers, therapists, and psychologists assured my husband and me of how “smart” our children were despite their diagnoses. As if I haven’t experienced the power of my children’s brains over our twelve plus years sharing this earth together.
And then there are the Brooklyn parents I’ve encountered who love to talk about their children’s reading levels, testing abilities, and specialized school placements though it’s always done so with an offhanded twist—but he sure loves his video games. And most recently, as I’ve taken on the joyful ride of writing my own memoir, I’ve found that most memoirists with stories about how they got hooked on heroin or their battles with anorexia during their child actor years start off by reassuring their audience that they began reading at the ripe age of three, as if such battles are better done by humans who are good at reading.
Reassessing this idea of what “smart” is in my forties, while helping my kids to dodge the bullets of their own childhood spelling bee champs, it’s hard not to collapse within myself—to revisit the past and try on old wounds. There are days I wish I could walk around with my MFA around my neck, showing it to everyone like a VIP pass—“Look, we belong here too,” it would indicate. But no matter how many degrees I accumulate, I will never outgrow the wounds I earned starting off my educational life as “deficient” or “disabled.” And regardless of how “progressive” our educational system gets, I will continue to watch as my children get poked and stabbed with the same blade of the neurotypicals. This is reality and these are the carvings and etchings that make our stories, and without them, we would have no poetry to write.
Rumpus original art by Rosie Struve