Why I Sculpt: A Law Professor Makes Peace With Dyslexia

If I could erase dyslexia from my life, I wouldn't. But I would erase ignorance of it. One out of five people is dyslexic and more than three-quarters of them don't know it.
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Fifty-seven years ago, something happened in school that left me puzzled until recently. Our sixth-grade teacher wrote an arithmetic quiz on the blackboard, but this time the quantities were stated in words rather than numerals. My answers were all wrong. She helped me see that the mistakes came in translating the words into numerals. What puzzled me was why this translation was so much harder for me than other students.

A possible explanation came along in the 1980s with when I first saw news reports of dyslexia - reading ability that lags unexpectedly behind intelligence. Dyslexia made sense of many mortifying experiences. My third grade teacher told my parents that I would be held back unless my reading improved over the summer. A high school English teacher told them that, and they reluctantly quoted him to me, "your son is literate in no language." Only through high math and science grades did I get into Yale. But, once there, poor results on a reading test given to entrants led to a warning that I would have trouble graduating.

I found ways to improve my reading by the second year of college. Even so, I struggled with massive readings in a history course. But, the day before the exam, while sitting on the beach, it struck me that the professor was likely to ask certain questions. In a few minutes, I outlined the answers. These were, indeed, the questions and my grade was close to 100. While the big picture did not always come to me so clearly, my grades that year were near the top of the class and I graduated in three years with a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford. I was nonetheless a laborious writer until a law school professor had us students write short articles about the law in the manner of, say, the New Yorker and read them aloud to the seminar. That way, we heard our clunkers, and might eventually acquire the skill of "hearing" them even when reading silently to ourselves. This made writing an extension of talking rather than reading. What a relief.

By the 1980s, when dyslexia came to my attention, I had succeeded in a career dependent on word skill - practicing and teaching law. This ruled out my being dyslexic.

Or so I thought until a quarter century later, at my 45th college reunion, when I was drawn to a lecture, "Dyslexia and Creativity: Two Sides of the Same Coin." Two medical school professors, Bennett and Sally Shaywitz, reported that dyslexia stems from an impediment in translating letters on a page into sounds and then words - both written and spoken. MRIs of dyslexics' brains show low activity in the region that most people use to make this translation. The MRIs also show that some dyslexics develop compensating mechanisms in other regions of the brain. These allow reading, though with greater effort. Finally, the MRIs show unusually high activity in still other regions. These explain why dyslexics "are intuitive, excel at problem solving, seeing the big picture, and simplifying," as Sally Shaywitz writes in Overcoming Dyslexia (Vintage). This fit me. I now also understood the relief I felt in linking writing to talking rather than reading.

The lecture on dyslexia moved me to tears because I had met the burden that I had carried so long and its compensating blessing. How many mortifications would I have been saved if I had known more as a child? My father, I suspect, was dyslexic. He proudly told me of his high IQ score, but never that he failed to graduate with his high school class. This I learned only decades after his death from a cousin who suspects a learning impediment. My father and the sixth grade teacher who spotted my difficulty in the quiz were high school classmates. She advised my parents to have me evaluated, I don't know for what and I wasn't, but wonder if she saw similar problems in my father and me.

The dyslexia is still with me. I have difficulty in taking down a name that is spelled out. Proof reading is best left to others.

Still, I count myself lucky. Indeed, if I could erase dyslexia from my life, I wouldn't. But I would erase ignorance of it. One out of five people is dyslexic and more than three-quarters of them don't know it. I stumbled onto solutions, but systematic help is now available, as the Shaywitz book explains.

Going forward, I have several resolves. I will be open about my dyslexia with students. I will support dyslexic students getting extra time on exams. Previously, I was skeptical because I did without, but my case is mild and I was lucky.

Finally, I will sculpt. In the summer after that worrying first year at college, I rested my mind by working on construction during the day and sculpting in the evening. Then, sculpting was pushed aside by word-work. But I talked so much about resuming that two friends each gave me carving tools as wedding gifts. They lay unused for almost a half century, but after the Shaywitzs' lecture I started sculpting again. I don't have the words to express the pleasure it gives me.

Mr. Schoenbrod teaches at New York Law School, is a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, and coauthor of Breaking the Logjam: Environmental Protection That Will Work (Yale, 2010).

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