I recently came across this interview with Indy Car driver Justin Wilson, who placed fifth in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Justin is an accomplished driver, a successful adult, and a role model to many. He also has dyslexia.
I love stories like this for two reasons:
First, they are stories of resilience.
Second, they are stories that illustrate the problem with our schools and our attitudes about the one-size-fits-all system we have locked ourselves into.
When Wilson was asked if he sees any benefit to dyslexia he replied,
“I do think dyslexia has helped me. It’s pushed me to work harder in everything I do… You get a lot of satisfaction out of doing something that’s hard.”
Many successful dyslexic adults make the same observation as Wilson when asked if dyslexia accrues any benefits. Apparently having dyslexia forced us to work harder than most, and learning to work hard can be an advantage in the market place.
When I was Headmaster at ASSETS School in Hawaii, serving students with dyslexia, we were lucky to have a golf pro who worked with our golf team. He mentioned to me in passing one day that our students, in comparison to many others he had worked with, were great at learning golf. Confused, I asked him why. He replied “They handle frustration well. They are better at coping with frustration than others I teach, and golf is all about dealing with your frustrations!”
Let’s face it: we really don’t know what working hard actually means, or even what it looks like. We do know that many people who probably work very hard in school never get off of the starting line. We do, however, know exactly what frustration looks like, and how devastating it can be for our children in school.
Justin Wilson and other successful dyslexics were lucky enough to have found a place of self-respect and honor. So many of our kids will not be so lucky.
So, I would like to pose the following question for consideration: Can we figure out a way that students can summon the will to increase effort, increase their stamina and develop resilience without first being ‘hammered’ by a hostile school environment? Surely there’s a way to protect honest effort and encourage kids to rise to learning challenges without frustrating and wounding them in the process.
Just as we can’t ask a fish what it’s like to be wet, I am not sure asking a dyslexic if there are benefits or strengths associated with being dyslexic can get you an accurate answer.
Consider the Hawaiian sea turtle, Honu, as she lumbers and heaves herself across the sand to lay her eggs. She is awkward, slow, and poorly equipped for crossing the long stretch of beach before her. She struggles for every inch on ground she covers—she is worn and exhausted by the time she gets back to the ocean.
Once she gets to the water we see something very different—she swims with strength, speed, and confidence. She dives deeper, stays down longer, and comes up dryer than any other animal in the water. Her flippers—a liability on land— become a boon to the swimming she does with uncommon grace. Struggling to cross the sand might help her appreciate the freedom of the deep water, but I bet it didn’t really help her with swimming, diving, and holding her breath.
Every successful dyslexic adult can look back to childhood and tell a story of struggle in school. In each of us there was a child who, like a turtle crossing the sand, had to bear the burden of being judged in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Can’t we just help our kids get to the water?
Schools should be places where children are encouraged to find their innate strengths as well as learn new skills.
Schools ought to help children catch a glimpse of the deep open ocean waters of their lives without getting stranded on the beach and judged while they are struggling across the sand.
Let’s agree to forgo drawing any conclusions about sea turtles while they are crossing the beach – or children while they are still in school. Let’s encourage our children to draw conclusions about themselves only when they get to whatever ‘ocean’ they belong and begin to swim!