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The Riehl World- They Called Her Dummy

By Richard Riehl

Every time our fourth-grade teacher told us to open our books for the day’s history lesson, I braced myself. She would ask each student, one by one, up and down each row, to read a paragraph aloud. Every time Wanda (not her real name) was asked to read. Sister Ursula had to help her sound out each word. Whatever spark of interest had been kindled in me by history that day would be snuffed out by Wanda’s painstaking struggle with words.

Those of us who didn’t need the teacher’s help figured Wanda was not as smart as we were. We generally ignored her. When I once overheard one of my buddies tell her she was a dummy who smelled bad, I didn’t have the courage to speak up in her defense.

The only reason Wanda did not get bullied more openly and often is that we were in a Catholic school. We knew bad behavior would be met with the usual punishment: knuckles rapped by a nun, swinging a wooden ruler, followed by a one-hour sentence of kneeling in the hall on the hard linoleum floor to give us time to think about what we had done.

Fast forward 30 years to the day I met Karen. We were cast together in a community theater production of Angel Street, the stage version of the 1944 film, Gaslight. As I got to know her, I learned she could have been Wanda. Not the one I knew, but someone else who could not read before the age of 10. She was called a smelly dummy by Brucie, Michael, Jerry and John, her public school’s apostles of bullying.

In Karen’s case the name-calling grew to include forcing her to dodge pebbles thrown at her. At recess she sought protection from her tormentors by hiding behind a building. The playground was just another battleground for her.

Karen was lucky to have a mother who encouraged her, helping her with her spelling after school each day. But she also found comfort from her fantasy friend, Bette Davis.

From the earliest she could remember, Karen wanted to be a movie star. She often retreated to her bedroom to act out scenes from her best friend’s movies, waving an imaginary cigarette in grand gestures, the way her idol would do.

By the time Karen reached high school her difficulty in reading had been overcome by her talent on stage. Her success in leading roles in college led to a call back audition with Otto Preminger. But, even at that time, the damage she took to her self-esteem as a grade schooler robbed her of the self-confidence required for that all-important audition with the legendary director.

Preminger sat on a high stool, in a darkened room, peering down at the timid, aspiring actor before him. He asked Karen, “What have you done?” Forgetting the accolades showered on her previous leading roles, she could find only the words, “Oh… nothing.” Never again would she come as close to achieving her dream of movie stardom.

Karen told me, despite her experience in professional and community theater over the years, she has never been able to overcome a feeling of not being good enough, stemming from her lifelong struggle with reading.

When her daughter encountered the same problem in school, Karen sent her to a learning disability specialist, who diagnosed the problem as dyslexia, a word Karen had never heard.

She learned dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence, but only with the inability to automatically match the letters you see on a page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make.

It turns out Wanda and Karen were not dummies, after all.

Here’s what researchers at the Yale University Center for Dyslexia & Creativity  have discovered about dyslexia:

–Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader.

–While people with dyslexia are slow readers, they often are very fast and creative thinkers.

–Dyslexia cannot be cured, but with accommodations, it need not keep a person from excelling in whatever occupation they choose.

–Dyslexics do not see and write words and letters backwards. That’s an ongoing myth that can’t seem to die.

–One in five of the U.S. population has dyslexia. With about 140 residents in this senior living community, I’m guessing Karen’s not alone.

Here are some warning signs of dyslexia that show up in elementary school.

–Slow and awkward reading

–Trouble reading unfamiliar words, making wild guesses because they can’t sound out the word

–Avoidance of reading out loud

But here are some strengths of dyslexics as they reach adulthood.

–Excellent writing skills if the focus is on content, not spelling

–Exceptional empathy and warmth

–Success in areas not dependent on rote memory

–The ability to come up with original insights

–Inclination to think outside of the box and see the big picture

–Noticeably resilient and able to adapt

Karen chooses not to join Book-of-the-Month clubs because of the burden of her slow reading and the time she must set aside for writing her own books. But when her 2015 San Diego Book Awards Winner, Helga: Growing up in Hitler’s Germany, was chosen for discussion by our Château’s book club, she found the time to attend.

Although Otto Preminger dashed Karen’s dream of movie stardom, I can’t hold it against him. Had she been an Academy Awards winner, it’s unlikely this small-town boy would ever have met her.