This story is not about either of my sons. This story is about a boy about 30 odd years ago.
That boy grew up in a small town in India. He was the first son, the first grandson; the oldest of his generation. Hence, he had the weight of the entire generation on him; he was to serve as a shining example of all that was expected of that generation from his elders. The boy didn't mind; in fact, he reveled in the distinction.
However, as he grew older, the boy noticed that he was different. There was no doubt in anyone else's mind that the boy was brilliant. Everyone expected him to shine at school, carry a few trophies and then become a doctor or engineer.
But the boy felt that something wrong. For instance, he realized that he was not able to read letters and then words as accurately and as fast as he would have liked. In fact, he was often cuffed or spoken to sharply as to why he was not concentrating. The boy did not like to say that he was; in fact, concentrating very hard, but was still not able to decipher the word in front of him. He preferred to let people think that he was clever, but lazy.
The boy knew that in his world, there were only two types of students; the smart and the stupid. There were 50 students in each class. The teachers did not have the time or the inclination to pay attention to any one child. The boy did not want to be called 'stupid'; he could not bear the thought. He did not want to see the anguish in his parents' eyes nor the glee or shock in his peers'. He needed to find a way to keep this secret to himself and never, ever have it revealed to the outside world. He didn't want anyone to think anything was wrong with him; he just wanted to fit in.
The written word now invoked a deep sense of panic in him. He would sit for hours and hours in front of his books, trying to memorize the words so that he could say them out loud without any mistake, but there seemed to be a beast between his eyes, that used to mischievously jumble some of the letters or even some of the words, making it a bizarre mess.
He knew that when he listened to his teachers, he would immediately comprehend what they were saying and that he could ask intelligent questions. Then, what was this strange malady that was holding him back? The boy could not imagine telling anyone, even his parents, that there was something wrong in his head! Where would they take him? Would they give him electric shocks,as he had seen in movies. The boy would break out in a sweat, imagining all kinds of terrible things done to him to make him right in his head.
In Math class, he shone. He would call out the answer even while the Math master was working out the problem on the blackboard. He would feel his classmates' eyes on him, envious and his Master looking approvingly, and his chest would swell with pride, and also with relief. He wasn't stupid. He was just different, but no one knew that he was different....yet.
The class that other students enjoyed but that caused the boy the most anguish was Reading and Comprehension. Every day, the teacher would ask each of the boys to stand up and read a paragraph from the chapter book that they were studying. The teacher always started from the front of the class, and since the children were made to sit in class in ascending order of height, this was an advantage for the boy as he was one of the tallest and was placed near the back. Every class, he would nervously count the number of boys who would be reading before him, and then the number of paragraphs, to find the one paragraph he was expected to read. He would then read that paragraph, slowly, laboriously, a hundred times, his heart pounding, constantly looking up to see where the reading had progressed to, and praying that he had been right in his counting. For the boy knew, that if he had counted wrong, or the teacher suddenly decided to skip a row, he was doomed. He would only be able to read a new paragraph with the labored slowness of a six year old, that would evoke immediate hilarity amongst his classmates and expressions of incredulity and ridicule from his teacher.
As he progressed to the higher classes with his pride still intact, the boy decided he needed to plan strategically for the number of book chapters and assignments that were increasing exponentially. He spent hours and hours every day after school poring over his textbooks, refusing to sleep till well into the wee hours, but he could not keep up. His parents were proud of their 'studious' boy and used to shoo the other neighborhood kids away, shouting at them for 'distracting' him. He could not ask for either his parents' nor any of his younger siblings' help. The only option was a fellow classmate; some one whom he could dictate to and hopefully, trick into helping him.
He chose a 'stupid' classmate. He chose him under the pretext that the boy wanted to help the classmate study; not the other way around! Every evening, they would gather in one of their houses, where the boy would order his willing helper to read aloud to him, after which the boy would explain the information to his classmate, paragraph by paragraph. The boy found that, if read aloud to, he could easily retain information. There still remained the question of the numerous spelling mistakes he kept making in his term paper, but his school masters were now resigned to the fact that the boy was "brilliant, but careless", so they generally took his mistakes in their stride and let it go.
When the results came out and the boy's classmate also passed his exams, he came and thanked the boy with tears in his eyes for being kind enough to help him out when he actually had no reason to! The boy was silent; he was choked up and wryly thought how ironic it was that the 'stupid' classmate could not even know how much more he had helped the boy not fail his own exams.
This pattern of studying together with another classmate continued. The boy did not pass the entrance examinations for the engineering or medical fields. Surprising though it was to everyone around him, the boy knew that there was after all, a limit to his capabilities. He applied for undergraduate studies, found his ideal study-mate and ranked first in the university in his honors subject. He was slowly gaining steam; it was going to work out! The beast between his eyes may not be tamed, but it had been tricked!
One day, the boy found the name of the beast on the internet when he dared to look it up on the computer that was available in the university. This was the time when computers were newly introduced in colleges and universities, and students were even allowed to look up things for research purposes. The boy had heard that the internet contained any and every piece of information there was in the world. He waited till his professor's attention was drawn elsewhere, and quickly typed in some search words, fumbling yet again over the letters. He never expected any results; he fully expected that he would find a blank screen after he pressed 'Enter'. Instead, the first search result brought up 'dyslexia'. Barely breathing, the boy clicked and read the symptoms, and then fell back in his chair. His professor came back to check his work, and the boy quickly closed the window and erased the search history.
Knowing the name did not really make any difference to the boy, but at least he felt empowered knowing it. He had now progressed to full-fledged laboratory experimentation. He still needed to read extensively, but he usually found some one with whom he could discuss the latest research with, and who would give him the gist of the articles he needed to know about; or he would read it himself, slowly but steadily. The boy continued his studies and got his PhD. He then traveled abroad for postdoctoral studies. He talked to his research advisor about his beast, he found more articles on dyslexia, he found a software that read the written text on the computer screen aloud to you as you moved your mouse over words; he read about other people who harbored the beast. He saw a Hindi movie, the first ever made on childhood dyslexia. For the first time, the boy...now, a man...breathed easy. He did not have to pretend any more and he did not have to prove in which part of the class he belonged to.
When his advisor asked him if he was doing anything for his dyslexia; the man considered, but decided that he had been living with his beast, now quiet and tamed most of the time, for so long; he didn't need to have any change now.
The man continued to do research; he became the Molecular Biology expert in his lab. People in his lab and from other labs came to him for collaborations; he published papers in several premium scientific journals and was invited to conferences to present his work. Finally, last year, he was accepted as a permanent legal resident of the United States because he was designated as a Person of Extraordinary Ability.
The man still has trouble reading; the beast keeps teasing him. So, when he reads bedtime stories to our two kids, he reads slowly, but that's how bedtime stories should be read anyway!!