Pulitzer-prizewinning author Philip Schultz
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by Philip Schultz, Pullitzer prizewinning poet and founder of the Writer’s Workshop. I had been only vaguely familiar with Schultz’s work, but as is so often the case when I attend readings, I sense I’m now at the beginning of a brand new literary infatuation.
I recently read Schultz’s memoir My Dyslexia cover to cover in just a few hours. It’s a story that one can’t help but be drawn to, an against-all-odds, uphill battle of one child suffering with undiagnosed dyslexia in a time when it was common for dyslexic children to be automatically written off as slow and lazy. But more than that, it’s a case study of how his dyslexia, shameful though it was, helped to shape the mind of an eventual writer and teacher.
It seems so improbable that any child could learn to manage this particular disability in a way that turned the very words that caused so much anxiety and confusion into a medium for such brilliant work. My Dyslexia has given us powerful insight into the complex coping mechanisms that made this remarkable reversal possible.
It wasn’t until Schultz was well into middle age and his seven-year-old son was diagnosed with dyslexia that he made the connection that he too suffered from the condition, and suddenly many of the mysterious pieces of his childhood fell into place. Amazingly, he didn’t read until he was eleven years old, fairly shocking for someone who would become a writer, and even more so for one who would teach writing to others.
A young Philip Schultz didn’t have the benefit of the knowledge we have now about the condition, which affects as many as one in ten people in some form, and his early attempts at reading and writing were agony. As was so often the case for those like him, he was bullied and harassed by his fellow students, shunned and ignored by his teachers. He got into fights and was expelled from school after school.
Schultz describes the roundabout way he was finally able to comprehend the words his mother had so fervently tried to get him to understand. Using the same method he now uses in his teaching, he invented a character who was proficient and successful in his reading, a “normal” child who could read without unease and anxiety.
Schultz writes “I was creating a narrator capable of rewriting my story with a happy ending.” Much like a writer, Schultz was already skilled at creating a separate character to live the life he imagined. When teaching his pupils the art of writing today, he urges them to employ the use of a narrator as well. Another persona with a viewpoint vastly different from the author’s often creates the emotional distance necessary to accomplish what the author himself may not be able to.
Schultz continued to struggle in his reading throughout his education, and admits that he still has trouble reading, especially when tired. Reading and writing remain both compelling and thrilling, but they come with the cost of extra effort and extreme perseverance. “When I sit down to write, a tentative bartering goes on inside my mind, a trade-off between agitation and a compensatory rerouting of intentions, which more often than not leaves me exhausted and occasionally elated.”
The pain he endured during his early years in school also became the cornerstone of his own teaching philosophy later in life. Many teachers are particularly drawn to the students in the class who display an obvious gift. They feel it’s their job to help hone their talents, creating high achievers who go on to accomplish great things, leaving the mediocre and under-performing students left to just get by. He takes issue with this approach and has built a school based on a philosophy of inclusiveness and recognition of all students. “I work especially hard with those who – like me – have to fight tooth and nail to make any progress at all.”
His dyslexia, he now realizes, was both the obstacle to and the reason for his eventual success. The struggle of those early years and the occasional verbal missteps that still occur during public readings are his means of creating something real through his poetry. In fact, many famous artists, poets, scientists, and thought leaders suffer from dyslexia in its various forms and we may be just beginning to understand how the condition affects the creative mind.
The implications of this memoir and other stories like it are endless, for our education system, for those who suffer from dyslexia, for those who live with, for lack of a better term, ‘disabilities’ of any kind. How many disabled people are employing the use of myriad coping mechanisms day in and day out to create works of art in their own right?
It’s a completely new way of viewing and talking about disability; the disability and all of its ‘abnormal’ brain circuitry becomes an ability, a strength that can be used to inform rather than a weakness to correct.
Stephanie Dula is a volunteer and guest writer with the POP Project. Her previous blog was entitled kidsmoviereviewforadults.blogspot.com.