AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DYSLEXIC YOUTH
Robert A. Weaver, III, founder and director of Weaver Center, wrote this autobiography as an admissions requirement for graduate school. He was graduated from Bowdoin College, Cum Laude, in June 1973, received a Masters Degree in cognitive psychology from Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from C.S.P.P. -Berkeley, California in 1980. Dr. Weaver completed his Harvard University Fellowship in Neuropsychology at Children's Hospital Medical Center with a specialty in learning disabilities.
The first picture of myself that I can remember is that of a small blond-haired boy sitting at the top of a dimly lit set of stairs, body doubled over, arms pressed against my stomach, knees hugging chest - crying. I was frantically trying to explain to my mother how badly my stomach pained and how "dumb" I had been at school that day; I just did not belong there with the other children.
That day remains in my memory as a dark day, all blocked out except for one event. I believe it was the fall of first grade, sometime in the morning. It was reading period, when twenty little children opened their story books to take turns reading and rereading the lessons aloud. From the back, I sat three rows over and one or two pupils from the front. I recall the reading started with the first child in the first row, and I distinctly remember my position being in plain and easy view of the majority of students in the class. The wait until my turn was very long; student by student, word by word, my time drew nearer. I was restless, squirming in my seat so much that at one point the teacher stopped the lesson and asked me to please sit still in order to stop disrupting the students around me. I was embarrassed and paralyzed by fear as my turn approached. I tried desperately to curb my movements. Finally, the first person in my row was to read - my anxiety was unbearable. I lost my place in the book. The girl in front of me began to read. I remember that she read well because the teacher's voice did not interrupt her to help once. Then, after a short period of time, she was instructed to stop reading. There was no place for me to hide, and I felt every pair of eyes piercing through my body. No words came to my mouth as I prayed they might. The teacher called, "Robert, your turn to read now," and still I felt no words upon my lips. She asked if I felt well as she walked towards me. Still no words. She came to my desk and found that I was not even on the right page. All around me, I could hear the muffled giggles and I could sense the covered smiles: all attention was on me. My body was held in the grip of fear while at the same time I was conflictingly bursting with anxiety. I saw the symbols that the teacher showed me, but they were meaningless to my eyes. After a few moments of trying to coerce my vocal cords to work and of giving me hints until I guessed the words, she finally realized - as everyone else did - that I could not read. I wanted to crumble into a ball and disappear, but all I could was to sit motionless until the bell rang.
Back on the stairs in my home, my mother tried to explain to me that I was not dumb, but that I merely had some kind of learning problem. Excuses made me feel no better.
My first years in school were as upsetting as my story reveals. Society places the greatest emphasis on reading and writing, and naturally, those who have trouble are automatically labeled and placed in the "dumbbell" classes. I never made it to the "Bluejay" or the "Robin" categories of reading; I was a perpetual "Blackbird," never winning gold stars or even silver ones, regardless of how hard I tried. In those early years, I compensated by excelling in sports, Cub Scouts, and later in Boy Scouts. I needed to experience success just like any other child.
At home, I took out all of my frustrations on my mother and three sisters. I was a proverbial terror. Both my mother and I started seeing "psychologists" about these problems. I do not know what my mother and the doctor talked about; I simply remember building the best model airplanes in the doctor's office! Every time he asked me a probing question, I avoided the truth by inventing stories for which I was rewarded. This doctor believed everything I said and often became wildly excited about my stories. It seemed to be fun, a one-sided game. And the situation at home did not improve.
By junior high school, I had had four or five years of special tutoring. The teachers gave me as much extra help as they could, but I was still failing. My parents were my sole source or support and encouragement and gave me the incentive to work hard. My father's policy was that grades were not important, but he did want me to achieve all "I's" in attitude on my report card. By eighth grade, I had run out of steam. I had tried hard, but within the system of grades, trying hard did not count; I was a failure. I was frustrated and by now I had the desire to be popular. I became friends with the most popular person - who was both class clown and the most devious boy in town. I followed in his footsteps (a dutiful protege) until I developed my own bag of tricks. Then, we formed a dynamic duo of delinquents. We stole things from downtown stores; we broke into the schools; we left our houses late at night; we smoked cigarettes; we emptied the fire extinguishers from the school buses and sprayed foam all over the parking lot - the list is endless. That same year, I had a contest with another friend to see who could get the most "pink slips" in one semester. Unfortunately, I came in second with 54, getting as many as three a day! They were not hard for me to earn; I was a great success at failure. My friend was often belligerent with the principal and was expelled from school. I was smarter and played guilty under the circumstances, explaining that "I knew I was wrong and I was sorry," in order to be vindicated. It always worked well.
As far as my criminal cases were concerned, I was one of the few among my friends who did not go to juvenile court. I always pleaded guilty to the charges, and I always told the truth; this policy paid off because I made the juvenile officer think I was basically a good boy who was "bad" because of social pressure.
Throughout these troubled times, my parents were fantastic. My father was always eager to understand my actions and to discuss any problems. He never resorted to physical punishment. He used the most effective punishment -the lecture, which made me feel so guilty because I had hurt him. Both of my parents were understanding, and I could always feel their love that often had to shine through their disappointment in my actions. My father also stressed the importance of personal relationships whether with adults or peers. He emphasized working out the problems. Striving to understand the other person's point of view. In school, he said, "Always be the first in line, sit in front rows, show interest, volunteer for any- thing that was asked, and most important, always look at the instructor squarely in the eyes to demonstrate concern and awareness." In sum, he stressed always caring about one's appearance to others. These were the techniques which brought me successful relationships with teachers and peers, particularly in high school. I will always believe that these devices are the keys to any type of leadership quality. Through these qualities, I developed a solid personality and won close friends and teachers who were willing to understand instead of ignoring me by throwing me out of class.
During the summer preceding high school, two very important events occurred. The first involved a long talk with my father and the town juvenile officer. We discussed my previous behavior in terms of being criminal. They pointed out that when one entered high school, he became of legal age and was sent to regular court, thus incurring a criminal record. From that day on, I abandoned my bad behavior and had no problem with the police. The second major event was having my academic problem diagnosed and labeled as "dyslexia." I was told that I was intelligent but that I had a specific learning disability. I did not accept that I was intelligent, but at least knowing I was dyslexic helped me to explain why I did not do well in school
Throughout high school, I worked hard and still attained poor grades. I compensated for my failures by taking out my frustration on the football field, the wrestling pad, the basketball court, in addition to playing the drums in a rock group. Working hard in school and in sports prepared me for working hard outside of school, too. After athletic practice, I would come home, eat dinner, study until 9:00 p.m., go to bed, and then waken at 3:30 a.m. every day to study - usually foreign languages which have always been an anathema to me. While I disliked the academic side of high school, I thrived on social and sports events. My most enjoyable class was architecture, where I spent all of my free periods. It was the only subject that I could do without confusing everything and performing things backwards. I still could not read or write to any significant degree, so my parents and friends read to me and helped me with my homework. I talked with my teachers as much as possible about my courses. My family was always helping me and supporting my efforts. My parents were constantly talking to both administrators and teachers. I was an extremely fortunate dyslexic, surrounded by people who wanted desperately to help and understand.
During my high school summers, I attended a canoeing camp in Canada. This adventure further developed my ability to communicate with people and strengthened my leadership qualities. Before my fourth season at camp, I was chosen from many to travel in an eight-man section down the East Main River which empties into the Hudson Bay. In fact, I was one of the first 16 recorded white men to travel this river.
When I returned for my senior year of high school, I applied to colleges - University of the South, Norwich, Kenyon, and the American College of Switzerland (and surprisingly, I was accepted to all the schools). I decided to attend ACS. (My older sister, also dyslexic, had attended ACS and had found that the small classes helped her significantly. There was a great deal of person interaction between students and faculty). Within the first month, I realized that I could not manipulate the teachers as I had in high school. Either one did all the work and did it well or he flunked. I was on the way out. I was forced to learn to read and write. I acquainted myself with some very bright girls and had them read to me while I followed the words on the page. The painfully slow process of learning to read began. I had to be taken out of my freshman English class because I could not do the required essays. The school was small and I arranged to work with my English professor on a one-to-one basis. He gave me paper topics on which I was to write, and I wrote draft after draft on each topic under the supervision of the professor. He taught me to write an organized paper. The difference between high school and college was that in college there was no chance for empty rhetoric. My motivation reached a peak. I worked long and hard hours on basic language skills. Once I began to succeed at academics, I actually found them enjoyable. I discovered myself doing well. The experience of being in Europe increased my interest to learn. After my freshman year, I enrolled in two summer courses at Boston University: a philosophy course and an introductory to psychologist course. The following year at ACS, my grades improved again. Because the size of the school was small, there was only one psychology professor. Hence, I decided to return to the United States, and I applied to schools in New England which could offer me a broader psychology department. When I received my acceptance from Bowdoin CoIlege, I was ecstatic. They were in a transitional period of becoming a coeducational institution (for close to 200 years Bowdoin educated only men). In 1971, they accepted only four junior male transfer students of which I was one. In fact, I was the first person with a learning disability to be admitted. I have worked diligently here to maintain dean's list status, and I have enjoyed the progressive atmosphere that prevails. I joined Chi Psi, one of the finest fraternities on campus, and as a senior I was elected to represent the fraternity as the senior member on the rushing committee. Everything has gone well for me here; I enjoy the work, the courses, the professors, the administrators (particularly the Dean of Students with whom I have become friendly), and most importantly, the people. I have worked hard and I have finally been rewarded with academic success. I hope that some day I will be able to provide encouragement for children who suffer from the same learning disabilities and problems that I have.
Because of the schism which developed in my early years between me and school, I had to concentrate on developing rapport with the people around me. I had to be convincing with teachers (in those early years), articulate in talks with administrators, and concerned with friends and their problems. Since grade school, I have been considerate of people and their personal problems; it has almost become a hobby for me to en- gage in long talks with many different types of people. I enjoy dealing with people and consider it a specialty of sorts. As I mentioned previously, I have always regarded understanding and insight into a person's problems as a key to discovering solutions. I have further found in college that psychology is the key to understanding - a key which I desire to hold and to master at the highest level that I am capable of understanding.