by Anna Heneise
When I turn eight, my mother sits me down and tells me I am dyslexic. She says most kids learn how to read when they are five or six, and to spell shortly after, and write their letters a certain way. She explains that she decided to homeschool me because she didn’t want any of the stigmas attached to dyslexia to affect my learning. I scowl. I don’t see how my mixed-up letters are different. I don’t see why it matters when I learned to read. I don’t know what a stigma is, except that the word is an ugly shade of grey. I don’t care enough to ask.
When I turn eight, my tutor puts her hand on mine and explains that it isn’t a bad thing to be dyslexic. Lots of famous people were dyslexic, like Abraham Lincoln, who died over a hundred years ago. She says I shouldn’t worry if I never learn to recite the alphabet properly or read cursive or write well. I nod politely. I didn’t know it could be a bad thing in the first place. I don’t know what dyslexia has to do with tutoring, either. Tutoring is something I do, Dyslexia is something I have. They aren’t related, but my tutor likes to talk about dyslexia a lot. I’m getting used to the taste of that word. Dyslexia; blue and bitter.
When I turn twelve, a private school teacher looks me in the eye and says I don’t have dyslexia. She has a degree and a certificate. She knows these things. Dyslexia is a reading disorder, and I can read just fine. I have trouble with spelling and writing because I’m homeschooled, and I’m not held to high standards. I do not have an official diagnosis because my mother just looked up symptoms on the internet instead of taking me to a real doctor. My mother is neither a teacher nor a doctor and has no business teaching or diagnosing her own kids. I stare up at her, my fingers slowly going numb as my grip on my pencil tightens, and tuck those words away in my heart.
When I turn thirteen, I go to public high school. I am asked to write and write and write and I can’t. I have a word in my head. I know the color but not the shape, the taste but not the texture. I try to write it out. One, two, three spellings erased. I pick a different word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing, but that I know how to spell. None of my papers are the color I want them to be.
A teacher asks me to read a list of numbers out loud for him as he copies them down. Read carefully, he says. I don’t want to have to get new documents. This is a bad idea, I say. Nonsense, he says. I read. My mouth cannot keep up with my brain, which cannot keep up with my eyes. My teacher has to get new documents. He snaps at me for wasting his time. I keep my head down and try not to cry in front of my classmates.
Our vocabulary word for the day is “valedictorian.” I’ve never heard of a valedictorian before. Homeschoolers don’t have those. The word itself is the same rich purple as “valor” and “victory” and “valiant.” Somebody jokes that Anna is smart enough to be valedictorian. I look down at my worksheet and I cannot read my own handwriting. The teacher moves on with the lesson without comment.
When I turn fourteen, my theater teacher asks me to stay after school. He takes one of my handwritten essays and writes out the correct spelling and pronunciation of the words I got wrong. He tells me I need to either remember which direction ones face or start writing them as a straight line. He suggests I learn how to type.
I go back the next afternoon, and the next. I parse out shapes and sounds and colors until I can see the structure of words; the small pieces, and how they create the whole. I write out the phonetic pronunciation of the words I still can’t fully decipher. I teach myself to type with aching fingers, and start to type up the edited scripts we use in class, and then the scripts we use for plays.
When I turn seventeen, a teacher asks me to spell “valedictorian” out loud. I try. I can’t. I laugh, and smooth a wrinkle in my purple dress, and say it’s a good thing I typed my speech instead of writing it out by hand.
Anna Heneise is a junior at the University of Maine at Farmington, with a major in creative writing. Formerly of Knoxville, Tennessee, Anna is a voracious reader and burned-out theater kid turned young writer.