Are you retarded? Dyslexia!
I recently read an article addressing the challenges associated with dyslexia. The article inspired me to explore more thoughtfully about how my challenges associated with dyslexia have been negotiated and managed with the help of public speaking.
After failing the first grade, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia. I failed English in the 10th grade, and algebra a total of five times. By the grace of God, I graduated high school with a 1.9 G.P.A on probation for bad behavior. Following high school, I failed out of three different community colleges. The first class I failed was public speaking. After my third attempt at college, in as many years, I became a car salesman. Selling cars was one of the best learning experiences of my life, however, at the age of 21, I did not posses the discipline to work sixty-plus hours a week for commission. So I quit. Needing to do something, I applied for the Los Angeles Police Department, only to fail the written exam. My father was an LAPD sergeant. A friend of my father had administered and graded the test. Severely humbled and having no other options, I decided to try college a fourth time.
I figured if I was going to be serious about school, I should start by retaking the courses I had failed. During the summer of 1991, I enrolled in a public speaking course at Los Angeles Valley College with Professor Betty Ballew. Professor Ballew not only inspired me to take the class seriously but encouraged me to join the LAVC public speaking team. To this day, I don’t know why I agreed to do something extracurricular that was academic…but I did! I joined the LAVC public speaking team, and my life was changed forever. Professor Ballew inspired me to celebrate my strengths, and address my challenges.
For two years, I competed on the LAVC speech team traveling around California and the nation winning state and national awards for public speaking. In 1993, I earned an AA in speech and won a scholarship to Northern Arizona University to compete on the NAU speech team. At NAU I enjoyed more state and national successes as well as international. After completing a BS in speech, I was offered a coaching & teaching position and an invitation into the graduate program for communication studies at California State University Los Angeles. In 1996, I was privileged to start coaching competitive speaking and teaching public speaking courses. In 1999 I received my MA in speech communication. As a dyslexic, I feel truly blessed to have experienced the life transforming gift, that is — and can be for anyone — an education fully realized by identifying and celebrating my unique strengths, while at the same time aggressively confronting my unique challenges.
I am now a tenured professor of speech at Los Angeles Valley College, where I serve as the Director of the forensics (public speaking team). I am now privileged to regularly participate with and foster countless success stories as I serve the very program that changed my life. On April 15-19th, 2008 the LAVC speech team competed against 74 other community colleges and over 450 of our nation’s best speakers and won the Phi Rho Pi national public speaking championship tournament held in St. Charles, Illinois. However, the highlight of the year was a very special student named Marcus Hill. Marcus, a former stutterer, became the most successful competitive speaker in California community college history, as well as, the overall top speaker in the country while at nationals in Illinois. Like my Professor Betty Ballew, I am truly blessed with the privilege of helping students discover their individual strengths while actively negotiating their challenges.
In 1991, a college professor asked me if I was “retarded?”. That same year Professor Ballew told me that I had “presence,” and asked me to join the speech team. Professor Ballew focused on my strengths, and helped me to acknowledge and confront my challenges.
“How would dyslexia affect my grandson?” is the title of an article published by the “South Wales Echo,” on July 7, 2010. The question, posed by the author Deborah Boyce, leads into another question many people have, “how many of us actually know what it (dyslexia) is?” Boyce, then proceeds to give us all more insight into what dyslexia is:
“The word “dyslexia” comes from Greek and means “difficulty with words.” “Dyslexia is a difference in the part of the brain which processes language, and it affects skills that are needed for leaning one or more of reading, writing, spelling and numeracy. Wales Dyslexia emphasises that this does not mean that dyslexic people cannot become literate and that with suitable help dyslexic people can succeed, and they often have different and valuable problem-solving abilities. Wales Dyslexia also estimates that between 10% and 20% of the population are affected by dyslexia, with 4% being severely affected.”
So, back to the articles initial question, “How would dyslexia affect my grandson?” As the article states, and this dyslexic professor knows first hand…your grandson (or daughter) would display a consistent challenge with reading, writing, spelling, numeracy — or all of the above! I – fortunately -am challenged with all of the above. I say “fortunately” because – as the article points out – these challenges forced me to develop “different and valuable problem-solving skills.”
I now realize that it has been the consistent practice of public speaking, that has provided me with attributes that I have employed in all areas of my life for success. Public speaking requires a commitment to structure, preparation and repetition.
Public speaking demands clear structure; structure not only employed for smoothly carrying one’s audience, but structure employed for clearly composing and presenting one’s thoughts. Structure is the foundation for communicative clarity. Since a speaker must first compose his/her words prior to speaking (unless you are a politician 🙂 ), this practice unavoidably helped me to become a better writer.
When I joined the Los Angeles Valley College Forensics (speech) team in 1991, one of my coaches after reading my first speech draft asked me if I was “retarded.” He went on to say, “There is not a complete sentence in your speech, and there is absolutely no structure.” He – Marty Tarras – continued, “Kid – you might look good in front of an audience, but if you cant write properly you won’t get very far.” Soon after, I signed up for English composition. I tested so poorly on the placement exam, I had to enrol in English 21.
English 21, is the course that follows English-as-a-second-language within the Los Angeles Community College district. It was being forced, and humbled, to take English 21, combined with what I was learning on the speech team that made me realize how structure could be employed to formulate, write, and then present through public speaking my thoughts clearly. It was very humbling to start at the bottom — but eventually I learned to negotiate my challenges with words well enough to excel in speech competition for four years, while earning a two and four year degree and a university (Northern Arizona) scholarship for public speaking. Following my undergraduate work, I was awarded a graduate position (California State University Los Angeles) which included a paid teaching and coaching position. In 1999, I wrote a masters thesis, and received an MA in Speech Communication. The structure I learned for speech, I was, and continue being able to apply to all of my thinking and communicating – be it written, or spoken.
Public speaking demands preparation! Public speaking competition is the most intense activity I have ever been involved with. In speech competition – on the college level – students are required to compose and present 10 minute long presentations. The speech must be authored by the student. The speeches must have 10-15 current sources documented and spoken in the speech. The speeches must be so perfectly memorized that the words are delivered not just flawlessly, but in such way that the words do not look memorized. If you want to take home a trophy at the end of the weekend…you must look natural! So, if you want to excel in public speaking competition you must be able to: 1) manage your time, 2) focus with commitment. Being dyslexic, I had never focused or committed to anything academic in my life. And time management was something I never really thought about. But I really enjoyed speaking in front of audiences, and competitive success demanded I learn to manage my time, and focus if I wanted to be successful. As an added benefit, I realized that the very structure I was employing to compose my words for speeches, could also be employed to create ways to manage my time and all of my other commitments not just in school, but life! This dyslexic realized that by deliberately planning and organizing my life, I can pretty much achieve anything I want!
Public speaking demands repetition! In public speaking your whole body and mind are your tool. Just like an athlete has to commit to repetitive physical actions to excel with her/his sport of choice, or a musician spends hours learning to work with their instrument or voice, a public speaker works with his/her tools. A competitive public speakers, in order to be successful, must with great repetition work with her/his body, voice, and mind. Practice, practice, practice! The best selling author, Malcom Gladwell suggests “10,000 hours” (see: http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/index.html ) if you want to be great at something. I AGREE! When you are done practicing…practice some more. I now tell my students, perfect practice makes perfect performances. It is the repetition, specifically the practice of memorization that made me realize how truly powerful the human brain is. In college Forensics, in order for students who are participating for truly competitive programs (like the LAVC Speech Team), students are required to have 4-5 competitive speeches ready for the national tournament held annually in April. This means that any student who is doing platform speeches (prepared speeches) must write, research and memorize 4-5 different speeches. Not only does this require a GREAT amount of initial time dedicated to mental repetition, but following each preliminary speech competition prior to the national competition (most teams will go to 8-12 different competitions Sept-March) the successful students are constantly applying the criticisms given to them from judges at each competition. Successful competitors are constantly editing, and often rewriting their speeches and re-memorizing between each preliminary competition. So, not only does the competitive speaker practice with great repetition the performative aspects required for public speaking, but also she/he is constantly writing. As a dyslexic, who failed the first grade because I could not read; who failed English in the 11th grade because I could not write; and who at the community college had to take English 21, before being permitted to take any college level English courses after being called “retarded” by a college professor — I am confident when I say “it was the four years of intense repetition being practiced with my whole body and mind that helped me to learn to not just negotiate my dyslexia, but to also get creative with my own learning style and discover solvency for my problems associated with dyslexia.” Thank you Marty!
While I believe it is structure, preparation, and repetition demanded in public speaking competition that helped this illiterate to become a college professor – none of it would have happened without another key component: praise! It was the initial praise of a very special college professor, and now colleague 🙂 Betty Ballew that inspired me to join the Los Angeles Valley College speech team. And it was the continued and consistent praise of my parents and peers that inspired me to go the distance with public speaking competition, and then continue into and through graduate school, and eventually become a tenured college speech professor.
So, if you do happen to be blessed with a dyslexic child – my advice is to 1) recognize and identify their challenges, 2) help her/him identify creatively his/hers unique strengths, and 3) encourage her/him to develop their unique gifts with consistent praise!