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Personal Stories

Upside down in a right sided world

By: W. Sumner Davis, Ph.D.
Dr. W. S. Davis

The laughter echoed from behind me, and as if a reprieve from on high the bell rang, I could hear the rest of the 3rd grade class shuffling out to the waiting buses. I had been standing at that same board for nearly three hours. Ever since spelling class had begun after lunch, I had been asked to correct the spelling of a sentence that the teacher had written on the board. I could not correct what I did not understand. I could not correct the words because I could barely read. I was not sure of the spelling of any word, save my name. My mother had taught me to spell it when I was five, and I had practiced it over, and over again out loud, much to her dismay I am sure. Apart from my name, I just could not spell anything. I would often reverse letters and numbers; my math skills were far below my grade level. Had I not possessed an incredible memory, I would not have gotten as far as I had.

I always sat next to my friend Roy who was very smart, or at least it seemed so to me. Roy was a good soul who would allow me to peek at his test every so often, enough to get by with a "D" or perhaps even a "C." Yet, on that rainy afternoon Roy could not help me now. No one could. Instead, they laughed, no doubt feeling happy that they were not in my shoes. The teacher, whose name is not important, simply sat at her desk and glared at me. After the rest of the class had exited the room, she explained to me how "disgusted" she was at me. I was a "stupid" child. I was "stubborn" and "willful." As she explained it, she had hoped the embarrassment I felt at the chalkboard would have "snapped me" out of it. It was for my own good. It always seemed to be for my "own good." Why was it that it only created hatred of education and of educators in me? How could that torment and terror be for my own good? It did not make any sense to me, but I was slow, and perhaps as one teacher had said, "Retarded." There was talk of placing me in a "special school."

This was in 1969 years before the term "learning disability" had entered common language, at least in Maine. Today, I very much doubt that any teacher would behave in the manner of my third grade teacher. At that time she was hardly the only person to explain to me in plain and simple terms that I was "not normal" and that I was most probably "mildly retarded." However, it seemed to have become clear to my teachers by the sixth grade that I was not deliberately trying to fail – but fail I did! I failed not just in spelling, but English, math, you name it – I flunked it. I remember in seventh grade receiving four "F’s" on my report card my first term. My parents explained that I was expected to bring my grades up, and I was "grounded" for the ranking period. It would be impossible for me to accurately describe the way I felt being blamed for my poor performance. I tried to explain to my parents, and anyone I thought might listen that I had "tried as hard as I could" but just could not do the work. There was talk of "holding" me back. I struggled and cheated enough to bring my grades up to passing – barely. My math teacher felt sorry for me, which was obvious in her grading for the next two semesters. She gave me every break she could. My spelling had still not improved much, and any word I did manage to spell correctly was a guess. I managed to just squeak by until tenth grade. After attempting to comprehend algebra and having yet to understand basic math, I dropped out of school. I very much doubt that anyone in the administration was sorry to see me go, as I had worked hard over the past several years to be as big a nuisance as possible. I smoked cigarettes (often in school) I drank beer in the parking lot, I flooded bathrooms and raised as much "hell" as I could. I generally had willing and able assistance. I attended class only when I was had "in school suspension" which meant I was caught doing something I was not supposed to be doing. By now, my parents had pretty much given up on me, as had my teachers. I was convinced that education was not for me, and that college or any other school was out of the question. So, at 16 I was a "free man" in other words, I was free to get a job and enter the work force. Without a high school education, the jobs were narrowed down a bit, and work as a laborer for a construction company was about all that I could find. A year or so latter, I managed, barely, to complete a General Equivalency Diploma. This is supposed to be equal to a high school diploma, but I can tell you without hesitation, at least back in the mid 1970’s it was not even close. And, it seems this was common knowledge because with my G.E.D the job market did not change.

My construction "career" ended just before my twenty-eighth birthday after scaffolding I had been working on collapsed and a fall of some 20 feet or so landed me in the hospital. Several months later my doctor told me that it would be "unrealistic" to consider going back to work in the construction field. So there I was, a dim-witted 28-year-old with no job and no future. I decided to seek assistance from a vocational rehabilitation counselor. She was very nice, and seemed genuinely concerned for me. This was a somewhat new experience for me, and the effort she spent on my behalf would never be forgotten. She arranged for me to see a "vocational psychologist" whom after some interviews and testing proclaimed that I was being "unrealistic" in my wishes to attend college. I explained that I wanted to go to college and perhaps obtain an associates degree in some field of social services, perhaps counseling. He explained that the desire to go to college must match ability &#150 and I did not have that ability. He was the expert I figured – he would know.

This time however, I did something I had never done before: I decided to ignore that advice of the experts. I began an associate degree program at my local college in human services. It was a struggle to be sure. I am gifted, as I stated earlier, with an exceptional memory, and combined with tutors, I finished the first semester with an average GPA. During the spring break I had the chance to meet with some students who were in the special education program. It was then that I learned about dyslexia, and one or two suggested that I look into it. To my surprise, and relief I learned that I was not mildly retarded or slow as the experts had deemed. I was instead dyslexic. I learned a few tricks, such as "speed reading" where you read only every other word (which enables me to finish a project in a reasonable amount of time), and computer programs such as dictating software that assist me in writing. Math is still a problem, but it is amazing what a person can learn when they are allowed to find their own methods. After my first year in the associate degree program, I transferred to the four-year bachelors program at the university. I graduated after just three years, and went on to graduate school. I earned my first masters degree in psychology in less than two years, and went on to a three-year masters program in divinity where I concentrated on history (where an excellent memory pays off). After my second masters degree, I entered a doctorate program where I earned my first doctorate degree in history. I graduated Magna Cum Laude after four years.

Today I am working toward my second doctorate, a Ph.D. in ecology where I am focusing on evolutionary biology. I have written and published five books on topics from evolutionary biology to religious history and science history. I have published over 20 magazine and journal essays, and my writing has appeared worldwide. I guess the moral of my story, if there indeed is one, must be that when a person allows others, even the "experts" to decide what is possible for them to achieve, they are already handicapped with that expectation. I could have decided to follow the advice of the vocational psychologist and become a professional couch potato, but I refused to let others dictate what I could be any longer. From the age of seven until almost age thirty, I knew I was different. What that difference was, I had to find out for myself. I can only imagine what my life would be like today, had I followed the expert’s advice.

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