Prize-Winning Poet: Discovering 'My Dyslexia' At 58
As a child, Philip Schultz didn't understand why he couldn't learn. He was held back twice and both his classmates and teachers ignored him. When he revealed that he wanted to be a writer, he was ridiculed.
Schultz went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. But it wasn't until his young son was diagnosed with dyslexia that Schultz, then 58, had a name for the disorder that had plagued him his entire life.
The International Dyslexia Association estimates that nearly 1 in 5 people suffer from dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading difficult. Like Schultz, many people with dyslexia go undiagnosed.
In his book, My Dyslexia, Schultz shares his childhood struggles, how he coped and what he hopes others can learn from his experience.
On realizing that he wanted to be a writer, even as he struggled to learn to read
"[My tutor] worked with me to try to teach me how to read, without any success at all. And one day out of frustration asked me what I thought I was going to do in life if I couldn't read. And surprising both of us, I said I wanted to be a writer. And he laughed. He was very overweight — I remember the laughter rocked his body from his shoes to his chins. And he couldn't stop laughing. And it was an interesting concept — why would I want to be a writer if I couldn't read or write? ... I'm not sure I can even to this day tell you why; of course I never read anything.
"I ... told [my mother] ... and she thought that was also comical. She was a reader, and she suddenly wondered at this fantasy of wanting to be a writer for someone who can't read. You know, when you think about it, it is an ambition, isn't it? It's the furthest extreme ... from the ignorance of illiteracy to the proficiency of someone who is apt, good, with words ...
"I come from a family of Russian immigrant Jews who were all big storytellers, who would get together and one would try to top the others' stories, and stories would get bigger and bigger. And the lying aspect, the exaggeration, would get large. And I grew up thinking that this was a picture, an aspect, a landscape of reality, and I would like to do some of that. So it may be that I was already influenced by that."
On finally learning to read, with the help of his mother — and comic books
"I would remember wanting to will myself into being able to read ... I was now in the fifth grade; I'd been held back ... technically twice; kicked out of one school; going to another one. And there was no third school to go to. It was going to be reform school or something bad like that. And my mother's disappointment — I was an only child, and she was living through me with a sense of expectation. And she had had to leave school in the tenth grade and she wanted the world for me. So here I was, as much for her as for myself, wanting to learn to read, and I had no idea how to go about it.
"And there were these words, and there were sounds. And I had no idea, of course, that I had trouble with word retrieval or even hearing what people were saying to me, or not able to recognize sounds of words ... So I remember struggling to look at words — I had no idea what a syllable was, or a phoneme — and try to reproduce the sounds she was saying, and recognize the marks on the page, as words ...
"I eventually just imagined being a little boy who was quote unquote 'normal,' who could learn like all the kids around me that I felt excluded from. And I imagined myself into one of these, and into someone who could read. And it was like a ladder — it was like walking up step by step through imagining I was someone other than myself, someone who wasn't limited in the way I was limited.
"And it worked eventually. I guess the level of frustration had reached its peak and something had to give. And suddenly I was reading these comics. I was looking at those bubbles, those dialogue bubbles, and suddenly there were words ... recognizable words. Very few at first. And her excitement was just great. And I would read another word and read a phrase, and then I was reading. It seemed magical."
On his relationship with words and reading today
"I feel that my relationship with words now is a more comfortable one; that I can... struggle to find the words to articulate ideas ... My relationship, or anxious relationship, is more with trying to understand what I'm trying to say ... or what I'm feeling or what the ideas are. And then I can safely assume that the words will be there now. I think I can give myself that much. I don't know if for many years that was always the case. If I get the idea, and I get some clarity on how I feel about that idea, then I can safely assume I'll find the right words. I do have that confidence. It hasn't always been there."
On how he would advise other adults struggling with dyslexia
"It's very important for you now to try to change, and alter, how you saw yourself then, if you don't naturally have sympathy for what you felt and what you were going through ... It would be awfully important now to create and find that sympathy. Because that can really ... make a large difference. You're not who you were, or who you felt you were or feared you were. And ... I don't think I came to that before I wrote this book — I know I didn't. I don't know if I'm there completely yet, but it has made a difference. I'm more forgiving of myself."
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