If you had asked me when I was a first grader: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would have answered: “Smart like everyone else.”
All I knew was that I didn’t want to be “the different one” anymore. Deep down I knew I was smart. But no matter how hard I tried, no one else seemed to be able to see it.
I’m 25 now, and I guess you could call me a “successful” dyslexic in the traditional sense. I’ve made my way through high school, college and graduate school—with honors and distinctions the whole way through. I also have a good job and career.
By far the most common question I’m asked is, How did you succeed?
But the better question to ask me would be, How did you define “success”?
For me, it started with family. From an early age, my parents always emphasized our relationship and my emotional well-being. They made sure I took care of my “emotional homework” before I even thought about schoolwork.
Here’s what I mean.
As with many kids with dyslexia, school was incredibly hard on me. When I was in middle school, my mom would pick me up from school. I’d jump in the car, wait until we got around the block, and burst into tears.
In moments like those, my mom wouldn’t try to soothe me or tell me to “just try harder.” She just carved out time for us to talk.
She dropped the idea of getting me home to get started on the hours of homework I surely had. Instead, she took me to a quiet place where we could chat.
For us, this was a small, usually empty crêpe restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco. We’d order Nutella crêpes. I’d vent and share how I felt. She’d listen and validate my feelings. Then, once I’d calmed down, we would discuss how together we could make school better.
I would walk away from those chats feeling like we had a game plan. I felt more emotionally prepared to start my homework that night, as well as school the next day.
During these talks, my mom must have been concerned about the hours of homework time I was missing and about my academics in general. But if she was worried, she never showed it. She knew how to power off the mom helicopter mode and be my friend and confidante when I needed one.
This is how I learned that “success” wasn’t about letters on a transcript. In my family, we measured my success by how I felt at the end of each day and if I did my best to learn from it.
Yes, grades were important. But my mom knew that good grades would never happen if every day ended in tears.
Did that mean that once I felt better, I automatically did better in school? No. But my parents’ emotional support encouraged me to be motivated academically.
Since I never felt pressured to get perfect grades, I developed my desire to learn on my own terms. And thanks to Nutella and our crêpe breaks, I had the emotional maturity to get though all those years of school.
So yes, I have found “success.” Really, though, I found help through my family first. And I still measure each day by how I feel at the end of it.
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About the author
Natalie Tamburello, MPhil is the program manager for the product team at Understood.