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Between the lines

"For reasons I'll never fully understand or perhaps don't want to, I dislike the peculiar, obstinate, slightly out-of-control way my mind behaves when I'm reading." Philip Schultz, My Dyslexia

When the poet Philip Schultz describes the difficulties of dyslexia, I appreciate the struggles of some of my developmental students.

He says: "I often read a sentence two or three times before I understand it; must restructure its syntax and sound out its syllables before I can begin to absorb its meaning and move on to the next sentence."

Developmental students have failed system-wide placement exams; they won't be able to progress until they have retaken and passed them.

Jamal is often willing to talk about the subjects raised by our readings. Some of his classmates have difficulty speaking, so he perhaps receives more attention than he should from both me and them.

"That happens all the time," he says. "You're explaining one thing and then you've got to recalibrate it so people don't get mad."

"That's interesting. But this character is complaining about a particular kind of relationship, right? Let's look at page 89."

Jamal shakes his head.

"You have the book?"

"Yeah." He nods at his backpack.

"You can get it out."

He shakes his head.

"Please get it out. You can read to us from page 89, just half a page."

"No."

"OK. Somebody else will volunteer to read. Yessica?"

Jamal has leaned back in his chair, arms folded. As Yessica reads, I interrupt her: "Were you remembering this part, Jamal?"

He shakes his head. "No. To be honest with you, I wasn't even paying attention."

"You should read along."

He looks away.

At the end of class, I hand the students their marked essays and remind them about the due date for revisions. Jamal waits until the others have cleared out.

"What do I need to do?" he asks.

"You've read my comments?"

"No. Just tell me."

"You didn't read my comments?"

"Please, professor, just tell me."

"Do you want to look at the comments together?" I extend my hand, asking for his paper.

"I'll remember if you tell me."

"There were a lot of things with the grammar and punctuation, Jamal. I can't remember exactly what I wrote to you. So let's look at it."

"Grammar, punctuation, you said. What else?"

"Focus. You start and then change the subject. It's as if you're not reading what you've written."

I suddenly realise what is going on. It's not "as if". Jamal's not reading what he's written.

Schultz writes: "When I make the mistake of becoming aware that I am reading, and behaving in a way that enables this mysterious, electrically charged process to take place, my mind balks and goes blank. I become anxious and stop."

Writing for Jamal is difficult but reading is torture.

"Dyslexia?"

He nods.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in New York City

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