This post was first published January 14, 2016.
As admissions director at a school for dyslexic students, I open my interviews by asking prospective parents to describe their children. I always expect to hear heartfelt stories about struggles, frustration, lack of self-esteem. What I have begun to really listen to, however, are the descriptors parents use when they talk about their children’s personalities and make-up. These words and phrases are truly telling about the kind of people their children are growing to be.
The number one characteristic that parents use to describe their children is empathetic. They say things like, “He’s always the one to look out for other children who aren’t included,” or “She is a friend to everyone.” So often I hear parents say that their dyslexic child is “an old soul” or “wise beyond his years.”
This certainly holds true in our classrooms. Here at our school, we ask children to do the very things that are the hardest for them, all day long. They struggle to read, spell, and write. The days are long and the work arduous. What I was most surprised by as a classroom teacher, however, was the abundance of care and support that our students show for each other.
Before coming to us, our students were often forced to read aloud in front of others. Pretty terrifying task if you can’t read. There you are in front of all your peers, running the almost certain risk of humiliation. Our children have learned school can be a very difficult place, full of pitfalls each and every day.
When I taught my reading groups, I was stunned to see that the most dysfluent readers were the first ones to volunteer to read. Every time. Even more surprising was the fact that their fellow students sat patiently while the “poorest” readers struggled through each passage. If you’ve never listened to a struggling reader read aloud, you won’t know how very easily the meaning of a passage is lost. Most of our children love to hear stories, but their patience while listening to their peers is very impressive, and the empathy they show is heart-warming.
Is empathy inherent in the psychological make-up of dyslexics? I couldn’t say . . . I doubt it. It is more likely that this empathy is a learned response to the world that has handed these children a dose of humility. Dyslexics learn from a very early age that they struggle mightily with something that most people find simple. Could this be the root of their strong empathy for their fellow humans? Sounds possible to me. Pretty great people, wouldn’t you say? The world is lucky to have them.