Unexpected Gifts

Unexpected Gifts
Josh Clark, Head of School

This post was first published May 4, 2016.


Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four years old. At the age of five, he became ill and was bedridden for weeks. As a gift, Einstein’s father gave him a small, silver compass. He imagined the young boy charting the seven seas, his bed morphing into a pirate’s ship with Albert its captain. Instead, though, its mechanics fascinated Albert. Why, no matter which way he pointed the compass, did the arrow always point the same direction?

The gift sparked Einstein’s fascination with gravitational pull and not cannon balls or hooked-handed adversaries. For his father, it was quite unexpected.

School was a constant struggle for Richard Branson. At the age of 13, Richard’s parents withdrew him from the Scaitcliffe School in Surrey before he failed out. He transferred to Stowe School, a boarding school in Stowe, Buckinghamshire, England. Again facing academic peril, Branson dropped out at 16. On his last day, his headmaster, Robert Drayson, told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire, with an emphasis on the former.

Today, Virgin Group holds over 200 companies in 30 countries, and Branson is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time. To his schoolmates, his success was quite unexpected.

In my own life, I have come to cherish the unexpected. When I was in 6th grade, I failed Language Arts – we called it English at the time. My spelling was atrocious. When I began my career as a sixth grade Language Arts teacher, no one was more surprised than my 11-year-old self. Now, as the headmaster of a school for children with dyslexia, I’ve learned to love the unexpected.

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as

a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Whenever I present on dyslexia, I always begin with this definition and zoom in on the word “unexpected.” To me, it is the most important term in the 78-word definition. Children with dyslexia are bright, creative, agile thinkers. They can build cities in their minds, synthesize divergent concepts, and solve complex problems. We are so impressed by their aptitude that we are surprised by their struggles with sounds and symbols. It is so unexpected.

As parents, we all build road maps for our children, and rarely do they include struggles in school. However, as Einstein, Branson, and countless other notable dyslexics show us, there is power in the unexpected.