I was a premature baby being born at 7 months gestation and weighing only 2 pounds. I had a very weak heart and I was not expected to live the day, the week, the year. I was not expected to start school, to graduate etc. I started attending public school when I was 6 years old in 1927. I was very weak and sickly. I caught every childhood disease going around and brought it home to my brothers and sister. In those days, houses were quarantined with large colored signs at the front door. Each disease had its own color. Diphtheria was white sign, smallpox was pink, measles was yellow, and scarlet fever was red and so on. We don’t see some of these diseases or the quarantine signs anymore, but we had frequent neighborhood deaths from these infections. Nobody who was quarantined was allowed to go out into the public. My father, who was the bread winner of course, was restricted from seeing his infected children and he was allowed to work.
I missed half of my first grade classes because of these ‘childhood’ diseases. I was passed on to the second grade with; “Bobby is a bright boy, he will catch up.” I missed half of my second grade due to extreme weakness. I had infected tonsils and I was kept in bed for 3 months, trying to get well enough to withstand the surgery. Remember that this was well before the advent of antibiotics and this procedure was the common practice. I did have my tonsils and adenoids surgically removed and I eventually went back to school. I was passed on again to the third grade where I fell into deep academic trouble.
In the frustration of my teacher, I was really abused. I was called a ‘dunce’. I was made to stand in the corner while the rest of the class progressed through their assignments. I was put under the teacher’s knee-hole desk. (I took my revenge by looking up her skirt.)
All this time, I presumed that the accusations were right and I was just a ‘bad kid’. I never talked to my parents about any of this because I assumed that I ‘deserved’ the treatment.
I was especially poor at arithmetic as I couldn’t understand what the instruction books meant. I took my book to the teacher and asked, “What does it mean, ‘subtrahend’?” She dismissed my question with a wave and said, “It’s in the book.” This particular teaching program was called ‘The Washburn Individual Arithmetic Method’ with each student progressing at their own pace as students carried their current book into subsequent grades.
I was failed twice and set back to repeat 2 grades. By the time I was in the 7th grade, I was 15 years old and very alone. My father changed jobs and we moved to another school district where I didn’t have the stigma of failure. I was, immediately, at the head of my class. This was a refreshing change in my life scholastically and socially. I went on to graduate from high school near the top of my class as a member of The National Honor Society.
I started attending college as an engineering student in 1941. Four months later was the attack on Pearl Harbor. I dropped out of engineering school, (I wasn’t doing well anyway), found a job making bombs at an ordinance plant and paid off all of my bills, then I joined the US Navy where I served for the duration of the war as an enlisted aviation mechanic. As you will read in chapter 9 on boredom, I took a USAFI course in electronics and made the highest score in this subject recorded in the 7th fleet up to that time.
While I was looking ‘cute’ in my sailor suit, I met a lady who became my wife. As of this writing, we have been married for 68 years.
I decided to enter college again as an engineering student. I had trouble right from the start. I struggled with math which is the medium in which engineering is performed. One of my teachers said, “Bob, you are a puzzle to me. You understand the theory better than anyone else in the class, but you can’t do the work.” All this was a mystery to me too, but I kept ‘plugging along’, working all night sometimes to get my lessons finished.
The time came when ‘enough is enough’ and I quit. I had one special classmate who kept in touch with me until he died. He became a top administrator in a big corporation. He told me that long after I left school, the dean of the engineering school told his classes about me, saying that although I didn’t graduate, I was a better engineer than the school had ever graduated.
You can understand why I was determined to follow in this field. I held other jobs, but my ‘first love’ was engineering. One day, my wife told me of a story she read about a research lab founded by a particularly creative person. She suggested that I contact the lab in anticipation of applying for a position.
I applied and I was accepted as an unlettered engineer. I presumed that that being with the ‘big boys’ (scientists, physicists, and lettered engineers), I would get a vicarious education. This was not the situation at all. I soon found that I was the ‘expert’ in virtually any engineering situation that I encountered. As my reputation grew, I also acquired a lot of resentment and jealousy from the ‘professionals’ as I produced simple, effective, and inexpensive solutions to ‘complicated’ problems. The lab director and assistant director ‘hated my guts’ according to their secretary who confided in me on the subject.
The president of the corporation didn’t help much by his constant bragging about my talent and calling me ‘gifted’. He was a very talented inventor, having invented the first electric shaver, the Bendix washing machine, and several other well-known products.
The corporation was contracted to a secret US agency for the production of classified devices. I was right in the middle of it all with a security classification higher that you will ever hear of. I also had a ‘working’ clearance of ‘top secret first army’ so I could have access to classified information.
I was able to produce excellent results on every project I was given, finishing all 50 of them, under budget, well under the time allotted, and exceeding performance requirements.
As an example; I found myself at a conference table with an Army General, other government officials, and our company ‘brass’. I was the only one wearing as white lab coat. The general began the meeting, saying that this particular agency, (which operates on a secret budget and had 2000 professionals ranging from nuclear physicists to rocket scientists and any engineers they wanted), had worked on a particular problem for 2 years without results. He said that it was imperative to find a solution as quickly as possible. He went on to describe two approaches that they had taken, with the comment that we should not waste any resources on them as their potential had been exhausted. The first attempt he described struck me as a reasonable approach if you understood how to apply it.
Two weeks later, I had a working prototype. An agent from the GAO, (The Government Accounting Office), called at my laboratory to evaluate the expenditure of government funds. He asked to see what I was working on. I demonstrated the device mentioned above. He thrust his fists into the side pockets of his brown suit and stared into our parking lot through the security bars in the windows. His face was distorted as I asked him, “Pardon me, but are you ill?” He spun on his heels, looked me square in the face, and hissed; “I am sick and tired of people like you!”
I said, “Are you suggesting that I gave a phony demonstration?” He said, “Of course. Nobody can make a machine that can do what you just did.” I asked him if I took the machine apart and proved that it was all as represented, would he be satisfied that the demonstration was legitimate?” He said “Yes.” I took the device apart to his satisfaction.
I submitted a report with the delivery of the device stating that I conservatively estimated that the device would be effective at least 80% of the time. This kind of secret work operates on ‘the need to know’. I was never officially informed if the device was ever used or if the results were satisfactory. I heard ‘through the grapevine’ that it was 100% successful, even against the Russians and the Chinese
One of our vice presidents, who happened to be the one who hired me, was in West Berlin during the ‘cold war’ and was in the office of the head of security when the agent opened a desk drawer and pulled out a device about the size and shape of a cake of soap and said, “You won’t believe what this thing does!” The vice president replied, “I know exactly what it does and I know the man who invented it.”
I can’t tell you anything about its function, but I can tell you that it was an extremely simple device consisting of a housing of 2 parts held together with 2 screws, a spring, a latch lever and a rotating element. Anyone who is familiar with this device will recognize it by this description.
I addition, I helped other engineers to solve the enigmas presented in their projects 50 times. The numbers may seem to be approximate but they are an actual count.
After 13 years of intense pressure to meet sometimes unreasonable deadlines which resulted in bleeding ulcers and other distresses, I went to work for another research lab. From there I worked in two more research and product development labs and retired to operate my own electronic service business. After 35 years, I closed that business in 2006. I have been retired from gainful employment since then.
It has been in recent years that I have been able to identify and understand what is my basic problem. I am a dyslexic genius. (You may ‘Google’ this term.) I was in this condition long before dyslexia was a word. Don’t let the word ‘genius’ disturb you. It does not imply ‘special’ except in the particular way as it applies to the condition.
It is true that a ‘dyslexic genius will have a high IQ, but my experience shows that IQ test results measured against ‘normal’ people produces erratic results with very high scores in some test fields and abysmally low scores in others. This is like a person who can recognize only yellow and green, but can distinguish 1000 shades of each color. Their abilities are very unbalanced. In other words, an IQ test could be rigged to offer only areas of challenge where the subject is very poor and the test would imply that the person was an idiot. The converse is also true as a complimentary test could be rigged so the subject would produce an extremely high score. I know that this is true of me.
One of the characteristics of a dyslexic genius is that they are not able to rationalize by using the same intellectual processes that other people do. Whereas most people are ‘linear’ thinkers who can follow step by step as in a recipe, a dyslexic genius may not be able to see the process at all unless they are able to see the complete picture all at once. This is the way that it is with me. I find it very difficult to intellectually process a series of steps to an end. However, I often see the whole process all at once. I have built machinery all in my mind, operate it, seen the weaknesses in its design and correct them, all before a blueprint is drawn or any metal is cut. Every machine that I built worked perfectly.
This quality made my supervisors very anxious as they tried to do their job by telling me what to do, when they didn’t understand what I was doing. Many times, when I submitted blue prints to an in-house machine shop I would hear: “We don’t know how to make that.” I would ask if there was a mill and a lathe open and I would make it myself. This was embarrassing in one place because the general manager said that I was a better machinist than those in the company shop.
I have never had any metal shop training but I taught myself what I needed to know.
During all of this time, I didn’t know who I was. I struggled against company politics so I finally decided to operate my own business.
Now I will get to the title of this chapter: How is it that a person can survive dyslexia? Obviously, it must first be recognized. Dyslexics must not be required to learn by the same process that most people understand. Uniform classroom teaching will not ‘reach’ a dyslexic. They are not ‘standard’ and they can’t be ‘standardized’. They must not be criticized or branded as I was. If you want to teach a dyslexic you must ‘speak their language’, which is a very illogical process for ‘normal’ people to understand and accept. Yet, some of the greatest intellectual achievements have been made by dyslexics in spite of and because of their condition.
A basic social flaw in all of this is that other people don’t understand the limitations of a dyslexic mind. For instance, the instructor can’t say; “Just follow the instructions, step by step, and you will be fine.” My problem with this solution is that I can’t hold it in my mind. I get confused and frustrated. I must break the plan into separate elements and accomplish each step as a separate project. Then I can connect two or three steps and go on from there.
When I entered college for the second time, I was given a Bernreuter personality inventory test and found that my ability to follow instructions was in the second percentile. That is awful! This means that 98% of all the people who had taken this test were better at following instructions than I was. How is it that such a person can succeed at anything that involves instruction? Even today, I must be very careful to break some kinds of instructions such as travel directions into ‘baby steps’ and follow each part as a separate project. Otherwise, I wander in confusion.
As you can understand by my story, the contributions of dyslexics can be extremely valuable, but dyslexics must be managed according who they are and not as ‘ordinary’ people can be managed.
If you believe that you are dyslexic, the first step would be to confirm your diagnosis. The processing of conventional schooling may not work for you. If you suffer the misunderstanding that I did, take heart and seek out another venue to acquire saleable skills. Maybe you could apprentice yourself to someone who would help you to learn a trade. If you are a dyslexic genius, you have a big challenge on your hands. Ideally, a dyslexic genius would be put in a position to use his talents to the maximum with other people doing the things that support the work that the dyslexic can’t do.
Assume that you will be misunderstood and do not take affront by the misunderstandings that you experience. People really don’t know any better than to make erroneous – but very logical to them - assumptions
If you are a parent of a dyslexic child, there is no way that you can communicate with them except in their language and on the built-in terms that they are able to manage. The world of a dyslexic genius is very strange to ‘regular’ people as they are surprised and dismayed to learn how exceptional the attributes of a dyslexic genius are. This reminds us of a stereotypical ‘absent minded professor’ doesn’t it?
I don’t know what percentage of our population is dyslexic genius, but, (I hope that you are not thinking that I am praising myself) a dyslexic genius is a rare and wonderful contributor to our society. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison were dyslexic geniuses as were many others who have made great contributions to our society. They should be identified, encouraged, and supported to the maximum, and certainly not be abused and left to flounder in their special world. Above all, don’t try to understand them in terms of ‘normal’ people. Not of their own choosing, they are a breed apart.
Please do not fall into the popular trap of ‘academia’ and believe that a person’s value is determined by how many initials are after his name. I have only a high school diploma, yet I was and am, in some cases, able to know and understand more than a person with a doctorate.
Case in point; I was working on a government project and our client offered a publication that was designed to keep researchers apprised of new scientific studies. The study in question related to the work I was doing so they sent the paper to me for my information. This particular study focused on evaluating the application of high energy plasma as a cutting tool for certain ceramic applications. I called Cornell University and spoke with a certain doctor who shipped some heavy equipment to me to test. I set it up and operated it for 3 days before the doctor arrived to consult with me on the process. After our meeting, the doctor spoke with our lab director. He asked the director;
“How do I talk to Mr. Davis?
The director said; “He is very easy to talk to. Just talk to him normally;
The Doctor said; “I mean, do I call him Doctor Davis?”
The lab director said: “Are you ready for this? He has a high school diploma!”
The Doctor responded, “This can’t be true! He was explaining to me things that we are just beginning to find out after 2 years of research!”
(Please remember that the first ever diploma was presented by a person who didn’t have one.)
While I was in college I knew many students who were a ‘quick study’. They could cram and pass a test but they didn’t remember for long afterwards. A year later they would call me and ask: “How did we handle this problem in our class last year?” I remembered.
Recent studies indicate that the proverbial ‘poor reader’ aspect of dyslexic people has nothing to do with properly seeing the letters in a word in the right order. MRI imaging of brain shows that the real problem is in the word speaking center which is located above the right ear. We recognize words when our brain inaudibly speaks them to our understanding. Dyslexic people do not show activity in this area of the brain. This is considered to be a permanent anomaly that can’t be corrected, but certain exercises are able to improve the condition in many people.
It is believed that as many as 60 million Americans are dyslexic.
It is likely that, since I am in my 90s, my engineering and inventing days are over, although I consider myself to be as proficient as I ever was. I have absolutely no complaints. My health is very good for my age, I still have my wife, and I lack nothing important. I have lived a very exciting and fulfilling life and I am satisfied. You can’t do better than that, can you?
Some famous people who had dyslexic disorders are, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, Whoopee Goldberg, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Henry Ford, Woodrow Wilson, Ted Turner, and a host of other people who have made great contributions to our society.
It is estimated that 20% of our society is dyslexic. It is obvious that we, as a society, must understand and make the necessary corrections in our system to recognize and develop these people who are endowed to make great contributions for the benefit of all. I hope that I am not implying that these people are ‘special’ but parallel and equal. As a class, they have inadequate academic and social consideration.
I am greatly saddened to think of children who are discouraged as they think they are worthless when they are the ‘ugly duckling’ who, in reality are a swan, as in Anderson’s fairy tale.
Am I sad that I am dyslexic? I spent most of my adult years in frustration and confusion as I was branded both as an idiot and a genius. My greatest disappointment is my inability to earn an adequate income to support my family. My wife had to do double duty by working at a job when the children were old enough to take care of themselves. I have understood my dyslexia only in the past 5 years or so. Before that, I didn’t ‘know who I was’ as I struggled in the confusion of being both ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’.
My dyslexia has led me to meet some very interesting people. I have entered into some privileged places and I have done some very interesting ‘secret’ things that you will never know about.