When our 2018 winter contest judge Kelli Agodon awarded 3rd Place to Morgan Baker’s personal essay “Talk Much?” she commented:
As someone who loves finding words inside of words and who has struggled with dyslexia, I thought “Talk Much?” was an intriguing look at what the world (or the words) look like through dyslexia. The author’s joy in her own misreading and mistakes made this an engaging read where I found myself looking forward to what she would share. This essay worked as a smart reminder how dyslexia has nothing to do with intellect, but also an authentic account of how uncomfortable it can feel to mispronounce words. The author’s thoughtfulness in how she practices students’ names to names to get them correct was both endearing and inspiring to me.
It takes courage to write about one’s disability. The result, however, is an invitation to readers to experience the world differently and to understand that experience. Such writing also encourages its readers to tell their own experiences of feeling different and grappling with what has been unsayable to a wider audience. One’s story begets other’s stories and together we build a more compassionate world. Humor helps, too, and Morgan has used it well to let us see the difficulties and the triumphs of coming to terms with dyslexia.
When I asked Morgan about how she came to write her essay she responded:
I never thought about writing about my speech issues or my inability to tell right from left, partly because I am embarrassed by it. But the day I couldn’t figure out what HA MILTON said on the back of the SUV, I suddenly knew I had a story. It was easier to write than some because it was just about me, and I knew the material so well, but like with all my work, I did do some editing, including tightening the lead, revisiting the ending, and adding in some facts about dyslexia.
by Morgan Baker
As I turned from South Charles Street between The Boston Common and The Public Garden, I pulled up behind a black SUV with a college sticker on the back window. HA MILTON it said. HA Milton, I thought. Hmmm, I knew Milton Academy. What, I wondered was HA Milton? Come on, I thought. You can do this. I looked again and realized oh, HAMILTON. I knew that school. I knew kids, now young adults, who went there.
Misreading words is nothing new to me. It happens more frequently than I tell anyone, including my family. I’m so used to it, most of the time I don’t let it bother me. I throw letters in where they don’t belong, reading Betsy when it says BSY. I take letters out when they do belong, reading GRIT Mill instead of Grist Mill.
It’s hard enough reading road signs and car stickers to myself, but if I have to read something out loud that I’ve miscued, it can be a bit embarrassing, like the time I sat on my grandmother’s couch on Martha’s Vineyard reading the TV Guide and asked my friends “What’s a min isires?” “A Miniseries?” One responded. “Oh,” I said. Or the time, my husband and I went to our daughters’ school and I read a sign above the 2nd grade classroom and asked “What’s adrem?” It was Black History month and a sign over one door read “I HAVE” and over the other “A DREAM.”
I don’t remember much of my inability to articulate when I was little, but I’ve been told I would jump up and down behind chairs and sofas in frustration because no one could understand me. I basically spoke backwards. Ocolate for chocolate, was for saw, and olej for jello are the ones my father and I do remember.
Being born into an intellectual family didn’t help matters. Not only were my parents well educated at Smith and Princeton and then Yale, but my grandfather was the president of a university. We were all supposed to be smart.
Admissions officers at the schools in New York where my parents wanted to send me thought I should learn to speak before entering first grade. Probably not a bad idea, so off I went to something like speech therapy mixed with psychology with a woman I remember being very nice. I don’t know how much they knew about learning disabilities in the ‘60s, but at least I got enough help that I could enter elementary school. I have since learned that 1 in as many as 5 or 10 people have Dyslexia.
Dyslexia can affect how you read, transposing letters and reading slowly, but it can also affect how you speak, and your vocabulary.
I played house and dolls, while my mother sat reading magazines in the waiting room. After my session, my mother would go in and talk about I don’t know what to the doctor lady. Then it was my turn to sit in the waiting room.
When I was ready, I took the school tests. I remember some of the admissions tests, like putting square blocks in square holes and I did get into school where I lasted until the middle of 4th grade when my parents separated and my mother took my brother (two years younger) and baby sister and me first to London to live for the rest of the year and then to Cambridge MA, where we hunkered down for the rest of our growing up.
I managed to hide my reading and speaking difficulties as best I could. I definitely was made fun of along the way mostly by my family when I couldn’t say a word. Dyslexics often feel shame at not being able to read and learn the way others do, and are often labeled as not smart, when in fact, some of the greatest artists and entrepreneurs have Dyslexia.
Not only did I stumble through my verbal speech, but I couldn’t hide how I confused my lefts and rights. Just thinking about them, I mistake them still. If I give directions to someone, I point them the way to go, or if I’m riding shotgun and am the navigator in the car, I tap on the window if I want the driver to go right and I point if I want the driver to go left. I know if I say one or the other, it will be wrong and we will drive in circles.
When my father brought my younger brother to Boston to look at colleges years and years ago, they came to Back Bay, Emerson’s former location, to visit where I was teaching. They stood on the corner of Berkeley and Newbury Streets by the Magic Pan, which is long gone.
I wanted them to head to the Public Garden. “Turn Right,” I called to them as I trailed behind. They did as I directed.
They looked at each other and turned some more.
“No. Turn Right,” I yelled, getting more frustrated.
Finally, my father stopped turning in circles and looked at me. “Do you mean left?”
They thought it was hysterical. I was mortified.
Just as I learned to work around telling strangers and friends how to drive and walk in certain directions, I figured out ways to offset not knowing how to pronounce multi-syllabic words. It was easy. I just didn’t say them, which also meant I didn’t learn what they meant. My vocabulary was somewhat stunted.
While my younger brother soared ahead in school, I didn’t. I didn’t bomb, but I didn’t ace high school or college. Despite having a limited vocabulary, I did fine on the SAT’s, and ended up at in what is now considered a “competitive” college where I chose classes that asked for papers over exams because I had more control over what I did, and I liked to write. I also stayed away from the groups of friends who sat together in the college coffee shop reading the New York Times or doing the crossword puzzle. I knew my weakness would be discovered if I was asked to supply a synonym for a crossword word. I didn’t want to be labeled dumb. I was doing that to myself already. Even when I visit my father and his significant other now, who do the crossword every day, I get vertigo. So many people assume that because I’m a writer, I must be super good with vocabulary and words. They’d be wrong. I stink at Boggle and I’m not so great at Scrabble either. I always lose when I play, yet, I keep playing.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school – for writing – that I started to learn how to say longer words and learn their meaning. This didn’t happen in the classroom, however, but on the third floor of a group house in the South End of Boston, with my housemate Heidi. She was very patient, perhaps because her mother specialized in learning disabilities, and when she figured out my shortcomings, she didn’t judge, she’d repeat words for me to say and tell me what they meant. The first word I learned from her was “vacillate”. Initially, I was scared to use it. I vacillated over using it because I was afraid I’d use it incorrectly or mispronounce it, or worse look pretentious, but eventually it became part of my vocabulary, and I was like a little girl with new party shoes. I was so proud.
When I married Matt, a journalist who loved words, I’m not sure he knew how difficult it was for me to spell, to identify words on signs, or to speak. But he is so generous with explaining words to me, laughing with me when I say things that don’t make sense, like talking about the “computer person” in Star Wars aka R2D2, and sharing the news from the newspaper. He also doesn’t judge and actually thinks I’m smart. It’s still hard to agree on that, but it doesn’t make me a bad writer. My vocabulary has improved and there’s this thing called a thesaurus.
When I started teaching in the college classroom three decades ago, I was careful about using only language I could handle. I just wrote words on the board I knew how to spell, say and understand. I was young and the students weren’t much younger. I wanted to look and sound mature to command respect.
Now, approaching 60, I don’t need that look anymore, but I still worry about mispronouncing and misspelling words – do you know how hard it is to look up the spelling of a word when you haven’t a clue how to start it – but now I just ask my students to help. I make a joke out of it and it becomes a class project.
The most embarrassing aspect of my disability is when I mispronounce an unfamiliar name of a student in my classroom. That is truly horrifying. I don’t care if I look silly when I mispronounce a multisyllabic word, but I don’t want to be disrespectful by messing up a student’s name. So I go home and practice. Thanks to my home team of daughters and husband, for training me, I’m not afraid anymore. I write names out phonetically, and in the classroom I check with the students to make sure my speech impediment hasn’t tripped me up. Once I explain to students, they are kind and repeat their names for me so I can repeat them back.
In the car, I say aloud “Oh my God, Hamilton”, and laugh at myself. I can’t wait until I tell Matt the latest. I know he’ll get a kick out of it, and be proud I figured it out on my own.
I want to thank Morgan for this peek inside part of her world. I hope readers will leave her a comment below.