aixelsyD (…and that looks fine to me)

March 13, 2018 § 16 Comments

A guest post from Ryder Ziebarth:

In third grade, we practiced our reading aloud in homeroom each afternoon. If we didn’t falter, Mrs. Karrick sent us to Assembly Hall for the last half hour of the day, where a group of better readers gathered with the head of the lower school, Mrs. Drysdale, to practice.

I remember when I was sent to Assembly Hall. I felt so smart, walking down the green linoleum hallway, through the swinging doors of the great Hall reserved for morning meeting, the pledge of allegiance, and school plays. I chose a seat in the semi-circle of gray plastic chairs closest to Mrs. Drysdale.

My turn came to read a passage. I stood with the book splayed open in my hands and stared at the sentences before me. The words were longer than the ones I read with Mrs. Karrick and they contained too many letters. The words in this book looked like a foreign language to me; so many vowels! My eyes looked down at my Buster Browns.

“Begin, please,” said Mrs. Drysdale. The big word danced.

“The genie in the bottle said…ab…ba, aba…ab…ra, ca, cad…cada…”

“Abracadabra,” Mrs. Drysdale said. “Next?”

Back to homeroom I went, scuffing my shoes, promising myself I’d try harder next time. The following week, I read flawlessly for Mrs. Karrick, but in Assembly Hall I stumbled over the word physical for Mrs. Drysdale. Where was the “F” in that word? The commute went on for another week, until finally I wasn’t asked back again. I felt stupid, and relieved. Unfortunately, feeling stupid was the feeling that lasted.

I discovered I had dyslexia—a language-based learning disability characterized by trouble spelling, reading, decoding and pronouncing words— at age forty, when my own daughter was being tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. I picked up a pamphlet on the table in the psychologist’s office, waiting for her appointment to end. Take this test, it read.

Do you have trouble sounding out words?

I just skip over them when I read to myself, never out loud (shades of Assembly Hall).

Difficulty spelling?

I hire freelance editors for everything I write.

Do you have difficulty memorizing?

F is for French…and chemistry.

An inability to spot mistakes when proofreading?

See “hiring freelancers” above.

Trouble knowing left from right?

There’s a difference?

Was it hard for you to learn to tie your shoes as a child?

I was eight.

Telling time?

I was nine.

Teachers told my parents I was smart, but lazy; some said I was stupid and lazy. I loved to read but read slowly, skipping the words I didn’t recognize. I tested terribly. I couldn’t get in to the college of my dreams, but when I finally got to a college, I learned to compensate for my impairment by finding classmates looking for extra cash to either proof and type my papers, or tutor me in math. I always wore a pinkie ring on my right hand.

When I worked in New York, I paid secretaries to correct and type my reports because I couldn’t figure out the word processor in my own office no matter how many tutorials the company sent me to. I simply couldn’t remember the instructions.

My dyslexia hasn’t changed, but I learned to recognize it. I continue to thank the computer Gods for spellcheck and write checks to editors.

Recently, I posted an ad on Facebook for a writer’s workshop I held in my home, and was publicly called out for typos, none of which I saw after what I considered a careful proofread. The commenter said she’d never attend a writer’s workshop when the writer couldn’t spell. I thanked her for locating the mistakes, but my eight-year-old self went slinking back down the hall to Mrs. Karrick’s homeroom, as the Assembly Hall doors slammed shut behind me.

Although I tell myself I graduated college cum laude, plus two graduate-level programs despite my handicap, it’s still hard not to berate myself.

I will always need an editor. A kind soul who won’t make me feel stupid or lazy—just polished after my drafts are proofed. For many years I worried I was the only one—that everyone else had this secret power I lacked. But at the NonfictioNow conference in Iceland this past spring, author and keynote speaker Karl Ove Knausgård revealed he too, has never once in his entire career worked without an editor by his side.

I was in the right room at last.


Ryder S. Ziebarth is the founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series (Creating Memoir From Memoir workshop upcoming June 10). Her work has appeared in N Magazine, The New York Times, Punctuate, The Brevity Blog, Tiferet, Assay, Proximity and Past Ten. She serves as TRUE columnist for Proximity and as a committee member for the Nantucket Book Festival.

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§ 16 Responses to aixelsyD (…and that looks fine to me)

  • ccbarr says:

    This reminds me of my brother. Dyslexia was barely understood when he was in school. Some thought he was stupid and put him in special ed class. He’s not. He just has trouble with reading,like I have with math(I need to see it to understand it. Not on paper.)He can figure out how to fix anything. He can grow anything. Schools are better now about the reading/dyslexia.

  • bethfinke says:

    Thank you for this terrific essay about the resourcefulness of people with disabilities. Hope you know about BARD, a service provided by the National Library of Congress that allows people who are blind or have dyslexia to download tens of thousands of books and magazines in audio formats. I am blind, I lead memoir-writing classes for older adults in Chicago, and this service is a Godsend to me. More Info on signing up here:


  • “I felt stupid, and relieved. Unfortunately, feeling stupid was the feeling that lasted.” The most cruel thing we can do to a child is to underestimate their abilities. My brother was diagnosed as dyslexic very late, and is also very smart. I have had many students with diagnosed dyslexia who found strategies just as you have. And often they have a parent who only named their own life-long struggle when their son or daughter’s was named. (I am also a writer who is a poor speller, but I have no excuse. It is not lack of attention or handicap, but something else and I have worked hard to overcome it as an adult.)

  • I don’t think we knew very much about how the brain learns back in the 50’s, Jan. I’m glad we have found out more about it now. Phonetic reading is now combined with site- reading and is a much more comprehensive way to learn whether you have dyslexia or not.
    I am hoping this post lets other writers know how difficult this handicap can be, and to be a bit more understanding of superficial mistakes.

  • stelloej says:

    Lovely blog:) please check out my channel ☀️

  • Lisa Romeo says:

    Though I know you (and your writing) well, Ryder, this excellent post still helped me understand you even better.

  • Good for you in persevering, succeeding and bravely sharing.

    No doubt some of that is not in spite of your differences but because of them. I find as a detail-oriented person, good at proofreading and spelling, with a natural ear for words, that I can get lost in those details and miss the big picture. Is this largely because by the time I’m done with the details, I’m exhausted and have nothing left for zooming out and following through? I suspect so.

    I wonder if you may have been better at keeping your eye on the end goal, on the horizon, on the meat of what you have to express because of your ABILITY to “gloss over” distracting details. I, too, have had trouble remembering things I don’t write down, following sequential directions, and learning to change money and tell time. But I have insight and a way with words. You have humor and wit, a way with words, insight, and other strengths your peers don’t have.

    Bravo and congratulations. Through your energy and attention to your passions, you’re making things happen. A true role model.

  • Thank you. You almost made me cry.I focus so hard on what I lack, I forget about how far I have come. Thank you.

  • aklotz2014 says:

    Ryder–love this–for every 8 year old who has made to feel less than, at the hands of a teacher who ought to have known better. May I share with my faculty at school? We are having a dyslexia simulation in April for professional development. A gorgeous, heartfelt piece. Hugs and admiration.

  • Thanks, Ann. I wonder in 1963, if they did know about how to recognize and help dyslexics? The same teacher, Mrs. Karrick, told my father he should take my brother, also a terrible speller who had reading issues, “out under a trees, in the fresh air, and read with him very day in the summer months” to help him overcome his difficulty.
    I’d love you to share this piece. It’s the small things–tying shoes, counting change, left from right-teachers and parents should learn to look for in small children–that lead to the larger learning issues in school.I was fascinated to learn of ( and use) many of the various methods Lizzie’s tutor taught her to help her study and retain information, as ADHD can mimic aspects of Dyslexia.Schools have come so far, and I hope they continue to go farther working toward new methodologies. Your message gives me hope you are doing just that.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Read today’s re-blog to gain a bit of understanding about a writer with dyslexia………

  • As a teacher trained in the sixties I knew nothing of dyslexia until I took a course in the nineties and learned how to help people overcome their problems. I still forget and criticise poor spelling when I see it on line but I think those with dyslexia who become writers are to be applauded.We never know what difficulties people have faced before they become writers and I’m so glad that many schools now have strategies to assist dyslexics and have at last stopped treating them as stupid.
    Thanks for your reminder.

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