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Poetry, dyslexia, and Philip Schultz
Former Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Schultz talks poetry, dyslexia, and 1950’s education with the NY Times:
Repeating third grade at a new school, after having been asked to leave my old one for hitting kids who made fun of my perceived stupidity, I was placed in the “dummy class.” There were three of us, separated from our classmates at a table in the corner of the room. One day, the teacher, who seldom spoke to us since it was understood that most of what she taught was beyond the reach of our intelligence, placed books in our hands and whispered that we should sit there quietly “pretending to read.” The principal was coming.
It was not the most outlandish thing she might’ve said, given how little was known about learning disabilities in the early 1950s, and how little training a teacher in the poorest section of Rochester would have received. And her request seemed reasonable to me. I couldn’t tie my shoes, tell time or left from right, or recreate musical notes or words. I not only couldn’t read but often couldn’t hear or understand what was being said to me — by the time I’d processed the beginning of a sentence, the teacher was well on her way through a second or third. When I did have something to say I couldn’t find the words with which to say it, or if I could, forgot how to pronounce them.
I realized that if I was ever going to learn to read I would have to teach myself. The moon glowing outside my window, I remember, seemed especially interested in my predicament, perhaps attempting its own kind of encouragement. Was it a dummy, too? I wondered. If only I could be another boy, a boy my age who could sound out words and read and write like every other kid I knew.
I didn’t know then that I was beginning a lifelong love affair with the first-person voice and that I would spend most of my life inventing characters to say all the things I wanted to say. I didn’t know that I was to become a poet, that in many ways the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music, that the same mind that prevented me from reading had invented a new way of reading, a method that I now use to teach others how to overcome their own difficulties in order to write fiction and poetry. (It’s perhaps not surprising that many famous writers are said to have struggled with dyslexia, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. B. Yeats.)