Opinion Columns & Blogs

DR. CUMMINGS: Pete’s no dummy

Pete was in third grade and he couldn’t read. It hurt when other kids called him “dummy” and shoved him down on the playground. It wasn’t much better in the classroom. Miss Schmitt was a charming teacher, but she just couldn’t handle Pete’s jumpy-ness; he couldn’t sit still at all. He tapped his pencil, danced his feet up and down under his chair and then just got up and walked around the classroom. He was so disruptive that Miss Schmitt urged his parents to put him on Adderall to calm him down.

One day, Miss Schmitt had the whole class reading a book called “Outer Space.” From far out in space, the book said, the Earth looks like a blue ball because there’s much more water than dirt down there. Pete was fascinated by the story but he couldn’t keep up with the rest of his classmates. They were reading too fast. When it came his turn and he stumbled over the words, Miss Schmitt got frustrated and said: “Pete, you’re just not trying!”

That’s when Pete’s mother took over. She was dyslexic, too, and so were all her children. Pete got this naturally. Pete inherited both dyslexia (difficulty in reading) and ADD (attention deficit disorder). Not only were the words on the page jumping from side to side, but so was he. His mother knew it was not a matter of “not trying.” Pete was trying harder than any other kid in the classroom, but he simply didn’t learn the same way they did. They learned by reading. Pete learned by listening.

In a very real sense, Pete was blind. Pete’s mother knew that many blind people were brilliant and could learn everything they needed to know by listening, and she knew Pete wanted to learn. Like a blind boy, he had severe problems with the printed text. But so did Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. So his mother bought him a tape recorder and recorded all his schoolbooks so he could listen and run at the same time.

Pete went all through school with his mother’s help and graduated from the University of Georgia to become a very successful businessman. Today he “reads” more audio books in a month than most sighted people read in a year.

But there’s more to this story. You can learn to cope with dyslexia by listening to tapes. You can learn to cope with ADD by taking medicine. But how do you learn to cope when everybody calls you dumb? How do you overcome that feeling of uselessness and fatigue when people see you misread simple signposts and fail easy entrance tests? How do you live in a world of sighted people when you’re blind but don’t look blind to them?

Every year over 2,000 Georgia law school graduates sit for the grueling, two-day written Bar Exam. The Georgia State Bar provides special rooms and extended times and accommodations for students who can prove they need these exceptions. But how do you think their sighted friends feel who fail the exam without this special treatment? How do you think they refer to their dyslexic classmates who passed?

I think Pete has learned three lessons:

1. There is nothing he can do about the rejections he receives from sighted people who feel superior to him. Pete knows they don’t understand.

2. There is no limit to what he can learn. Pete is an insatiable learner, and he knows that learning can come from listening as well as from reading, and he listens well.

3. There is no cure for dyslexia or ADD. Pete will never be able to read printed material like most of the men around him, and he’ll never be able -- without medication -- to sit still for hours at a time. Pete accepts this just the way an incurably blind man accepts his blindness.

There are over 30 million “Petes” in the U.S., probably one near you right now. You may not understand why he acts the way he does and why he never reads this paper, or anything else for that matter. But you should know one thing for sure: Pete’s no dummy.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.