Turning Shame into Superpower: Dyslexia at Oxford

Racers line up on your left and your right. A gunshot fires, signaling the start of the race. Runners take off on either side of you, sprinting ahead, but your feet are stuck at the starting line. Living with dyslexia is like starting a race a few minutes after everyone else. It has taken me years to adjust to my dyslexia, but I’ve finally recognized, adapted to, and accepted this part of myself. Over time, I’ve turned my once shameful secret into a superpower.
By the third grade, I was still reading at a first grade level. My teachers had tried their best to help me; I was put in extra reading classes and my weekly spelling words were cut in half. All of my report cards said the exact same thing: “Jessica is very sweet and well behaved, but useless when it comes to school work.” I would sit with my head hung in shame as my teachers discussed my fate with my mom. If something didn’t change, they feared that I would be held back and have to repeat a grade.
This was the first time the word dyslexia entered my life.
To be honest, it was a heavy word that weighed me down. It made the idea of catching up with my classmates feel impossible. I felt completely stuck, but dropping out of the race wasn’t an option.
I took years to develop the skills to cope with this new part of my life, but I can’t forget the people who made it possible. Mrs. Lackey, my fourth grade teacher, was determined to help me and created an afterschool reading program for struggling students. She dedicated a lot of time and money to teaching us skills that I still use today. Once my Nan, a former primary school teacher, found out that her oldest granddaughter was falling behind, she also jumped into action. Every summer she would homeschool me at our kitchen table. Thanks to these two women, I found a love for learning that I didn’t know existed. Much to their delight, I began to read every book I could get my hands on. I became so passionate about books that I made it my life’s goal to become a published author. Their persistence helped me jump an entire reading level above my classmates, but shame still kept my feet shackled to the ground. When I entered Middle School, (the American equivalent to Secondary School) I had decided I would not tell anyone about my dyslexia. I wanted to show that I was just as smart as the other kids, and I thought by admitting I had a learning disability it would single me out. In the end, this only led to more struggling.

She won’t see her learning disability as something to be ashamed of, but as a superpower.

I had been so busy catching up with reading skills that I never learned basic grammar rules. I didn’t know the difference between verbs or adjectives. I didn’t know anything about dependent vs. independent clauses or where to put commas in a sentence. I was too embarrassed to ask for help, so I lived by a new mantra: fake it till you make it.
Turns out, I was very good at faking. Despite feeling miles behind everyone else, I was able to graduate highschool and get into university. My family was ecstatic to see their little girl who had struggled so much in school going to college. That being said, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I still grappled with my dyslexia every day.

shame… kept my feet shackled to the ground.

In university, I kept the mindset that I couldn’t tell any of the professors about my learning disability. I was ashamed and feared that my professor would judge me for having dyslexia, so I continued to struggle in silence. Assignments that took my classmates an hour to finish would take me days. I stayed up all night trying to write essays on books that I couldn’t fully comprehend. However, thanks to Mrs. Lackey and my Nan, I was able to use the tricks they taught me to scrape by. My sleepless nights paid off, and at the end of each school year, I was recognized for academic excellence. Then came my junior year of university. My professor informed me that I needed to spend a semester studying abroad.I applied to a few schools across Europe, but focused mainly in the U.K. When I decided to apply to Oxford, family and friends warned me not to get my hopes up. I felt a small part of me deflate. I knew they were right and only wanted to soften the blow once I inevitably got rejected. Yet all I could think about was my third grade self. I could see her small head hung low and shoulders hunched over, as my teacher explained how dyslexia would affect me for the rest of my life. My finger hovered over the enter key, wondering if I should even bother turning in the application.
When the acceptance email arrived, I didn’t scream or jump up and down. I barely breathed as I stared at the words declaring I had a spot at the University of Oxford. I shut my computer down and rebooted it, thinking that there must be a mistake. I didn’t tell anyone for a while but when I did, they were the ones who screamed. They jumped up and down, laughed until they were breathless, and couldn’t believe it was real. I spent that summer dreaming about my soon-to-be life in Oxford. Perhaps it was those dreams that gave me the strength to stop running away from my shameful secret. I was going to Oxford, one of the best schools in the entire world. I was going to be taught by people in the top of their field and expected to produce the same level of work as any other student. I was finally ready to admit that I couldn’t do it by myself anymore.

Living with dyslexia is like starting a race a few minutes after everyone else.

Once I accepted and embraced my dyslexia, life became a lot easier. I slowly began teaching myself the grammar rules I had been guessing at for so long. I asked the people around me for help and opened up how much I struggled in school. I learned that I wasn’t alone and many people have learning disabilities. I won’t lie and say that adjusting to Oxford has been easy. Even now I still have bad days and begin to feel like I’m falling behind again. However, a few things have helped me during my time here. Whenever possible, I listen to the audiobook version of assigned readings and take all my notes by hand. I spent my days studying in Oxford’s many libraries where I’m more likely to stay focused. If I don’t understand something, I write it down and ask my professors for help at our next tutorial. My college is equipped with people who are trained to help people like me, and has judgment-free spaces that I can go to for support.
Living with dyslexia isn’t easy and it can feel very isolating. Something I wish I would’ve realized sooner is that education isn’t a race and I don’t need to keep up with everyone else. Assignments still take me hours to finish, but in that time I take in so much more information. It makes the process of writing essays easier and contributes greatly to the quality of my work. I realize that my brain works differently than others, but it gives me a unique perspective that my neurotypical classmates might not think of. I still want to be an author and use my platform to write about the struggles I’ve faced. Hopefully the next time a little girl hears the word dyslexia, it won’t be so heavy on her small shoulders. She won’t see her learning disability as something to be ashamed of, but as a superpower.

Image credit: Sami Jalil