As a US Army Special Forces Soldier (Green Beret), I enjoyed an active career operating in 53 countries. I have parachuted from planes, helicopters, and balloons, traversed angry seas, rappelled from mountains, and moved to the sound of gunfire with brother Green Berets. And along the way I learned to cope with my constant companion: dyslexia.

Grade School and Diagnosis:

The wheels came off in first grade: a learning disability (LD), dyslexia vexed by Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD.) Outpaced by classmates, I trundled along with “idiot” stamped on my forehead, fettered to an academic legacy of failure and humiliation. After repeating 2nd grade, a psychologist evaluated me for a potential learning disability. Following an hour or so of matching patterns with blocks and solving hypothetical problems, the psychologist told my dad that I was intelligent and dyslexic. That’s the thing about dyslexia: dyslexics often demonstrate average to above average intelligence that is not demonstrated in standard achievement assessments. There is a significant gap between dyslexic ability and performance. My father, a physician, did not buy into the whole dyslexia thing, which he considered to be psychobabble, and an excuse for the lazy.

High School:

Freshman year, our English instructor was a Scots gentleman named Ambrose Short. Mr. Short expected us to memorize Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.” Mr. Short was a man of expectations. Failure to memorize the poems meant detention. I had the attention span of a sugar-buzzed three-year-old in a Walmart Super Center and could not focus long enough to memorize the poems. This was bad. I was on the football team.

Detention meant missed practice; missed practice meant I would not dress for Saturday’s game. I reported to Mr. Short after school in despair. To my surprise, Mr. Short dismissed me, as he was too busy. Out of detention with honor! I was out on the practice field before I was missed. And then, suddenly Mr. Short was there too! I stood to the side with him and recited my poems until they took.

Sadly, when a student is performing poorly in the classroom, the knee-jerk reaction is to yank him/her from sports or some other enjoyable activity. Football was the one area where I was having some success, where I was not the “dumb one.” Mr. Short understood this and struck a deal with the football coach. Mr. Short died of Hodgkin’s disease before the end of my freshman year. He did not have much time left, but some of what he did have, he invested in me.

College:

In high school my parents ensured that any mention of dyslexia was expunged from my record. I barely graduated and was accepted into a small liberal arts college where I played football, wrestled, and occasionally attended class. I was thrown out after three semesters. I came home in disgrace, attended night school, and eventually worked my way into the fulltime program at the local university, only to be dropped again for grades. I was rudderless and eventually figured out that I needed to set my own goals and walk my own path. I worked my way back into the university and graduated with a BA in Anthropology, last in my university class, last in my major, but I graduated.

United State Army Special Forces Training:

I joined the Army with the aim of becoming a Special Forces Soldier, a Green Beret. The Special Forces Qualification Course is an arduous six-month to a year’s worth of tough, dangerous training. The attrition rate hovered around 60%, and things weren’t looking good for me in September of 1987. I was in the middle of my retest for the long-range land navigation final exam. This is a twenty-four hour, day/night 30 kilometer event to test navigation skills and endurance. Failure (after two attempts) meant relief (i.e., failure and dropped from the Qualification course) from the course. I failed my first attempt. I had reversed a set of numbers within the grid coordinate marking a spot on the map. There was no sympathy as I was dropped off for the retest. The sun rose high, crossed the sky, and set as I walked all day and into the next night, stumbling from point to point over hills, through briar thickets, and across swamps. Blisters swelled, broke, and oozed in my jungle boots. I wanted to quit. Muttering to myself, I lurched on to the last point. The instructor checked my grade sheet and indicated that I had passed. An hour later I was back with the class packing my rucksack for the next ordeal. I moved through the next phases of the course meeting challenges and setbacks and earned my “green beret.” The Special Forces instructors did not cut any breaks. There was a standard; and you either met it or you went home. That was that.

Graduate School:

At the end of my military career, I decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Education. That I experienced any anxiety about graduate school surprised those who know me. As a Special Forces soldier, I operated in hostile areas under dangerous conditions with little trepidation. The difference? In a hostile, uncertain environment, my training, experience, and confidence mitigated risk and fear. In an academic setting, experience conjures my demons: frustration, humiliation, shame, and embarrassment. In graduate school, I was to learn that learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are forever; you can’t grow out of them. As a 44-year-old, I understood that dyslexia has been, is, and will continue to be my lifelong companion.

Dyslexic Gifts hidden in plain sight:

As a child, I endured scholastic failures and miseries because that’s what kids do tolerate that which they can’t control. When I set my own goals, I found direction and purpose. In graduate school, I was forced to confront my dyslexia and with that came the understanding that much of what I have accomplished in life was not in spite of dyslexia, but because of it. Dyslexia provided cognitive gifts hidden in plain sight. Here are five of my gifts:

  • I am goal-oriented. I set my own goals and travel my own path …
    For years I struggled to obtain the goals set for me by others. I floundered during my college years, until one day I broke from the flock, set personal goals, and followed my own path. In the end, the only person worth competing with is you.
  • I am intuitive.
    I can connect the dots, taking disparate bits of information, finding patterns, associations, and relationships. My brain is wired differently and works via alternate pathways arriving at unique solutions. It is not normal or abnormal; it is what it is. As “Popeye the Sailor Man” said, “I am what I am, and that is all that I am.”
  • I am tenacious.
    I have failed more times than I have succeeded and have learned to never give up as long as my effort is in synch with my goals. When the going gets tough, I ask myself, “Who are you going to quit to?” You put yourself in that position because you had a goal…see it through. In the end, the difference between ordeal and adventure is attitude.
  • I am an effective leader.
    There are many types of leaders ranging from inspirational to toxic. The bottom line is that I know my limitations, so I delegate tasks and authority to those who can get the job done. When it is time for action, I know what it takes to get myself and others over, through, and around challenges. You cannot motivate from behind a desk; you must be “in the moment” with your teammates.
  • I am thick skinned and have empathy.
    I have been odd man out, the bottom of the class, the dumb one, the “how not to” example for others. Over the years, I have been exposed to poisonous teachers, military leaders, and civilian bosses. That’s life. You don’t always get what you deserve, but you deserve what you tolerate. I will take a dressing down when I deserve it and can profit/learn from it. I don’t tolerate abuse.

Fall 2014:

Since my dyslexic enlightenment in graduate school, I continue to reverse numbers and letters: in making cold calls to strangers, in locking myself out of accounts, in forgetting my house number and zip (actually I recall the numbers, but lose the sequence), in butchering unfamiliar names/words, and in failing to recall the familiar ones. The bottom line, and I think the simple key to success in coping with dyslexia, is to recognize it, manage it, and accept that it exists. Yes, dyslexia has been my constant companion, and I am glad to have it along on the adventure.

Thank you, Mr. Short…

LTC (R) Taylor V. Beattie