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Turning Disadvantage Into a Gift – A Personal Story
Our family was very poor. I was the oldest of four boys and my parents rented a house for $15 a month. It had electricity, but we didn’t have a refrigerator. We all used the outhouse equipped with last year’s Eaton catalog. We didn’t have a car, but dad got to work by bike and somehow supported the six of us.
Then my father was sent to the Arctic to work for a year. One year expanded into two, and when he was finally on his way home, the plane crashed and he was gone. I just finished grade 4. We moved to another small Ontario town closer to my mom’s family, and mom took up sewing to support us.
However, this somewhat dismal beginning was a silver lining: I learned early on that having something or doing something was up to me. I mowed lawns at six and grew and sold vegetables at seven. I worked for 5 summers on an uncle’s farm, handling a team of horses during the haying and feeding pods during the harvest. At nine o’clock I was driving the tractor pulling the combine. There were many jobs between the ages of 6 and 18 when I went to University. I made a job list once and it took a whole sheet of crap.
The gift was that I developed a strong work ethic early in life.
School presented other challenges. When I was in the 1st and 2nd grades in the four-room elementary school I first attended, the teacher referred to another boy and me as “the slow ones.” It was humiliating and frustrating, but I stuck with it. Arithmetic and reading were difficult subjects for both of us. By the fourth grade my grades had improved, although I still couldn’t add and reading was very difficult. Reading out loud was a total humiliation.
In high school my grades were generally pretty good, but in my last year of high school, 13th grade, I had a little trouble keeping up with the reading. As it happened, the town library had a new librarian who happened to be a reading specialist. The school made an appointment for me to see her. She gave me a long series of tests, and finally she said, “What are you doing in the 13th grade?… You’re reading at a 4th grade level.”
After I graduated from university, I had a chance to be retested. I tested in 10th grade. It was several decades later before the problem was diagnosed: I was extremely dyslexic. It was over a decade after that before I found someone who could handle it. I am no longer dyslexic.
If you’re wondering how the reading disability of dyslexia could be a gift, I’m not surprised. I spent much of my adult life reading…one word at a time. At school this meant that I had to understand a textbook on the first reading, because I would never have time to read it again. That was a valuable skill, but it was not the greatest gift.
The greatest gift of my reading disability was that I learned to listen. I got good grades because I listened to the teachers and professors, no matter how boring some of them were.
Now years later as a psychologist, I hear what people say to me; I know how to listen. For a long time I thought everyone could do this, but reports from clients and others have led me to suspect that the ability to tune in and listen is less than universal among helping professionals.
By the way, I met that other, “slow” one years later. He told me that he and I were the only two from that class 1-2 who went on to university. He was a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo and I was a professor of psychology at Guelph University.
I invite you to look back on your life for your own disabilities or shortcomings, and for times when you felt disadvantaged. Then look for the gifts each may have produced in your life.
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