Malloy on life with dyslexia: Problems never end, but are not life ending

Malloy mingled with attendees after speaking on living with dyslexia at Eagle Hill- Southport Monday Sept. 29. (Photo Miriam Kelliher)

Malloy mingled with attendees after speaking on living with dyslexia at Eagle Hill- Southport Monday Sept. 29. (Photo Miriam Kelliher)

Dannel Malloy remembers teachers hanging his “dismal spelling tests” alongside those of the stellar spellers on bulletin boards in the hallway of his grammar school. He also recalls the anguish of being cut from Little League as a young child with physical disabilities, who “couldn’t button a shirt or tie a shoe until fifth grade … and couldn’t follow an object until it hit me in the face.”

The governor explained to the crowd of teachers, students and parents gathered at the Eagle Hill School in Southport to hear him speak Sept. 29 that the physical delays that plagued him throughout his childhood stemmed from difficulties during his birth, and the dyslexia that affects him still today was an inherited trait.

Malloy attributed his seemingly unlikely success to his mother, who he said “had to be my advocate,” and who also, he said, made sure that “I grew up liking myself, liking other people, empathetic, and with goals … to leave the world a better place.” Malloy returned to this description repeatedly during the evening, telling the audience emphatically, “I do not know someone that fits that definition and is not successful.”

Malloy’s mother, he said, faced with the challenge of raising a dyslexic child in an era before learning disabilities were widely acknowledged, “did not concentrate on things I couldn’t do, but on the things I was good at,” by, for example, putting a radio next to her son’s bed so he could listen to talk radio before he fell asleep, strengthening the oral communication skills of a child for whom reading and writing seemed impossible.

“That was pretty intuitive for a woman who was born in 1914,” he said.

In spite of his mother’s steadfast advocacy and support, the road Malloy described of a learning-disabled child in the ‘60s was a tough one, with teachers and classmates making fun of him “all the time.” Until fourth grade, Malloy said, his teachers thought he was mentally retarded, the term in use then to describe students with cognitive delays. And when teachers didn’t ascribe his learning difficulties to low intelligence, he said, often they blamed them on “lack of diligence.”

There were lights in the forest. For instance, “Mrs. Mitchell,” Malloy’s fourth-grade teacher, he said, “knew it wasn’t true.” And while the occasional ally like Mrs. Mitchell may have helped him endure, Malloy said, “I didn’t achieve much academic success until late in high school,” even then getting “not great grades.”

Malloy found an outlet in the Boy Scouts, where he began to develop leadership skills, on the theory that you should learn to lead “if you’re not going to be able to follow.” But there too, his dyslexia held him back. Malloy said badges requiring writing kept him from becoming an Eagle Scout, although he admitted that his “discovery of football and girls” also had something to do with his waning interest in scouting.

Art was another strength the school-aged Malloy pursued, and one his teachers allowed, enlisting him to “decorate the boards in hallways,” and work on scenery for school productions. “I was cut loose to do all that stuff because it was easier than teaching me. That’s how they accommodated me,” he said, observing that he grew up in a very different time, and that colleges now do a “much better job at turning out teachers who can deal with learning disabilites, or at least who are not deniers.”

Malloy joked in the auditorium of Eagle Hill, a private school for the learning-disabled, “If I’d had access to someplace like this, maybe I’d be president.”

After high school, Malloy gained entrance to Boston College, which he said was interested in him as a sort of experimental, learning-disabled subject. Malloy said he listened to his college textbooks on recordings for the blind until his sophomore year, explaining, “I could read, but I couldn’t handle the volume.”

It was at college that Malloy turned the corner academically. He graduated magna cum laude and continued on to Boston College Law School as the school’s first admittee with learning disabilities. Still, those disabilities intruded, for his law school career, he said, was darkened by the looming shadow of the bar exam, the fear of which almost caused him to choose a law school whose graduates were excused from the test.

Instead, Malloy persevered at Boston College and, after threatening litigation, he said, became the first non-blind person to take the essay portion of the bar exam orally.

With the dreaded bar behind him, Malloy joined the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, drawing on his speaking ability to deliver strong closing arguments in court. But again his disability turned what should have been an achievement into “a punishment,” causing “cold sweats,” when he was promoted to a job requiring writing.

Eventually, the governor entered politics, where his disability seemed less of a hindrance. In answer to a student’s question of whether his dyslexia made it hard for him to campaign, Malloy said he doesn’t speak from notes, instead using the word “uh” frequently to give him time to think of what to say next. And he pointed out a rare political advantage of his disability:  “I will never be brought down by an email I’ve written” —  the laborious task of writing making sending email impractical for him.

“I have no idea how to spell anything,” he said, adding that when he writes, “I have to sit and concentrate on each word and how to spell it.”

When asked how he developed resilience, Malloy said being the youngest of eight children made him resilient by necessity. He described his next-oldest brother as  brilliant, unafflicted by learning disabilities of his own and, while they were growing up, frequently “frustrated” with Malloy.

Malloy stressed that despite the sometimes hard knocks he encountered at home and in school, “I never thought I was a failure,” and urged parents in the audience to do everything they could to ensure their children’s “egos are in tact.” Although he never got over his learning disabilities, Malloy said, he did learn to compensate, and to build on his strengths.

“I still have failures,” he told a child in the audience who asked whether it was hard to get through law school. “I’m embarrassed, all the time, about things I can’t do. That doesn’t end. But,” he said, “it’s not life-ending.”

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