“Dyslexia Revealed” at Stonington High School

A Message from Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Co-Director, YCDC

Dr. Bennett Shaywitz and I attend and speak at many events and they are all meaningful. Sometimes an event is so special that it must be shared with all of you. Below is one such event that was held to honor the memory of a very special young man, Owen Vail.

An extraordinary event took place on the evening of April 9th, 2013, at Stonington High School. Here, over 400 people filled the seats in the school’s auditorium focused on one goal: to learn more about dyslexia and to use that knowledge to ensure that boys and girls who are dyslexic receive the support they require to reach their potential. These are the words of Don Vail, Owen Vail’s dad:

“Owen Vail was the inspiration behind this event. Owen was known as an engaging young man about town. He would meet adults whom he recognized but didn’t know and engage in conversation that was startlingly mature and knowledgeable. Oftentimes Owen would speak with the new kid at school, maybe sit with them at the lunch table. Maybe this was because Owen knew the pain of being different.

Owen was an intelligent, perceptive, and caring young man. He always met his challenges head on with courage, purpose, and oftentimes with equanimity. He wasn’t a complainer. He had reason to be, but you couldn’t tell by looking. Because Owen was a good-looking guy, and he could flash a smile and win a heart in an instant.

This is what you saw when you looked at Owen and in a perfect world that was Owen through and through and something anyone could aspire to. But there was also an inner world; a world that we all protect and hide. It is the world where you live when you are not in the presence of others, or otherwise occupied to distraction. It is where our fears and inadequacies live, it’s where the scary things are.

All children are thrilled to get on the bus for the first time, and excited to go to school. What happened along the way is a tale of unintentional, but pernicious, neglect. As parents and teachers we are oftentimes untrained and ill prepared to meet all of the diverse needs presented to us.

The numbers of students affected by dyslexia, and the costs of inattention are too high. Dyslexia can be a killer. It is invisible. It can undermine self-image, it can earn disdain from teachers and ridicule from fellow students. It is a quiet, private pain of inadequacy and shame. It can destroy a child’s inner self and rip a family apart. Owen took his own life on Valentine’s Day of last year. It is a parent’s worst fear. How do you know when you are on a collision course with disaster? Owen’s message to me is clear: he wanted relief from pain. About six months before Owen’s death, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he didn’t know but he thought he wanted to help people.

Tonight is about helping people to discover what it is to be dyslexic. There will be answers for some and questions as well. My hope is that this event will change our course of action. It takes courage to break new ground when much of the world around us is not doing so. When you are way out front, you are probably alone. There is much to do.

It was soon after Owen’s death that my wife, Sally, and I received a call from Dr. Shaywitz. She was calling on behalf of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity to let us know that a very large number of donations were made in Owen’s name. It was from that conversation and many to follow that has brought us here tonight.

This event would not have been possible without Dr. Van Riley, Stonington’s new superintendent. He met my request for this event with enthusiasm and ability. His bio is evidence of his commitment to bring the gift of knowledge to everyone within his reach.

Deserving mention, too, is the corps of teachers that has given unending care and patience to not only Owen but to others like him. You are bright lights in the dark, scary places; you provide hope.”

The evening was a resounding success, promising a brighter future for dyslexic children and their teachers. First, Mandy Kulpik, one of Owen’s favorite and most understanding teachers, received the inaugural “Owen Vail Scholarship Award”, which will allow Ms. Kulpik to participate in a summer course at the Learning House to learn the Orton-Gillingham method to teach dyslexic children. Second, as a result of the passion generated by this event, interested community members have indicated a desire to work with local school officials to ensure that many more Stonington teachers will be able to participate in this special learning experience. A major step forward is ensuring that teachers will be given the knowledge they require to adequately teach dyslexic children to read and that dyslexic children will learn to read at Stonington schools.

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