The early labels isolated and shamed him—“stupid,” “crazy,” “lazy.” They started during his time at a Jewish day school in Atlanta. He was just a small child but the labels made him feel even smaller. Like every little kid with a learning issue he repeatedly heard perhaps the most confounding phrase, “Try harder.” Flink had no clue how he could work harder—he was already a very motivated young student. He figured it must be his fault, so he tried to cover over his failure and how much it hurt.
The only positive part about his first school was he could hide in the Hebrew language half of the day because nobody understood that. And he used the tissue trick. Whenever the risk of reading aloud rolled around, Flink fled for a Kleenex. But by fourth grade the school was closing in on his secret. He and his misunderstood dyslexia were “invited to apply elsewhere.”
Schenck is a nationally renowned school for children with dyslexia. It was established before many educators knew the word. Flink was tested, diagnosed, and taught to read for the first time during the sixth grade. They spotted the Kleenex trick right off the top and parked a box on young David’s desk.
“When I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the camaraderie and support I felt from my teachers, as well as the other kids. Not only were the teaching methods appropriate to my way of thinking, but there were other kids just like me. It was the most at home I had ever felt.” Unlike many schools for learning disabilities, Schenck doesn’t want its students to stay. Instead, Schenck’s goal is to remediate learning lost to undiagnosed dyslexia, then direct students back out the door to mainstream schools.
Flink’s next school experience, however, was painful. He moved on to a pretentious college prep school where he paid for his hard-won straight A’s with relentless bullying by the “smart” kids. His self-esteem plummeted. It wouldn’t be the first time he wanted to believe he was “done” with his dyslexia.
But Atlanta’s rich educational resources rescued him again. This time the highly regarded Galloway School made a spot for the badly bruised freshman. Their flexibility and unflappable insight gave David the tools to figure out how to learn smarter, and how to get what he would need going forward. As Flink says:
Galloway placed the problems in the environment rather than within the student.... If, for instance, I have to read something with my eyes, then I’m very disabled. But if I can read it with my ears (using a tape or iPhone), I am not disabled. This approach was essential to my understanding of my LD/ADHD. For the first time I was able to really own it.
After the community service project experience, Flink co-founded the program that would grow into a national movement: college students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, like themselves, mentoring elementary and middle-school students. Eye to Eye now has sixty chapters in twenty states. “We are ambassadors of what is possible for students and young adults who learn differently, since we have walked in their shoes and can now effectively and uniquely pass on what we have learned to make their journey smoother and filled with success,” he says on the Eye to Eye website.
Although Eye to Eye originally began with tutoring in mind, the founders came to realize that wasn’t what the kids needed most. What the kids were lacking was the same thing that young David Flink was missing: successful models of people with dyslexia and the skills to emulate them. The middle schoolers also craved support for just being themselves. They were coming into the mentoring sessions having already suffered years of criticism.
“What we [now] know about self-esteem is that it is the most crucial part in learning. It trumps IQ, actually. When we focus on what kids are good at, it allows them to overcome what they are bad at… As we taught our students they were not broken, we learned we were not broken either.”
As the mentoring spreads, Eye to Eye has also expanded. It now runs a camp, a speakers' bureau, a mentor alumni group, and events, including pop-up, street-team campaigns that call on teams to put a face on dyslexia and other learning disabilities in public. The speakers' bureau, dubbed the “Think Different Diplomats,” is comprised of college-educated speakers doing outreach who literally “wear their LD on their sleeve.” Flink also published a new book for parents: Thinking Differently: An Inspiring Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities. He is determined to make the reality of dyslexia not a dark curse, just a need for informed accommodations. “We want the next generation to be empowered to make their environments work for them while fighting against the careless and discriminatory language that perpetuates stigma and low expectations…. Our kids don’t need to be ‘fixed’; they are not broken.”
One of Flink’s favorite expressions is, “Alone we go fast, together we go far.” He has gone from a struggling elementary-school student to an author and founder and CEO of an innovative organization and movement for bettering the lives of LD students. David Flink knows that he would not have been able to propel a movement forward without a solid foundation of his own.