Gavin Newsom knows what it is like to struggle with reading

By Louis Freedberg, EdSource

Reprinted with permission of Louis Freedberg:

If Gavin Newsom is elected governor of California in November, he would likely be the first one to have trouble with reading, or at least be the first willing to admit publicly that he does.

For years, Newsom has been very open about the fact that he suffers from dyslexia, a neurologically based learning disability that makes it difficult to read, and which was a major contributor to making his school years miserable, even torturous.

As governor, he would raise the profile of a reading disorder that affects between 5 and 20 percent of the population, and is only now getting the attention that it warrants. Last fall, the California Department of Education published the California Dyslexia Guidelines, as a result of a 2015 California law, Assembly Bill 1369, intended to help improve educational services for dyslexic children.

In fact, Newsom mentioned that he had the reading disorder in his speech on Tuesday night after winning the top spot in the primary election. But to reach this point in his life — within sight of becoming the chief executive of the world’s sixth largest economy — he has had to figure out ways to manage his dyslexia.

His views expressed in a variety of forums over a period of many years open a window into the painful world of students who have difficulties reading, the strategies they use to avoid being found out and the humiliation they experience when they are.

Rick Smith, CEO of the International Dyslexia Association, said that Newsom’s openness on the subject has been “exceptionally helpful” to spreading the word about the disability, and to helping to eliminate the enduring stigmas associated with it. But, he said, “it is going to take more people like Gavin Newsom to acknowledge not only that he has dyslexia, but about the challenges that come along with the diagnosis.”

The most revealing portrait of his struggles with dyslexia is contained in a frank conversation posted on YouTube to mark Dyslexia Awareness Month last October with 13-year-old Ryan Quinn Smith, a child actor who also suffers from the reading disorder.

In it, Newsom explains how he was diagnosed with dyslexia during elementary school and attended after-school classes and summer school to cope with his disability.

He recalls how his single mother, in order to protect him from any possible stigma, never told him that he was dyslexic until he was in 3rd grade and he accidentally came across a pile of papers about him in her room with the word “dyslexia” sprinkled throughout.

What makes Newsom’s recollections especially compelling is that this disability is not something that is entirely behind him, but is a challenge that affects his functioning today and is likely to have an impact on how he carries out his duties as governor. It could also inform his views on education, in a state where the governor has considerable influence over education policies.

Newsom said that the disability has forced him to adapt, and given him certain skills that have proven to be assets in his political career. Anyone who has been around Newsom for any length of time will be struck by his extraordinary ability to describe minutiae of policy, along with facts and figures to back up what he is saying, typically without any notes. That skill is directly related to a disability that makes it difficult to sound out words by matching letters with sounds known as phonemes.

Instead of having to read, he said he “overcompensated and learned to develop other skills,” including a highly developed ability to memorize texts.

“Sometimes I just look at the words that I’m having trouble with, and I just memorize how to say them, and then after that I can sort of read the rest of it,” he said. “And sometimes I just memorize the whole thing.”

He has also developed other strategies to compensate for his reading difficulties. He said he can’t read a book or a newspaper article without underlining key words and sentences.

“I’ll read two chapters or 10 pages and have no clue. … So the only way I can focus is to underline. And then what I do after I underline something, I’ll go back and I’ll read what I underlined, but the minute I do that, then it’s in my head.”

All these strategies have emerged from what appears to have been an especially difficult school experience. He attended both private public schools, including the Hall Middle School and Redwood High in Larkspur.

Newsom’s dyslexia was accompanied by — or contributed to — a painful shyness that caused him to sit in the back of the classroom and made him reluctant to participate in class discussions. Exacerbating his reluctance to participate was a severe lisp. He had to undergo speech therapy to overcome it.

One particularly painful incident stands out in 5th or 6th grade, when the teacher — Mr. Morris, Newsom recalled — asked him to get up and read. “Everyone laughed, because I literally couldn’t read.” At the time, he thought it was “just wrong of the teacher to do that, just to make me, knowing that I couldn’t read. But beyond that, they just made fun of me generally.”

He would berate himself that he was “stupid.” “My mom always hated when I said that, ‘I’m stupid.’ All right. But I felt kind of stupid. I couldn’t spell, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, was shy. My head was always down.”

Asked by the 13-year-old Quinn whether he writes his speeches, or improvises, Newsom responded “total improv, man.” He said he writes speeches on 8 1/2-by-11 paper, underlines the main points and then breaks “it down into smaller, smaller, smaller pieces, and then in those small pieces is the speech.”

But giving a speech is hugely challenging, Newsom said. He said for every minute of a speech he spends an hour of preparation. So a 30-minute speech can involve 30 hours of preparation, which he admits is “ridiculous.”

“I’m literally not exaggerating,” he said. “And that’s why I say, when you ask ‘How did you get comfortable with dyslexia?’ I’m not. It’s a lot of work that I wish I didn’t have to do.”

In fact, he said he is envious of other politicians who are handed a script and they can read it without hesitation. “I’m jealous,” he said. “I wish I could just do that, and spend three minutes delivering something versus the three hours it took to give the three minute speech.”

Reading from teleprompter seems like a basic part of any politician’s job description — even Donald Trump has resorted to it after deriding President Barack Obama for doing so. But Newsom said reading from a teleprompter, which he did last night in his first speech after getting the top spot in the primary election, is “horribly difficult” and has made him ponder whether he is “in the wrong business.”

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource’s Comments Policy. Newsom’s experiences have contributed to life lessons that guide him today. That principally means learning to be patient and realizing that “you don’t have to be perfect.” And that it is fine to make mistakes.

“If someone told me it’s OK to make mistakes, that would have been so much more relaxing, because I was good at making mistakes,” he said.

“I don’t know that my mother ever said it was OK to make mistakes,” he said. “I would love to tell myself, ‘Make mistakes. And enjoy making mistakes.’ But I never wanted to. It’s kind of like you don’t want to ask a question (in class), because you don’t want to sound stupid, or you don’t want to answer because you’re afraid of appearing a certain way.”

His advice to Quinn? “My admonition for you is, ‘Ready, fire, aim.’ Mistakes are a portal to discovery. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

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