“The day I realized I had dyslexia, a question came to mind. How would my life have been different if someone in my youth had recognized my disability? Imagine how much heartbreak, disappointment, and embarrassment it would have saved me and my parents. If only someone in the education system was bothered to make teachers learn about different kinds of learning disabilities, school for me and lots of children in similar situations would have been a happier place.”
I was born in Tehran, Iran, on May 12, 1983 as the second and last child. As I was growing up during the eight years of the Iran and Iraq war, the main concern of parents was to get the necessary food for children and keep them not only safe but alive. No one was concerned about anything except the basic necessities of life.
My brother is two years older than I am, and he always has been my role model. Many people think that brothers and sisters are so similar, but I do not agree. My brother learns and does stuff effortlessly and naturally. At the age of four he could draw and make creative caricatures and sculptures. He could play an instrument just by listening to it—without any teachers! Most importantly, by age five he could write and read as well as a third grader, open a frog’s stomach to discover its anatomy, and so on and so on. On the other hand, there was me. I could not talk properly until age 7, draw a line until 13, and despite all of my parents’ efforts and pressures, I could not read or write by age 7. When I couldn’t learn to play any musical instruments, I was a total disappointment to my parents.
I started school immediately after the war, in classes of 40 students, and because Iran is an Islamic country, boys and girls were separated and I was stuck in school with a lot of girls. I think the enormous stress and anxiety caused by the war left parents with little patience for children who had problems talking, reading, and learning. Plus, in those days, there was so little awareness about learning difficulties and disabilities such as dyslexia.
Because I already couldn’t talk as fluently as other children my age, on the first day of first grade I got the attention of my teacher. She had decided that I was going to be trouble and a lot of work for her. In Iran the practice, which I found strange, is that parents already teach reading and writing to children before they enter school. Up to this day I still don’t understand why.
The first day of school started with a test to determine the level of the students. Of course because I couldn’t read a word or write, I simply failed. From that day forward I was marked “stupid.” It was the second day of school that my teacher gave a dictation exam of the lessons which she taught the day before and I failed with the lowest mark in the class. It must have made her mad because as she was giving me my notebook, she did not hesitate to slap me hard on my face and call me “lazy and stupid.” When I went home I told the story to my mum, to my surprise she thought I was lying. As lying was a big deal in our house, not only was I banned from playing but had to listen to her lectures that it was my fault that I did not study enough and that I should take responsibility for my action.
It was then that I felt a strong hatred toward school, teachers, and studying. I decided if I had to go to school, no matter how much I was beaten or punished, I would make school fun for myself by focusing on annoying the teachers and classmates. Soon I got a Ph.D. in trouble making. I was mentally immune (at least I thought so) to the teachers’ physical punishment, classmates’ bullying, and spending break time alone as no other students wanted to hang out with stupid trouble makers. My situation at home was not any better because my parents thought of me as irresponsible and lazy. They wanted to push me to be better at school by making me study more.
By the end of the fifth grade I had already changed schools five times. My parents were exhausted and embarrassed from being called in at least once a week by teachers to get the report of my poor performance and bad behavior. I had the impression at that time my parents just gave up on pushing me. They stopped paying for my extra skill classes such as artistic writing, English classes, etc. To make me pass my mother did my painting and my father wrote some of my essays. I have to be fair to my mother. Even though I was a trouble maker and never performed well, she has always been very supportive in her own way. For every final exam she took holidays and stayed home and kept asking me questions and reviewing the courses until I could remember them and pass—even with low marks. Without her help maybe I wouldn’t have passed my exams on that day.
Junior High School
My parents decided to keep me in the same school from grade 6 to almost end of grade 8. By then I was kicked out of classes such as Arabic language, Quran, and Islamic religion every week without exception. I had discovered that religion was my teacher’s weak point, and that was a good opportunity to play with it. Once I also was kicked out of school for a week, just three days before mid-year exams, because I couldn’t read Quran and because I made jokes about Quran.
It was the last two months of my eighth grade year when we had to move to the suburbs and change my school. For me it was a great opportunity as I was bored with my old school and classmates. However, I was surprised when I realized no school actually wanted to accept me other than a school with a bad reputation.
The first day that I went to the new school I felt like I received the hardest slap on my face. It was then that I thought I have two months to change things. I promised myself that somehow I would pass junior high school and advance to high school. I just could not imagine myself in such a terrible school for another four years. So I asked my auntie, Maryam, to help me with math.
My math exam was on June 6th, and on June 4th, while I was solving one of the math problems she gave me, something sparked in me. I realized that math was actually fun and for the first time I was having fun studying. I thought, “I can get along with math in the future and learn it better and use it as my motivation for studying.” That exam period was tough, because I had to work very hard to pass, but it paid off. I passed eighth grade with satisfactory grades, except the math exam for which I got a pretty good mark. I was so proud of myself that I immediately called my paternal grandma “Mama Bozorg” and told her I passed everything. She told me how proud she was of me and that felt like heaven.
One summer day in 1996, I had to babysit my 6 year old maternal cousin “Shaghayegh” who was recognized as another bright and talented child in the family. In order to keep her occupied I decided to do some painting with her until my aunties came back. When they came home, Shaghayegh was excited and proud of her painting. As she showed my painting, one of my aunts laughed out loud and said “A 6 year old child paints better than you.” Usually I would have made jokes with them just to put a stop to the bullying. Instead, I got angry inside, I had had ENOUGH. I could not do it any longer. I told myself that I had two choices. I can either accept that I am “stupid and talentless” or I can do something about it and show everyone that I am anything but stupid.
That summer I made a life changing decision. Instead of spending my days only playing basketball, I also learned math and practiced basic drawing in secret. I put my focus on learning mathematics by reading books, solving problems, and trying to understand the root of equations and theories. As for drawing, I bought books and practiced for two months drawing only straight lines and circles to strengthen my hand. When I thought I was perfect at drawing lines, I started the actual drawing from the books. It is strange how sometimes a negative feeling works in your favor and can change your life for good. Still, now that I am writing it, I feel the same anger I had the whole time back then.
I was lucky to go to a better school for ninth grade than my previous one. This was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss to prove to myself that I could do it. My parents who had absolutely no idea about my plans and thought it was going to be another school year full of troubles. I remember the night before the first day of school I overheard them talking about how to arrange their work schedules so they could come to my school every week. I have to admit, it was a hard thing to hear but I’m happy I did because it gave me even more motivation to work hard and be successful.
School started and I was motivated and focused and ready to work hard. I knew my weak points were reading and writing but I had math, numbers and basketball as my strengths. I just needed to stay focused, change my behavior and attitude and be responsible. I did as I planned.
Pretty soon I impressed my Math teacher, joined the basketball team, and helped to win two matches. I made nice and supportive friends. For the first time school was positively fun. As my parents realized the changes, they became more relaxed and even more supportive. I passed that year with success except my English, which I failed and had to repeat the next year.
In Iran at the end of 9th grade, students have to choose a field of study. I had two options. One was to study art. The other was to study physics and mathematics. I chose to study art but when I went to the teacher and counselor to get my papers for registering for art as my major, to my surprise both told me that they would not hand me the art papers because they thought it would be a waste to study art. They asked me to reconsider my decision and register for physics and mathematics as my major. It was the best and scariest compliment I had ever received. I had gone from being called “stupid,” to being told I was intelligent enough to study math. My mother was with me as my support during that meeting, and I saw the proud look in her eyes. That look will forever stay in my mind. I think it is the best look a child can receive from parents.
The keys to my success during high school were my extreme hard work, my parents, and a bit of luck. I have to admit that math was the only subject that I was good at, and I was lucky that some of my teachers who felt I was hopeless in their subjects just gave me passing marks. Others, like my eleventh grade physics teacher, who is one of my good friends up to this day, taught me in private until understood it.
In Iran you need to pass a general exam called “Concours” to go to a university. Concours is a four-hour exam covering seven subjects from high school. It used to be one of the most stressful things students had to do. Every year there was some news about suicides or sudden death of participants before and after the exams. The reason that the competition was extremely high was the number of participates were almost three times more than the number of university spots available. There was cheating, people buying seats at universities, and the participants whose fathers died during the war got special advantages. Then there were the expectations of parents and society that everyone should be an engineer, medical doctor, or lawyer. I not only had the “classical Concours” pressure but I knew about my weaknesses and needed to find solutions for them in order to be successful. As my parents wanted me to pass the test successfully, they registered me for special classes to prepare me for the Concours.
The result of the exam was disappointment for me and my parents. I had to repeat the exam two years in a row just to enter the university. I wanted to study engineering, and I only got accepted for a bachelor in mathematics and Swahili Language in Tehran.
In the middle of my studies at the university in Tehran, I decided to leave the country. I moved to London, England, to improve my English, which by then I was speaking quite well. While in London, I made the decision to move to Ottawa, Canada to study mathematics and finance at Carlton University. However, when I enrolled at the university, they told me my writing and reading results were too low based on my English exam. I needed to improve it to start at the university. I didn’t like Ottawa and was exhausted from hearing about my reading and writing problem. I decided to research other universities in Montreal. Pretty soon I was admitted for industrial engineering at Concordia University and moved to Montreal with the hope that I would pass the Concordia University English exam.
It didn’t come as a surprise to me when I failed the exam due to my writing. I felt the same anger toward myself that I had experienced before. Now that I have the opportunity to do something, the writing is stopping me and this was nothing but my stupidity—at least that’s what I thought at that time. When I told my English teachers I felt stupid because I could not write, they just said I needed to practice. None of the teachers came to the idea of dyslexia.
It Gets Better
In March 2008, the best thing happened in my life. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. I met the most beautiful, loving, and supportive person, my husband, David Cecil. Soon after we started dating he realized that I was struggling at the university with my studies, especially with writing my essay. He patiently explained how to organize my notes and my thoughts and how to write in the way that I could understand. He pushed me, encouraged me, and corrected me with no judgement. It was the first time that someone could see my simple spelling, grammar, and writing mistakes and still call me smart and intelligent. If it hadn’t been for David, I would have never passed the essay and started my main courses at the university.
It was sometime in August 2009 that I was talking to David’s father about my problem with writing that he mentioned that I may have dyslexia. When he realized my lack of knowledge he explained it to me. After his explanation and my research and some tests, I felt like everything made sense. I felt like I had been trying to finish a puzzle for so many years, a piece had been missing, and now I had the missing part.
The day I realized I had dyslexia, a question came to mind. How would my life have been different if someone in my youth had recognized my disability? Imagine how much heartbreak, disappointment, and embarrassment it would have saved me and my parents. If only someone in the education system was bothered to make teachers learn about different kinds of learning disabilities, school for me and lots of children in similar situations would have been a happier place.
You might think I should be angry that I am dyslexic or can’t be like my brother or cousins who are intelligent and learn effortlessly. Why do I have to always work three times harder than others to get half of the results that they get? But instead I feel good. Yes!
I believe that if it were not for this disability I would not have learned to look at problems differently and solve them in my way. I wouldn’t be as hard working as I am now, and I wouldn’t have learned that there is no such thing in the world as “stupid.” No one in the world is stupid, and the people that we call “stupid” actually are unique. Hence, this is what dyslexics are, we are unique. We need a unique way to read, write, and learn. We have our unique ways to solve problems and attack them. Being unique is beautiful. So I am proud of being dyslexic, and I think if I were not dyslexic, I would be really disappointed-I truly mean it!