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Why Stevie Can't Spell

The center is a place filled with stuffed animals and feel-good posters, reflecting the age of the typical clientele.

"Am I the first person you've ever tested who wasn't wearing Hello Kitty sneakers?" I ask examiner Jennifer Koch as she has me assemble patterned blocks. "Oh, no. We test a lot of Yale undergrads, as well," she says. That's who I meant, but I let it go because it's time for my appointment with the MRI.


The author poses with third-graders, from left, Amalia Perez, Isabel Hendrix-Jenkins and Dillon Sebastian. (D.A. Peterson)

The four-block walk to Yale-New Haven Medical Center is a strangely stirring one. Am I about to learn that something is amiss with my brain? I have some of the symptoms of dyslexia: horrible spelling, serious difficulty remembering names and numbers, a failure to learn the rudiments of a foreign language in spite of two years of college French and a summer in Normandy. But I'm missing the big one -- profound reading trouble. Although I'm a slow reader, I'm a voracious one. I read for pleasure every night of my life. We don't have cable.

"You're not a classic dyslexic, no," Bennett Shaywitz says in his office two floors above the basement MRI room. "But it's very possible that you had reading problems you've been able to compensate for very well."

They finally roll me into the dark opening of the MRI machine. For 40 minutes, magnets grind around my head, taking pictures of my innermost thoughts. (I focus on pure ones -- it wouldn't do to have a compromising picture of Liv Tyler pop up on the monitor.) The actual test amounts to clicking a button in response to a variety of word games and patterns projected on a screen at my feet that are designed to stimulate the suspect areas of my brain to see them at work.

When Sally Shaywitz calls after a few days, she has good news and bad.

"Well, you're really smart," says this eminent authority on brains. "On our vocabulary tests, you scored about as high as you can possibly score. Also on the reasoning part, you're way, way in the superior range." I wonder if she could put that in letter form, addressed to: All Editors, The Washington Post.

And on spelling and reading? "Let's call it average," she says.

Specifically, I land in the frankly so-so 44th percentile on the part of the Nelson-Denny comprehension exam given under strictly timed conditions. But on the part with relaxed timing, my level doubles to a gentlemanly 85th percentile.

"You have all the elements of reading," Shaywitz says. "But they're not firmly ingrained. When you're forced to do it quickly, you lose something."

The MRI confirms it. The Shaywitzes see the lights go on in the usual reading areas of the left hemisphere. But they also find an unusual level of action on the right side of my brain, in the areas where dyslexics tend to build new pathways to make up for misfires in the normal ones.

"It all fits together, our clinical exams and our neurobiological exams," Shaywitz says. "You had the underlying threads of dyslexia, but you've compensated for it really, really well. When you have time, you do well. But when you have to do things very quickly, it's not automatic. Your autopilot, for spelling and for reading, just isn't there."

As a youngster, Shaywitz says, I was probably getting just enough information and pleasure from reading to push through some amount of dyslexic drag. And the more I read, the more compensatory tricks my brain wired into itself until I became fluent, at least under relaxed conditions. It's only when the heat is on that my reading goes a little wobbly and, even more often, my spelling collapses in a heap.

It's probably one of the lesser beaten tracks to a career of deadline writing.

On the train home from New Haven, I work on my Rolling Terrace spelling assignments. Sitting across the table from a man reading the Financial Times, I beaver away on work sheets decorated with cartoon dogs and elephants. Our eyes meet, and I realize I've been practicing the short e sound out loud.

A few days later I'm ready for Melissa Salvesen's final quiz. I flunked my first one, bungling 13 out of 27. This time I miss 14. Including itinerary.

Poor Mrs. Salvesen. There will be no "By-George-I-think-he's-got-it!" moment between her Henry Higgins and my Eliza Doolittle. In spite of her best efforts, I still drop my h's (although I tend to add an unnecessary one to crystal).

"You finished all the work sheets?" she asks skeptically. "If you had regular direct instruction, I'm sure you would improve."

I'm sure I wouldn't. If my brain hasn't figured out a way to spell itinerary by now, it probably never will. Science has spoken.

And so I look ahead to many, many more productive years of dismembering English words. Let's see, call it 25 stories for each of the next 30 years, about 1,500 to 3,000 words apiece, plus thank-you notes, e-mails and grocery lists, merrily misspelling at a rate of seven to 10 words per . . . Well, it all adds up to quite a lot of "magic" spelling.

I can't tell you exactly how much, though. I'm one of those people who just can't do math.

Steve Hendrix is a staff writer for the Post's Travel section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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