When Elizabeth Siddons Perry reads a grocery list, "hamburger" might look like "hamgrubre," and to her eyes, the fives in $1.55 may seem to face the wrong way. It is even more frustrating when Perry is studying for a final exam in anatomy.
Perry suffers from dyslexia, a learning disability in which her brain does not properly translate what her eyes see. Considered "print blind," Perry nevertheless has managed in eight years simultaneously to earn her undergraduate degree in zoology from George Washington University and work her way halfway through Howard University's dental school.
"I just read slow," explains the 26-year-old student who was awarded her degree from GWU on Monday. "I have to take my time and work harder than other students."
Perry, who lives in Northeast Washington, has been struggling with dyslexia all her life. But the most painful time, she recalls, was as a child.
She was labeled the class dummy and lived in fear of the moment the teacher would ask her to read aloud. "I was the (classic) dyslexic child. I was frustrated and never got any gold stars.
"I did a lot of crying and hated to go to school," she continues. "The dyslexic child isn't dumb; the teacher is dumb!"
No matter how hard she tried, she recalls, her teachers were never satisfied. Yet, she says, "they never told me my neat, perfect 5's were backwards."
Finally, one teacher suggested to Perry's parents that she was retarded, but her older sister convinced her parents that it couldn't be so.
Eventually, tests determined that she had dyslexia and off she went to private schools equipped to help her. Slowly she learned to unscrabble words in her mind and she developed a keen memory as her parents and teachers read her lessons to her.
"I grew slowly socially because I spent so much time studying," she said. With a great deal of hard work and help from others, she went through Regina High School in Hyattsville in three years. "My parents were against my going to college. They suggested secretarial school because they thought it would be easier." But she entered GWU anyway.
Perry has high praise for GWU's willingness to accommodate handicapped students.
"No one makes a big issue of your disability there; everyone from the man who rakes leaves in the yard, to the dean, treats you like a person," she said.
In her sophomore year, Perry began worrying about her future. She wanted to be a dentist like her father, Frederick S. Perry, who died last year. She didn't think she could get into dental school but she took the dental school entrance exam "just for fun -- to get the feel of it." To her surprise, she passed and was allowed to enter Howard University's four-year dental program although she had completed only two years of undergraduate work.
She soon found that being a dentistry student was much more difficult than simply being a GWU undergraduate. "I'm not getting the same support. . ."
This sense of insecurity coupled with a crumbling marriage and the responsibility of a small daughter caused Perry to take off a semester from Howard. "I didn't think I could make it through school (Howard)," she says.
Perry decided, meanwhile, to go back to GWU and secure her undergraduate degree. With some wheeling and dealing with the deans, she received credit for some of her Howard courses, promised to finish GWU requirements when she could fit the classes in and continued taking dental courses at Howard.
At one point, when Perry asked Howard officials to allow her to work at a slower pace because of her dyslexia, they asked her to submit to an examination to determine if she did indeed have a problem.
"That really hurt me," recalls Perry, and she insisted that someone not connected with Howard test her. She went to the District's vocational rehabilitation division of the Department of Human Services, where the diagnosis of dyslexia was again confirmed.
She was given a card entitling her to use tape-recorded materials for the blind available at area libraries. Now, instead of struggling through unwieldly textbooks, Perry has her reading assignments recorded by volunteers, and she tapes her lectures instead of taking notes.
Perry still has two years of the dental program to complete, and it may take her three years to do it, but she's determined to follow in the footsteps of her father.
"When you've cried as much as I have, all you want to see on other people is a smile. . . .Going to the dentist is as painful for some folks as reading is for me."