In a brief ceremony last week at the Howard County office building, Curt Spanos stepped over a threshold that had been barred to him for 15 years.
Spanos, 42, chosen as Maryland's law enforcement officer of the year last year and twice similarly honored in Howard, was one of seven officers to be sworn in as a sergeant.
It was a promotion that the highly decorated range and armor officer might have easily obtained in the mid-1970s except for a major obstacle: his lifelong reading disability.
With dyslexia scrambling the words and letters set before him, the written exam required of potential sergeants has always been a struggle, Spanos said. In half a dozen previous attempts he had managed to score among the top 15 candidates, but usually only about five officers are promoted.
Last fall, however, Spanos took matters into his own hands. He pressed the county and won his federally guaranteed right to a reader, to help him understand questions.
This time, Spanos was at the top of the promotion list, out of 80 who took the written test and those who subsequently underwent the daylong assessment required of candidates.
"When I opened the envelope and found I was number one, I almost fell over," Spanos said. "I knew somebody forgot to put the damn zero there. I think the biggest relief was when I found out I wouldn't have to go through that testing procedure again."
Studying several hours a night after work, memorizing the look of words to help lock them in his mind, "is very draining and very tough on the family," said Spanos, a former Air Force sergeant. He had to spend twice the time other students might to get through his studies, and it took him a decade to get a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, Spanos said.
But he maintained a 3.5 grade point average.
"Everything else has to go on hold. You ostracize yourself from your family and friends," Spanos said of his studies to become a police sergeant.
Spanos, whose mother graduated from college at 16 and whose father directed the Baltimore school system's vocational centers, said people with dyslexia "learn to hide it."
Police officers, in particular, think that they are not allowed to admit vulnerability, he said. Dyslexia comes with a stigma, he said, and police officers tend to be individuals who "don't want other people knowing their inner secrets."
Spanos broke new ground for the police department, then, when he took his case for help with the exam to the county personnel office, after first conferring with the governor's office for the disabled.
In 18 years, Spanos has been a patrol and special operations officer and educational trainer. He now teaches the use of firearms and lectures on legal force at the police training academy.
He hopes to be assigned to supervise patrol officers, Spanos said. "I'd really like to get out on the road."
Although dyslexia has always made reading and writing a struggle for Spanos, the memorization it has demanded of him has "helped me in police work," he said.
As a boy, "I got into experimental programs where they taught you to play chess.
"They taught us mind games . . . games with a lot of strategy. It helps me in police work to plan ahead . . . . A lot of police work is memory: What did you see when you got on the scene?" Yet, memory, drawing it all back, is "something I have had to rely on since I was a kid."