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Scrambled Signals
By Stannie Anderson
Topeka Capital-Journal “Midway” magazine section
January 18, 1987

Words leap out from everywhere.

For most children, reading is an entrancing experience that begins with picking out words from magazines, highway signs and cereal boxes.  It leads to an ever-widening world of books.

For the dyslexic child, who cannot make sense of words, there is a deep psychological wounding that begins at an early age.

The intelligent non-reader is the class dunce, the bewildered youngster who forever lags behind the others. The harvest is rage, frustration and sometimes violence.

Stan Thompson was one of the fortunate ones who eventually learned to cope.

Somehow he survived to become a successful consulting engineer who travels over the world and is the owner of Thompson Dehydrating in Topeka.  But the scars remain.

The Topekan’s enormous problems with school began on Day 1.

He simply could not learn to read more than a few words picked out from here and there, from first grade and continuing through his advanced studies in engineering.

He was graduated from Kansas State University without being able to read or write with understanding.

Only his careful listening to lectures, his copying material over and over, and his prodigious memory enabled him to complete his schooling.

As a young child, he could not understand why he was so different from the other children.  He knew the answers the teachers wanted from him.  He could only give them orally.  But when he was confronted with a written examination, he failed.  He could not read the questions.

He has dyslexia—a difficulty in processing written words—but did not know it, nor did his teachers, who thought he was just a slow learner.  Schools now would classify him as having a severe Specific Learning Disability (SLD).

Although dyslexics are of normal or above-average intelligence, they often fall behind or fail in school.  Some of the brightest learn to cope with their “word blindness” and go on to successful careers as adults.  Some prominent dyslexics who did this include Albert Einstein, President Woodrow Wilson, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Gen. George Patton, and writer Hans Christian Andersen.

When Thompson was 37 years old, he finally mastered the ability to read.

But in the 31 years between lay years of towering rage, emotional disturbance, and inability to understand why he was so different.

“I had a very, very violent temper,” Thompson recalled.  “Today you wouldn’t think of me as a very violent person, but I was. I’ve almost killed people.  I would just get frustrated.

“When I was a kid growing up and going to Topeka High, there was a major confrontation at Lawrence, where I almost killed a guy one night.

“I wasn’t very big, but I stood off a football team by myself.  I put three of them in a hospital.  I don’t remember, but somebody hit me over the head with a pipe and put me to my knees but didn’t put me out.”

Thompson pondered, “I had almost unlimited strength.  I could just hurt you.  I kind of wonder when you look at some of the violent things that happen, particularly with kids who have learning problems and the violence that they get into.  I kind of wonder if this isn’t a more common characteristic than we have any idea.”

For Stan Thompson, the classroom experiences were torture.

“I couldn’t figure out what the teachers wanted,” he said, his face troubled.  “That is the most severe form of child abuse there is on the face of the earth.  You can sit here, and you can beat my hands or you can burn me with a red hot poker, and it is nothing to compare to what you do when you hurt my mind.

“School was horrible to me,” he said.  “It is to these other kids with learning disabilities, too. They kind of scrape by—yet they really don’t.  They kind of make it, but not to what their potential should be.  The jails are loaded with them.  They give up on society.

We’re pushing the academically talented upward, and we’re leaving those with LD out.  The way we’re running the school system, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, and we don’t know it.”

He emphasized, “LD (learning disability) doesn’t mean you can’t learn.  It means you learn differently.  Each of us has strengths and weaknesses.  Every one of us is learning disabled in some way, from Sir Isaac Newton on, particularly Einstein. He had enough that he could have progress in an area that didn’t leave too many mental scars.”

Thompson, who sometimes makes talks in the community about his dyslexia, likes to ask members of his audience whether some of them have master’s or doctoral degrees.  Usually there are some.  He will ask one who has a degree in the arts, “How good are you at mechanics?” Quite often, the person will say, “I’m not very good at things like that.”

Then Thompson will say, “But obviously, you’re a very bright person, because you have an advanced degree.”  Then he suggests gently, “Could it be that you have a learning disability?”

Even today, just to survive in his occupation, Thompson has to ask people the same questions time after time, to make sure he knows the basic facts.

“And when you get into a classroom situation, that annoys teachers.  You become a real pain in the posterior.  One way of doing it is to be a dummy—to play dummy.  I have an excellent poor old farm boy routine.  That’s one of the things you learn to survive.

“You’ve got to remember to be the brunt of the joke and make them laugh at you for asking the question, rather than be mad at you.  You’ve got to be the clown.”

“Some kids are pretty good at it, while some kids, in the way they do it, alienate everybody, and that further defeats their purpose.”

With pain in his voice, Thompson said, “When I went to school, they would say, ‘If you’d just TRY.”

That’s like pouring gasoline on a man who has caught himself on fire, Thompson said.

“I WAS trying.  I can’t single out any one teacher and say, ‘You’re the most wicked, evil, mean, bad person I’ve ever met in my life.’ They were good people.  It was the method that they used to teach and the circumstances in which we grew up.  A hundred years ago, had I grown up using my hands, where you don’t have to do much at school, I wouldn’t had had a problem.”

Thompson said his parents were supportive, but they didn’t know what the problem was or how to solve it.

When Thompson was 36 years old, he saw a segment of “60 Minutes” on television.  It had to do with learning disabilities.  One of the young women featured on the program was an electrical engineering major at New York University, a straight “A” student, and couldn’t read a word with understanding.

“That was the greatest eye-opener experience I ever had in my life,” Thompson said. “because I knew there were other people like me.  I wasn’t crazy.”

The knowledge came at just the right time for him, he said.

“It wouldn’t have been too much longer until they had me in the looney bin—either that or I would have killed somebody.

“All the way through—you can look at my grade cards—I was always the bottom one or two or three in the class. Someone might make and ‘F’ and I’d make a ‘D.’ I would just barely get by.

But then, I’d get into something that really interested me—and I was one of one or two who made and ‘A’ in the class.  But it was never reading, I would process with my ears.  If the teacher would say it one time, I would usually pick it up.”

Thompson always was passed with his class.  Even in high school he was passed.  But he did repeat his junior year of high school.  His emotional problems with his learning disability became so frustrating that he dropped out of school that year to go to the Menninger Clinic.

“They (therapists) didn’t know what was wrong with me, other than my emotional problems, but at Menninger’s I bought some time.  I bought a safety valve,” Thompson said.

“I’d be in jail today for killing somebody or be dead myself if I had not gone to Menninger’s to learn to live with my problem.  No question about it,” he said.

Thompson could copy, and he did this over and over.  But he still could not understand what he was copying.

“The way I read, things didn’t make sense,” he said.  “I would see the whole sentence, but it would be mixed up.  It might be ‘My wife killed Saturday a chicken.’ And I would wonder, did she kill a chicken named Saturday? Or was it on Saturday that she killed a chicken?”

Thompson finally, as a 37-year-old adult, worked out his own method of learning to read.

“What I have determined is that my horizontal scan just does not work.  My vertical scan does very well.  If you say I’m looking for such and such a phone number in the book, then I can go right down (the column) and pick it right out.  But I cannot go across the page and pick information out.  It just doesn’t work,” he said.

“I underline to force my scan to work horizontally. If I underline, I can read.  I used to go to the copying machine and make a whole bunch of copies, so I could re-underline with a fresh piece of paper.

“Then I began to underline with highlighters (transparent colored pencils).  You can take a yellow one and go through, then take a blue one and underline and the yellow one turns green, and then you can go through with a pencil.  So I can get three on one copy now.

“When I was in school I couldn’t underline. Teachers would say, ‘You don’t deface books.’”

Now, Thompson says, at 47 “I’m not a bad reader.”

When reading a newspaper, it takes him five minutes to go through and pick out what he wants to read. He looks through the headlines first, reads the first few lines of the story, and “if it isn’t in the first few lines, that’s it.”

He doesn’t underline on newspapers, because columns are narrow and he can scan them.  But if a story has wide columns, he’s unable to read it.

“The reason the Bible works pretty well is that it has narrow columns,” he said.  “My Bible is underlined.”

Thompson has no ability to sound out words.  If he comes to one he doesn’t know, “I just say ‘wheelbarrow’ and go on,” he said. “It makes about as much sense.  If I can come back and figure out what this word meant and probably will not be too far off.

“My learning is a slower process.  But once I learn something, I never lose it.  I’m worse than an elephant.  But one of the things I cannot learn is a formula.

“I seem to be fairly good at mathematics.  But in engineering, which I’m in, it is always formulas.

“That’s a bunch of garbage.  If you get to learning formulas, then you clutter your mind up because you can’t do any original thinking.  I find it real mind-cluttering.  I’m not interested in formulas; I’m interested in total concepts.  I don’t want to be governed by what someone else said.”

The special license plate on Stan Thompson’s Mercedes reads: “UKAN2.”

The philosophy is the cornerstone of his life.  It has helped him in his struggle against dyslexia. And it has helped him confront the battle that two of his three sons are fighting with cancer.

“We’ve learned how to handle cancer,” Thompson said.  “It makes you grow and stretch.  I refuse to let cancer get us.”

One son, Joshua, who has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also has learning disability problems.  And Thompson says he is almost positive his own father was dyslexic.

“My dad never would admit to something like that,” Thompson said. “He would read a little bit of the newspaper. But I never saw my dad read a book in his life.  He could go through a contract and pick out some of that.

“Ninety-nine percent of what we did was always a handshake.  I still try to do the same thing.  The heck of it is that the contract isn’t worth what it’s written on.  The guy’s handshake is what’s good.”

And in the medical world, research continues in an effort to find out why bright young children like Stan Thompson should find reading such an insurmountable task.

Recently at the annual meeting in Philadelphia of the American Society of Human Genetics, a report was made based on a study of 16 families with a history of dyslexia, in which scientists concluded that one out of three inherited cases of dyslexia is linked to a defect on chromosome 15, one of the 23 paired chromosomes that carry human genes.

Two-thirds are presumably linked to genetic defects on other chromosomes, the report suggested.  The disorder, however, also can be caused by non-genetic factors, such as a head injury or brain disease.

Dr. Albert Galaburda, a neurologist at the Harvard Medical School, who studies dyslexia, agrees that most dyslexia is inherited.  But he said it is wrong to assume, therefore, that there is a specific gene that causes dyslexia.

“It may be there is a gene that sets up changes to make a brain vulnerable and let it show dyslexia under certain circumstances,” he said at the Philadelphia meeting.

Galaburda estimated 5 to 10 percent of the population—or about 10 million to 20 million Americans—suffer from what can strictly be called dyslexia.

Another 5 percent, he said, includes children for whom the reading disability is a part of a larger problem of learning disabilities.

So the search for the root causes goes on—slowly, painfully.  And a new generation of Stan Thompsons is left to work out its own solutions to a frustrating world in which it is deluged with puzzling printed instructions.