Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin, pictured with students at his alma mater, the Grammar School of Putney, says of his dyslexia: “I am the leader I am not despite but because of my learning difference.”
Ask Gov. Peter Shumlin for a preview of this week’s inaugural address and he’ll reveal one surprising fact: He won’t spell out a thing.
It’s not because he’s dodging. It’s because he’s dyslexic.
To understand this “word,” your brain must register “wah-ur-dah” and recognize the result as a building block of language. As a child, Shumlin saw the individual letters. But like an estimated 15 percent of Americans — including fellow Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut — he couldn’t sound out something as simple as “cat” or “dog.”
“I had a very hard time learning how to read,” Shumlin recalls, “but once they figured out how to teach me, I eventually could put a sentence together just as quickly as anybody else.”
That said, the 56-year-old’s dyslexia still affects him in and out of the office. Take the speech he’ll present Thursday to start his second term.
“I still can’t spell,” he says. “I stayed away from computers for years because I knew if I typed on one and someone saw, they would think they were dealing with someone who’s not ready for prime time.”
As a result, Shumlin is crafting his address using a voice-activated dictation system. He was one of the first to discover Dragon speech-recognition software that advertises, “You talk, and it types.” This lets him dictate, shuffle and subtract words, sentences and paragraphs, then print them out for posterity. It’s just one way he’s plugging into technology — and governing more in person than on paper.
‘How I survived’
When Shumlin speaks of his youth, he usually talks about growing up in the same Putney hills as the late, legendary Vermont statesman George Aiken. But upon his swearing-in two years ago, he revealed a less celebrated memory.
“I remember well in second grade being called into the principal’s office with my parents to have them be told what I already knew, but hoped beyond hope that they would never find out,” Shumlin said in his 2011 address. “That with all the good efforts of my teachers they could not teach me how to read; that the prospects of my being a successful student and going onto college were unlikely.”
Then one instructor — the late Claire Ogelsby, subject of the 2000 documentary “The World in Claire’s Classroom” — “slowly and creatively” taught him to read.
“What I remember best about Claire,” Shumlin said in his speech, “was no matter how difficult the challenge, no matter how innovative she had to be or how hard she had to work, she never gave up on me and therefore neither did I.”
(The governor’s teleprompter was a different story — it stopped before he started, forcing him to turn to a paper printout.)
Scientists believe neurological short circuits in an otherwise normal brain deter dyslexics from easily deciphering the written word. With early intervention, Shumlin learned to read well enough to not only juggle English and government studies but also graduate with honors from Wesleyan University. Even so, spelling remains a high hurdle for someone who, writing phonetically, can turn specifics into “spa-sif-fiks.”
“I went to college before computers. When I could write a paper and get someone else to correct the spelling, I was in great shape. But when I had to do an exam, my professors would say, ‘The content’s great, but you’re joking, right?’”
As a result, Shumlin prefers to communicate by speaking. He doesn’t carry a briefcase but a smartphone that allows him to send voice-activated texts and emails.
“You’ll notice I hardly ever read a speech. It’s not because I can’t — it’s because I taught myself to think verbally. When you suddenly realize your peer group is comprehending something that you’re not, you want to do everything you can to hide it or think of ways you can compensate.”
The stumbling student morphed into a skilled speaker — for some, too much so.
“Some people have said I come off as sounding kind of slick. The fact of the matter is I’m not — I’m able to very quickly express thoughts because it’s how I survived.”
‘A real gift’
Because dyslexics think less in-line than out of the box, they’re often seen as creative problem solvers. Shumlin was a Putney selectman when he stopped a plan to turn the town’s shuttered Windham College into a 500-bed prison. Instead he persuaded Landmark, the nation’s first college for students with dyslexia, to take over the property.
Even with annual fees of $48,000 that pay for specialized help and a ratio of one instructor for every five students, only about 30 percent of the school’s 500 enrollees graduate within three years — a figure that shows the magnitude of the obstacles Shumlin overcame with the support of his own teachers, family and technology.
“Spell-check for me is like a prime rib to someone’s who’s hungry,” he says. “It saves me every day from embarrassing myself.”
Shumlin remembers when fellow politicos discouraged him from such revelations.
“I was told in my earlier years in public service I shouldn’t talk about my dyslexia because people wouldn’t vote for someone who’s …”
He won’t repeat the “r” word that others used.
The governor, speaking at the most recent commencement of Massachusetts’ Eagle Hill college preparatory school for dyslexics, told graduates to channel the heat of their toils into helping others.
“I bet there isn’t a one of you that hasn’t been bullied, teased or harassed because of your learning style,” he told students. “The pain we have felt getting where we are today has given us tremendous compassion.”
That’s the main reason, Shumlin adds today, why he fought for same-sex marriage.
“You can’t go through an experience in life where you are ridiculed and questioned without having huge empathy for those who are also different, for those who are struggling, for those who don’t have a voice. Having felt removed from the mainstream, I tend to connect to issues like that.”
And then to campaign for change. Shumlin is one of three current U.S. governors — along with Malloy and John Hickenlooper of Colorado — to grapple with and, in his view, grow from dyslexia.
“After all the challenges you face as someone who learns differently, there are actually some real benefits for the job that I do right now,” the Vermonter says. “People who learn traditionally can sit back and let it happen. If you’re dyslexic, you have to train your brain to anticipate what lies ahead. In government, if you can do that, you tend to be a strong leader. I now see it as a real gift. It has helped me become who I am.”
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