Friday, June 17, 2011

The Puzzle of My Own Early Education

Suffield Academy Alumni Leadership Award -- Presentation April 18, 2011 -- by Thomas G. West, Class of 1961

I want to thank the Alumni Association, Headmaster Cahn and the Suffield Academy Community for this award. I am especially grateful for this honor because, when I was student here, I imagine there was no one in our class less likely to be honored decades later.

“I was happy as a child. . . . I have been happier every year since I became a man. But this interlude of school [made] a sombre grey patch upon the chart of my journey. . . . All my contemporaries and even younger boys seemed in every way better adapted to the conditions of our little world. They were far better both at the games and the lessons. It is not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.” (Churchill, My Early Life, 1930, pp. 38-39.)

These are not my words. They are the words of Winston Churchill writing in 1930 of his early life and education. His greatest test and chief accomplishments were not to begin until 9 years later. But his words perfectly reflected my own feelings at the very beginning of my three years at Suffield. Fortunately, those three years provided, in many ways, a major turning point in my life -- and my feelings were quite different three years later.

I had arrived as a slow walking, slow talking country boy from a rural and very Southern part of the Eastern Shore of Maryland -- now considered highly fashionable and largely unspoiled -- but then considered backward and economically depressed. My older brother and I were from this border state -- but for the New England and New York boys, we might as well have come from Mississippi or Alabama.

We worked very hard. And I was highly motivated. In my early schooling, I had learned to read imperfectly and very late and had unusual difficulties with many school subjects. This was a puzzle to my teachers and a worry to my otherwise supportive parents. Even in a comparatively undemanding rural school system, I could barely keep up. I could hardly read anything out loud. Foreign languages were a humiliation. I could learn almost nothing by rote. I could not memorize. I could not retain exact texts. I had to have time to ponder and think. I had to understand. I needed to know the story. I had to visualize. Then, I would never forget.

I knew nothing of my own dyslexia at the time. I was not diagnosed until some 20 years later. But I did know that there were many things that I could not do -- that were quite easy for others. I saw Suffield as my chance to catch up -- and fill in some of the gaps. Initially, my greatest ambition was to avoid being at the bottom of the class.

But over time, things began to change. The talented teachers, the disciplined routines, the absence of distractions at Suffield helped me to focus and learn how to build on my own strengths. And, although I was never any good at team sports, doubtless the (required) regular practice and exercise helped me to grow and develop in many ways as well.

Gradually, the increasingly high level content began to change what was wanted and what I could produce. Gradually, everything changed. The higher level curriculum began to play to my strengths rather than my weaknesses.

Before, I had trouble with arithmetic and math facts, but in time I came to love geometry, log tables and the slide rule. (Yes, this was long before pocket calculators and computers. So hard to believe.) I had trouble with foreign languages, but loved linguistics and the history of language. I still had lots of trouble with spelling and my slow, faltering reading -- but I began to see that I seemed to have a special knack for following logical arguments, complex story lines and higher level conceptual thinking.

Gradually -- strangely -- by the senior year, I felt that I was getting more out of the readings than many or most of my classmates. I can still recall, in some detail, almost all of the readings we did during that senior year.

After Suffield, I went to a small liberal arts college (Gettysburg) which proved to be the right place, on the whole, for the further growth of the abilities initially developed at Suffield. Remarkably, I majored in English Literature and Philosophy (so many books to be read and understood) and later did graduate work in International Relations.

After graduate school and military service, I was employed by several engineering and consulting companies where I worked in early computer management information systems (NIMH and NIDA), surveys of medical care quality (SSA), energy policy (DOE), international trade (DOC) and, eventually, renewable energy development projects, resource surveys and training for engineers in Egypt funded by USAID.

Throughout these work experiences, I found ways around my weaknesses and ways to exploit my talents. I had little technical training, but -- usually working with engineers, economists or computer programmers -- often I found I could easily understand most technical concepts and programs. I could write about them, explain them in ordinary language and, eventually, manage them as well.

However, I didn’t really begin to understand the patterns of talent common among dyslexics -- until our own two sons started having problems in their early years of primary school. The idea that they were going to go through what I had gone through -- this was a great emotional shock for me. Suddenly, I realized that I had to understand this thing that had been running my life -- and, in part, the life of my dyslexic artist father as well as other family members, more or less.

So I had myself tested for dyslexia. I attended dyslexia conferences and started the research that eventually became the book, In The Mind’s Eye. I learned that almost all the professionals in the field wanted to fix reading problems, but that they mostly ignored the special talents that many dyslexics have. My research and book focused on these talents as no other book had done before -- the neurological foundations, the case studies and profiles of famous people and the growing role of new computer graphic information visualization technologies.

To my surprise (and to the delight of my publisher), over time, the book became a classic -- an “evergreen,” as they say in the trade, a book that never stops selling.

I suspect that the strong focus on dyslexic talents is the reason that the book is still very much alive today -- and still regarded as radical new thinking -- twenty years (this month) after it was first published. Even the university librarians liked it -- it was selected as one of the “best of the best” for the year by the American Library Association (one of only 13 books in their broad psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience category). With 16 printings and a new second edition in English, the book has been translated into both Japanese and Chinese. A Korean translation will be available later this year.

Over time the book came to be highly regarded in many quarters. To my great delight, Oliver Sacks (the famous author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) came to write in the foreword to the new edition: “In the Mind's Eye brings out the special problems of people with dyslexia, but also their strengths, which are so often overlooked. . . . It stands alongside Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind as a testament to the range of human talent and possibility.”

During these years, I have been invited to give talks and workshops for scientific, medical, art, design, computer and business groups in the U.S. and overseas, including groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan and twelve European countries.

Also, I came to be asked to write a regular series of articles on the broad effects of visualization technologies for a quarterly publication of the international professional association for computer graphics artists and technologists -- an organization with many creative dyslexics. These articles were finally collected into a book with the title: Thinking Like Einstein.

I am now working on a third book, this one dealing with high level creativity and brain diversity -- including dyslexia and Asperger syndrome among other alternative modes of learning and thinking -- focusing on individuals and families, including one British family with (over five generations) many visual thinkers, many dyslexics and four Nobel Prize winners.

Attitudes toward the special talents of dyslexics have been changing, but very slowly. Gradually, non-dyslexics are beginning to see why it is important to have dyslexics involved in their businesses or their scientific research. As is often observed, they “see things that others do not see or cannot see.” 

During the years since my book was first published, dyslexia is gradually coming to be seen, remarkably, as a significant advantage in an increasing number of fields -- often linked to success in design innovation, entrepreneurial business and scientific discovery. One of the founders of the modern study of molecular biology was dyslexic and described to me how he used his powerful visual imagination to observe the interaction of molecules and see new patterns 12 years ahead of all others in the field.

The National Science Foundation is currently funding a Harvard-Smithsonian study of when and where dyslexia may be an advantage in doing science, especially within astrophysics. In the field of computer graphics and simulation, dyslexic artists and technologists are often leading innovators. Recently a new website and book have been published with the tile, "Dyslexic Advantage." A world famous professor of paleontology tries to teach his graduate students how to “think like a dyslexic” so they can see patterns invisible to others, sometimes doing things long thought impossible. The rest is “just memorization,” he says, without innovation or significant new discovery.

No one could be more surprised that I am with the wide and continuing interest in my books and the ideas they contain. However, I have never forgotten that my first steps along this path were taken here at Suffield Academy. And, as I started my book research long ago, it was more than a small comfort to know that Winston Churchill, for all his major achievements as a leader in time of crisis, had also -- once -- been at the bottom of the class -- feeling “completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”

Contact: Thomas G. West, author of Thinking Like Einstein and In the Mind's Eye (One of the "best of the best" for the year, American Library Association; new revised edition with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, released September 2009). Research Scholar Study Office 1W-16C, National Library of Medicine. Institutional address: Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Member of the Advisory Board, 4400 University Drive, MS 2A1, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444. 
Email: or 

Videos: Two videos are available on the web which deal with visual thinking, visual technologies and the talents of dyslexics -- along with the two books by Thomas G. West:

(1) In December 2010, West was asked to travel to New York to be filmed as part of a new author series developed by the “AT&T Tech Channel.” At this website click on Science & Technology Author Series, “Thinking Like Einstein.” About 17 minutes. Other than West’s books, generally the books discussed on this site are very technical.

(2) Recently placed on YouTube, “Dyslexia: An Unwrapped Gift.” Shot in “The Chained Library” of Hereford Cathedral in England, this video features Thomas West along with several dyslexic British teenagers who were filmed while they were coming to understand their own special areas of talent. Silva Productions, 1999, a classic film still popular and often shown in UK education circles. Still widely believed to be the best documentary for capturing the attention of dyslexic teens. Provided on YouTube in two parts, about 9 minutes each.

Awards: In 2008, the Wye River Upper School, Wye Mills, Maryland, established the annual student prize: “The Thomas G. West Achievement in Digital Arts and Technology Award.”  In 2010, West was presented with the Siena Cypress Leadership Award given by the Siena School, Silver Spring, Maryland. The award honors “individuals who make significant and lasting contributions to the education of children and young adults with learning disabilities.” In 2011, West was selected to receive the Alumni Leadership Award by Suffield Academy, Suffield, Conn. Recipients of the award are recognized for their “ability to make a significant, lasting, and positive impact on the world” together with their “attainment of professional excellence, demonstrated leadership, . . . and contributions to the betterment of our society.”

1 comment:

  1. Your story is an inspiration to all, not only those with dyslexia. As a private dyslexia school we commend you for sharing your story with everyone! Hopefully we reach a time when dyslexia can be detected quite early and be facilitated throughout life.