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Dare to Dream with Dyslexia

Photography by Nicolette Mallow at The Atlanta Zoo in Georgia.

As a little girl and pesky little sister, I’d sneak into my older brother’s room to read his “Calvin and Hobbes” comics by Bill Watterson. We were four grades apart and for a short time: I was at home while Zachary was at elementary school. I loved those comic books! It didn’t hurt that Hobbes was a tiger, too, since I am the year of the tiger. There was a periodical when Calvin is thinking, daydreaming about outer space, the meaning of life, and having an existential crisis: do I matter? I recall a line in the comic reel about feeling like a “molecular dot in the Universe.” In another scene, Calvin shouts into the stardust sky, “I matter!” That concept resonated with me even at four years old. Knowing I was an old soul, knowing that I mattered, and realizing the Universe is infinite, vast. I am just a molecular dot in the galaxy. Ergo, do I matter?

When I was three years old, I taught myself the alphabet and how to read. With the use of Hooked on Phonics and the guidance of my mother, an English teacher: I was literate before elementary school. As was my brother, who is more intelligent than me, and went to Columbia University and MIT Sloan School of Management, but this is a story about me. By the time I turned four, I was reading chapter books on my own. I asked my parents to take me to the library for fun. The catchy slogan, Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” is the truth.

Before I could read on my own, my Lebanese father read to us from birth, so we were born into a world of books, history, and imagination. My parents noticed I loved books and often read to myself even when I couldn’t spell. I would make it up as I turned the pages and looked at the imagery. Owl Moon was one of my favorites! Back in the 1980s, when my mother gave me a stack of Hooked on Phonics learning books, Hooked on Phonics tapes, a cassette player, pencils, colored pencils, crayons, and scratch paper. She expected me to sit, to learn, and to read my Hooked on Phonics materials. Sometimes I would get snacks to eat while working, but not enough to get my papers dirty. Even now, I can still hear some of the memorization games. You might not hear the melodic tune, but I replay the memory: “A, E, I, O, U are vowels… and sometimes Y”.

Flash forward to adulthood—after I completed my Master’s degree, my undergraduate, and 15 years of freelance writing with amazing companies in the United States and Europe—I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. Since my junior year of high school in AP English, my dyslexia had surfaced. Alas, my learning disability had gone untreated so long it was hard to diagnose and resolve. Since the seventh grade, I felt I struggled with grammar, but I didn’t feel anyone was listening. Instead, I was met with ingratitude and criticism, an attitude from teachers that I just needed to “try harder” or “listen more closely.”

Because I was in a gifted and talented (GT) program since kindergarten, and I did all Pre-AP and AP classes in high school. I began struggling in secret. My learning issues didn’t show in elementary school. Not until 7th grade English with those damn diagrams: I didn’t have any evident grammar issues, even myself. [I still loathe those bloody diagrams with a passion!] Then, after 7th grade English it wasn’t until Algebra II in high school that I had any evident issues with mathematics. Once again, I was berated and told to try harder. The harder I tried, the more difficult it became to focus, and I started to beat myself up. I dreaded English and Math teachers. I had doubts about whether I was smart or not. I had anxiety at test times and started having panic attacks. Thankfully, my AP English teacher, Mrs. Goodman, during my junior year of high school, pulled me aside to talk. I wanted to drop out of her AP English class because every paper I wrote came back riddled with red ink, like the pages were bleeding with errors. The red marks became too depressing for me. A reminder that my grammar wasn’t good enough.

English used to be one of my best subjects. My first research paper in the 2nd grade for an after-school GT program (invite only) was about Ramses The Great.

How did I become such a sloppy writer? When did everyone start correcting me all the time and constantly criticizing me when I speak or write?

Mrs. Goodman, my AP English teacher, was the first educator to pull me aside and tell me, “Nicolette. You are one of my best and brightest students. You’re one of my best writers. Please do not drop out of my class because it’s getting hard. I know you are intelligent and gifted. I know that. I can tell somewhere along the line the system failed you. The system failed to teach you grammar. I want to help you, not insult you or hurt you. Please, stay in my class. I promise you will pass if you keep putting in the work. I can see you’re working hard on each paper you write, and you’re a great writer. You have a natural voice. You need editing.”

I remember I tried to pinch myself to stop the tears, but I cried anyway. I thanked Mrs. Goodman for her kindness, and I never dropped out. I finished the semester with a good grade in AP English. Sadly, that was the first time any teacher saw me and realized I struggled with a learning disorder. Years later, after I graduated with a B.F.A. in Writing from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). I went back to Lake Travis High School to personally thank Mrs. Goodman for believing in me and grab a cup of coffee. Without her, I may have given up on my writing voice. I was an artist from birth, but it wasn’t until college that I knew I was a writer more than I was a dancer, vocalist, or actor.

In college at SCAD, my art professors noticed I was dyslexic, and they gave me materials to read to understand my mind better. Professors were more forgiving about my grammar, less berating, and less condescending than standardized teachers at public schools. The professors focused on the content, the heart of the story, and my creative skills. Professors did edit my grammar. Points were deducted if the text was sloppy or I rushed the assignment. But I was graded on my effort, my work ethic, my mind, and my voice. Not just grammar. I was graded on whether or not I completed the assignment, followed the instructions, and whether did my best to keep growing as an artist. For the most part, my art professors were kind about my disability and knew I am knowledgeable, not lazy, stupid, or uneducated.

Art school wasn’t always kind to me. One of my writing professors was brutal and liked to point out my grammatical errors in front of the class, knowing I was dyslexic. Once I was mailing an envelope to my grandparents in Texas whose last name is Valadez—it contained writings of mine—and when I took it out of my bookbag.

The professor walked over and dared to tell me, “You misspelled your grandparents’ last name,” and with his forefinger, he said with a corrective tone, “it should read, Valdez.”

I was speechless and it took all my might to be gracious. “Incorrect, their name is Valadez.”

He went quiet but did not apologize.

That was another moment I realized a teacher (and a published writer) had no compassion nor understanding of dyslexia. He wasn’t even Hispanic, Latino, Spanish, Mexican, etc. It blew my mind how he overstepped his boundaries on a cultural level and insulted my intelligence. There I was, teaching him how to spell, and he was supposed to be the teacher that allegedly memorized the whole dictionary. Tragic!

For decades, there has been a harsh stigma about dyslexia: if you have dyslexia, you must be incompetent, which is far from the truth. Two days ago, I saw an article with a video featuring a dyslexic woman that graduated from Harvard. Laura Schifter spoke of her struggles with dyslexia. Right before she attended Ivy League Harvard, an older man said something to Schifter: “Well, if you’re going to Harvard, then you must not have dyslexia.” Oy! It was hard to watch, but she talks about the brutal comments and the misinformed judgments a lot of people hold towards dyslexia.

Earlier this year, after living with dyslexia my whole life: I sought out an Educational Diagnostician for an official diagnosis. It turns out; I fall into the category of 2E dyslexia. Which stands for twice-exceptional. “Twice-exceptional or 2e is a term used to describe students who are both intellectually gifted (as determined by an accepted standardized assessment) and learning disabled, including students with dyslexia.” Statistics estimate that about 2-5% of the population has this form of dyslexia, maybe higher.

For years, I’ve been keeping my dyslexia a secret from employers. I was advised that no one wants to hire a dyslexic writer. It was implied most editors see a dyslexic writer like a deaf musician, a colorblind photographer, or a one-legged runner. I heard from other professionals that employers see a writer like me as too much work. It’s unfair, it’s wrong, and it’s saddening—but it’s the harsh truth. So I kept my dyslexia secret, which ended up hurting me in the end.

Lately, I kept missing out on editorial jobs I wanted. I’d apply, and yet nothing would transpire. It was bonkers because, for over ten years, my writing career was booming! Lately, I’ve picked up a few writing projects here and there, but for the most part, I’ve pursued other jobs for income. Recently, my writing career has been quiet. It’s not just COVID-19; there’s bad juju going on. I felt clueless about why I was suddenly invisible, especially after years of success with companies like SXSW, HBO Films, National Geographic, Prevention Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Texas Monthly, UT Austin, and more. Plus, my record is clean, and I’ve never been fired. I don’t have a criminal history. My portfolio and credentials are impressive for my age. Yet, I was getting dismissed as a writer. For a while, no company would tell me why I wasn’t selected. Each time I came in silver or bronze, each rejection I kept asking why, so I could work on the issue. But I kept getting ghosted, or they sent an insincere PR note without any explanation. All that time, writing samples I’d submitted to prospective employers for free—writings that took hours, days, or weeks to complete—and the editors or hiring managers didn’t even give a reply as to why I wasn’t hired—only a rejection letter.

I asked myself: Does that seem right to you, Mallow? Do you want to work for a company that asks for free labor without the respect of a critique? The answer is a bonafide, no.

Finally, this summer, a hiring manager told the recruiter to inform me. The reason I was not selected is because of my grammar. I made one too many grammar errors for hire. Sadly, these are words I’ve heard since the seventh grade: your grammar sucks. Ain’t nothing new. I’m aware. I didn’t know how to fix it.

Writers are supposed to be flawless at grammar. I’ll never forget when a childhood friend from school wrote to me late at night on Facebook about nine years ago, “You should really learn to improve your grammar if you consider yourself a writer.” Not only was it ugly, but the implication was: you’re not a writer. You only think you are. But I define myself and my identity, not others, especially trolls looking to see me fail.

This summer, when I read the email from the recruiter about my grammar or lack thereof. For the first time during the interview process, especially since I had nothing to lose, I confessed my secret: I am dyslexic. To much surprise, the recruiter told me that dyslexia is a superpower and nothing to be ashamed about. They advised me to check out Grammarly, which I am using for this post. They advised me to be forthright with employers about dyslexia. Once again, I cried because I was heard, seen, and acknowledged. And I thanked the recruiter for her kindness and professionalism.

Ultimately, I’m grateful because I finally got my answer about why I was wasn’t selected. Now I can use Grammarly and kick my dyslexia’s ass. Now, I can get the writing jobs I’ve worked hard for the last 15 years. [I’ve yet to download Grammarly Premium. I can only imagine how many more errors will arise. C’est la vie!]

I don’t know why I was so successful for so many years and suddenly became invisible. At least I know the truth and can fix it and change my bad luck.

If you have dyslexia, the publishing industry can bind you, break you, chew you up, and spit you out. It can make you doubt yourself. Every rejection I read without explanation caused me to manifest an existential crisis of my own. Does my writing matter? Am I a writer?

Finally, I found some peace of mind with honesty, self-acceptance, and Grammarly. 

Yes, the truth hurt to read. I’ve heard it for far too long. It’s disheartening that my grammar can overshadow 110+ publications in the United States and Europe, 12 national awards, and my credentials, talents, skills, and accolades. It’s a mystery why all of a sudden, my grammar has caused so many issues. It makes me sad for younger generations, the children, because what kind of message does that send out. “Kids, you can be anything you want to be, so long as you don’t have a learning disability.”

Do I dare to dream of being a writer, even though I am dyslexic? Hell yes, I dare to dream of being a New York Times Best Seller.

True, being a dyslexic writer is an oxymoron and most employers, especially editors, don’t want to have to put in, what they feel, is extra work to accommodate someone’s disability. There is a lack of compassion and awareness surrounding dyslexia. Nonetheless, I will no longer hide my learning disability because I am not disabled. I am unique, and my mind works differently. I am proud of all my achievements, accomplishments, and accolades. Even my failures helped me grow. If I can achieve all I did with my bad grammar. What goals can’t I reach with enhanced and improved grammar?

Lastly, I know editors, employers, artists, and entrepreneurs won’t focus on my shortcomings. Instead, they will focus on my talents and skills. I know in my heart some compassionate employers want me on their editorial team. I may not be the best at grammar, but writing is more than grammar. Writing requires a heart and a voice. These skills cannot be taught at school.

SCAD is one of the best art and design schools in the world. For my Master’s program, SCAD offered me three Academic Honors Awards Scholarships based upon a Thesis paper I wrote during the Admissions process. I wrote that research paper without Grammarly or an editor. If SCAD believed in me, I know someone else will, and I look forward to joining that team.

“Dream when you’re feelin’ blue. Dream. That’s the thing to do. Just watch the smoke rings rise in the air. You’ll find your share of memories there. So dream. When the day is through. Dream. And they might come true. Things never are as bad as they seem. So dream, dream, dream“. 

– Frank Sinatra (written by Johnny Mercer)

Published by Nicolette Mallow

‡ Nicolette Mallow is an Artist: writer, dancer, vocalist, thespian, model, and (amateur) photographer. Writing is Mallow’s strongest artistic skill. Internationally published in the United States and Europe, Nicolette has obtained 110+ publications thus far. Mallow has interviewed an extensive list of talent and collaborated with companies and PR teams from Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Prevention Magazine, HBO Films, The Hollywood Reporter, SXSW, The David Lynch Foundation, Cine Las Americas, The University of Texas at Austin and more. Presently her portfolio entails 12 national awards or scholarships, including both individual and group projects. Working with Press and Publicity teams from companies like Sunshine Sachs, Fons PR, Frank PR, and CW3PR — Mallow can liaise with publicists, entrepreneurs, and their brands. Since 2005, for 17 years, Nicolette Mallow has covered numerous press, corporate and red carpet events as a (dyslexic) writer. Mallow has interviewed talent far beyond her years, including Jimmy Chin, Greta Gerwig, Bob Roth, Dr. Travis Stork, Joan Lunden, Larysa DiDio, Lauren Handel Zander, James White, Jay Roach, Naomi Whittel and Roc Chen. Once, she was a public speaker for a national business conference. Her career is diverse and transcends a vast array of industries, but the focus is always on the arts. Nicolette Mallow does enjoy all forms of writing, but her favorite writing genres to create entail editorial, arts & entertainment, literary journalism, travel, magical realism, nonfiction, technical and promotional publicity. Over time Nicolette has attained Press Credentials to events like Texas Film Awards (hosted by Austin Film Society), The Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin Film Festival, Euphoria Music Festival, and The Blanton Museum of Art. She also wrote for Savannah Magazine, a radio station operated by EMMIS Communications, District newspaper, and the Thinkery (formerly Austin Children’s Museum). In her spare time, Nicolette creates a magical realism novel and turns her nonfiction memoirs into short story novellas. Obtaining two degrees from the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), she has a Master of Arts degree in Arts Administration (a graduate degree now recognized as Creative Business Leadership) and a B.F.A. in Writing. Born and raised in Texas and NYC—Nicolette Mallow is also a world traveler that lives for art and loves to learn. “L’art Pour L’art.”

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