Black Marks on the Page

by Jason Tougaw

“Stephen has been diagnosed with a learning disability,” I hear our neighbor Brenda’s British accent on our doorstep. She’s talking about one of her sons. “It’s a problem with his brain. If Stephen looks at a tree in the distance, he’ll see one leaf, but not the tree. The rest of us wouldn’t see the leaf at all.” I don’t really know what she’s talking about, but Brenda’s accent makes living in Del Dios seem less horrible. And I know that everybody in my family is always blaming our crazy Portuguese blood for problems with our brains.

“Is there anything they can do about it?” my mom asks. Her lung disease was recently cured, by a doctor who studied Eastern healing. Stanley calls it a Lucky Seven miracle, courtesy of Ralph Neves. Miracle or not, it’s got my mom in the mood to search for cures, and I’m next.

“Well, the school has a new program, The Perception Center. He’ll spend part of every day there. In a way it’s a relief. We just thought he was slow.”

“Steve is a great kid,” my mom says. “He’s so kind.”

“Sometimes that worries me. He’ll trust anybody.”

“In the long  run, that’s better than not trusting anybody.”

“I suppose so. Anyway, I just popped by to say that if you still need to me to look after the kids this afternoon I can do it.”


“Read it again,” Mr. Warfel  says, each breath a little warm cloud swallowing my neck and ear. I’ve just started first grade at Miller School, in the middle of the year, because my mom finally won her battle with my stepdad who didn’t want us going to schools where they brainwash you.

“I am Sam. Matt the Rat,” I repeat. “I see Kay. Ann the fan. Tad is sad.”

“Okay, now listen to me, “Matt the Rat. Kay I say. Ann the fan. Is that what you read?”

I can tell he wants me to answer this question for real, but I can’t. I don’t know if that’s what I read. “Yeah,” I say. “I guess so.”

“Okay,” he says, mussing my hair with his huge hand.

I glance over him to the book, open to the first page.  If I stare at the letters I can make them anything I want. I just need the right answer. Siam Ams. Miamis. I am Sam. Sam I am. Maimas.


I hear Mr. Warfel talking to my mom:

“He’s seeing stuff that isn’t there. He has several of the symptoms. The reading, lack of coordination in sports, difficulty with spatial relationships.” Stanley was right. I’ve been in school just a few weeks and they’re already handing me a diagnosis, the first step toward brainwashing.

“He gets confused about right and left,” my mom says.

“That’s another one. And confusion with time.”

“We had a seminar on dyslexia here at the school a few months ago. The latest theory is that the brain of a dyslexic exhibits a different pattern of cerebral dominance from the rest of us.” My mom’s been cured, and I’ve been diagnosed.

“Cerebral dominance?”

“Meaning that no single hemisphere in the brain is in control.  You’ve heard of right- and left-brained people?”

“Yeah—creative or business-like.”

“Basically. Well, if Jason turns out to be dyslexic, he may be ‘both-brained’.”

“Is that bad?”

“It is if he can’t learn to read the way the rest of us do.  Luckily, there is a great deal of awareness—and funding—when it comes to learning disabilities in California schools these days. I’d like to get him started on some cognitive therapy?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s not as scary as it sounds. To him it will just seem like playing games. Blocks, word games. Stuff like that. We’ve got a program called The Perception Center.”

“I’ve heard of it,” my mom says, smiling. “Our neighbor’s son has a learning disability. We’d better do it. Can I help in any way?” I’ve got a learning disability, like Steve.

“We need all the parent volunteers we can get.”

“Sign me up.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Messin, you’ve been great about this.”



The potential of black marks on a white page to shape mental pictures, to build wholly imagined worlds or ideas, is a fact that deserves wonder. It’s become routine to talk about dyslexia and other cognitive differences as “gifts,” but in the 1970s nobody was doing this. Dyslexia was a crisis.

For Steve Lewis and me, those black marks suffered from malleability. We were neighbors, but our lives—and our mothers—couldn’t have been more different. We had little in common, except that for both of us, letters mutated. We were out of synch with Miller School’s curriculum. Between us, we exhibited many cognitive phenomena that prompted leaders at the National Institute of Mental Health, in 1976, to invite an international group of educators, psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, and neurologists to a present their hypotheses about dyslexia—definitions of the condition, what causes it, what challenges it causes for those who experience it, and what treatments might help.

The researchers met in 1977 to discuss their hypotheses, but in the preceding year they were examining children and adults like Steve and me, devising and refining methods of gathering data, and forming a massive variety of conclusions.

Dyslexia just means “language problem.” But research turned up by the NIMH’s call made it clear that it was a mistake to assume that dyslexia was a single phenomenon with a single cause that could be treated with a single set of therapies.

The black marks are shapes before they’re letters. To read, you have to be able to perceive distinctions among these squiggly shapes. Look at these letters: F and E, U and V, M and W, or C and O. The differences are obvious, but if you pay attention, which we don’t usually do, you see how slight they are. Add variable typefaces and handwriting styles, and the subtle differences proliferate. Shape matters, and so does order. To see that god and dog are different words, you have to conform to the directional laws of your language. And to conform, you have to be able to stop yourself from trying out other directions.

To determine the causes of dyslexia, researchers began looking for correlates, other common cognitive peculiarities, in children struggling to read: delayed speech or speech impediments, lack of coordination, difficulty interpreting pictures or naming colors, trouble with spatial relationships, confusion between right and left. The tentative conclusion that emerged from the conference proceedings was that the neurology of dyslexia comes in three forms: a general language deficit (63 percent), a speech deficit (10 percent), or a visual-spatial deficit  (5 percent). In every case, “the presence of social disadvantage” increases the likelihood that a child will exhibit reading difficulties.

I’d have been the kid with social disadvantage, and Steve would’ve have been the one without. Somebody could have done a study, using us as controls for one another. Part of me appreciates documentaries like Dyslexia: The Unwrapped Gift (part 2 here).

Part of me appreciates comparisons to famous people to whom dyslexia is attributed: Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Agatha Christie, Keanu Reeves. The comparisons make the point that cognitive difference isn’t all disorder or deficit. It can also make certain kinds of thinking possible. It can reveal a productive malleability in the black marks on the page. I can’t quite get down with the idea that the future is entirely visual and that somehow dyslexics will ascend to heights of leadership and innovation in this visual utopia. Partly because I’m not much of a visual thinker. I’m a dyslexic who learned to love to the malleability of black marks. No two brains are exactly alike, and no two dyslexics are quite the same, as those gathered under the auspices of the NIMH began to discern.

Most of all, I want to say cheers to those black marks! Life would be dull if we couldn’t use them to simulate worlds full of people and other animals and objects and thoughts theretofore unthunk.


From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).

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