The impact of what happens to a child in a classroom can shape their entire lives as learners.  Adults, like myself, who live with a learning disability have had such negative learning experiences as a child that their lives have been impacted daily by this experience. It has eroded our confidence making us feel unworthy, unable to unlock the code of traditional learning and therefore meant to feel as a failure and an outsider for our entire lives. The classroom was not built for someone who sees letters dancing on the page and who can not control their bodies long enough to sit still for hours at a time.

I hate school, I always have. The classroom is where my demons live. It is the place of my biggest fears and insecurities. So, when my oldest daughter started school and I knew I would have to step back into a school, ironically the same elementary school that I had attended decades prior, I was stressed. At primary orientation when my wife asked me, “where is the principles office?” I said, “follow me I know it intimately.” You see I had spent a lot of time in that office. Sometimes I knew why I was there and sometimes I did not understand what I had done wrong, now. At 48 the thought of going back into a classroom, even if was not my own, was my biggest fear.  When I sit at my daughter’s desk for parent-teacher interviews I must dig deep as all the emotions and years of sitting in a classroom come pouring back, and they are not positive.

I have memories of every August being an asshole to my parents and now when I reflect on this, I know it was because I did not want to go back to school. Why would I, there are not a lot of positive experiences. My first real memory of school was of being pulled out every day to go to resource, or as kids would call it the Stupid room. I would get extra help as “I needed it” this was the start of my feeling different than everyone else.  In the 80’s teachers did not really know how to handle kids who learned differently.  Some of the solutions were to pull me completely out of certain subjects like French instead of working with me. I was asked to sit quietly in the back of the room and not to participate. Brilliant, a kid with ADD is now told to sit still and be quiet for an hour, what could possibly go wrong? Let’s just say I became proficient at sanding desks and cleaning chalk boards after school as a result.

I can close my eyes and replay the first time that I was called out in the classroom by a teacher for not being smart. It was a math quiz in grade 4, the teacher said we could all leave school 10 min early if everyone could pass the pop math quiz. Of course, I failed, and the teachers asked me in front of my friends and classmates why I could not pass this simple math test. The kids in the classroom then went after me and called me stupid as a result.  This started the long road of distain towards the classroom. I am going to share my experiences with you. Unfortunately, my stories are not unique even today when I talk to students with learning disabilities and their parents these experiences are still prevalent in the classroom.

In grade 7, I studied very hard for a spelling test, as I had failed or did really poorly on so many prior to this one and I did not want the same thing to happen this time around.  I wrote the words repeatedly, trying to get them memorized, then the day came, and I wrote the test.  I nailed it, I was so excited that I only got one wrong, then the teacher instead of congratulating me, asked me in front of the class how I had cheated. That was the day I decided why bother studying because I am just going to accused of cheating.  Grade 8-9 where much the same, teachers telling me there is no way I could put this project together as I do not have the capability to deliver something like this. Or getting in trouble with teachers for acting out in the classroom and being the class clown.

High school was not different. Two events that happened in grade 10 solidified my distain  towards school and if it were not for the support of my parents this would have been enough to make me drop out of school and my life would be significantly different than it is today. I want to acknowledge that I was not an angel in the classroom and looking back I can understand why teachers were not fond of teaching a younger me. My insecurities around my differences had caused me to be interruptive and the class clown. The first example was in Grade 10 math,  I was not permitted to attend math class with all my friends, I had to go to a special math class. This class was at the other end of the school in the adaptive learning classrooms with the children who had severe physical and mental disabilities. Every day I would ask myself why am I down here? What is my disability? I would sit in the classroom with the other kids and feel completely deflated as I knew this was not where I belonged. The other nail in the school coffin for me was grade 10 English. My teacher told me in front of the whole class that my behavior was responsible for other kids failing in the classroom, I looked at him in shock. On my report card that year he gave me a 48 to ensure I did not pass grade 10 English.

At this point my relationship with my parents was also strained. My mom tried awfully hard, taking the advice of educators, sending me to special schools and programs. Finally, at their wits end my parents sent me to boarding school for grade 11. At the time I hated them for doing this to me but now as a parent I understand that they did it out of love and upon reflection their decision to send me away to school saved my life. For the first time I had teacher that taught me with Love and respect. They showed me my potential. They pushed me to get diagnosed and to get tested so that I could really understand my strengths and my challenges. They taught me how to learn by spending time with me and nurturing my strengths. Mrs. Brown, who I am still in contact with and Miss Mosher are the reason why I graduated high school and pursued a secondary education.  I am eternally grateful to them both.

For me university was not a place that I should have never gone. It only reinforced my securities, but it did help me prepare for what was to come later in my life. It took me 10 years to do earn a BA specializing in Geography from Saint Mary’s University . I would never have received this degree if it were not for  the Fred Smothers Center at St Mary’s. The Centre had supports in place to ensure I prepared for success in a university setting.  I was not however, prepared for the professors. The first one that put me on my heels was my first-year intro to psychology profession.  I asked the professor in a private meeting if he could help me get a note taker in class, someone who would take notes on carbon copy paper and I would get a copy to use as my study notes. The professor at the beginning of the next  class asked if someone wanted to volunteer to take notes for me. He then asked me to stand and proceeded to make fun of me  and my disability in front of 180 students.  I was so embarrassed that I slowly snuck out of the back of the classroom. I am a big believer in seeking to understand so I set up a meeting with the professor to understand why he had done what he did. Before the conversation could get anywhere the Professors told  me that “ if I could not handle it to get the Fuck out of his Class” he continued to yell profanity as I ran out of his office.  I later dropped his class, and I went through the process of filling a human rights case. I never went through the whole process as he was later fired by the university.  Welcome to first year university.

I later dropped out of school to travel and work, but I always felt my degree was unfinished. I kept going back taking a credit or two and then in 1999/2000 my last year I was only a few credits short, so I went for one more crack to get a degree.  I had one course left to get a degree in Geography and I have an exam that I received a 65, but I failed it because the professor took points off for my spelling and grammar mistakes. I went to him and asked why. His response what that I did not have the “mental capability” to be in university and I should not be there.  I broke down and decided to fight this. The university came to a compromise that I could graduate with a BA specializing in Geography, honestly, I did not care I just wanted to get the fuck out and never set foot into a classroom again. In 2000 I received my degree

To be clear over those years at university were not all hell.  I met someone who later in life became my wife. To be truthful I would never have finished school if it were not for her. She would go over my papers and edit them; she would help me study at the same time doing her own schoolwork. I am thankful and grateful for her as I would never have received a BA without her.

Later in life I owned my own business and became involved with the Learning Disability Association of Nova Scotia and the Learning Disability Association of Canada as all I wanted to do was ensure that kids did not go through what I went through.  I continued to fight on their behalf but felt I was getting nowhere. For this main reason I put my name on the ballot and won, becoming a member of the Nova Scotia Legislature, and representing my constituents in the 2013. This is where I received my biggest lessons about my LD and Dyslexia. How people choose not to understand but instead decide to point out  your weakness to make themselves feel better.  I will share only one of the hundreds of instances and this one rocked me to my core and 4 years latter still rattles me.  When I was in government, we passed a policy that the teachers did not like, my office was over run and the number of emails I has coming at me was out of control. I tried to reply to as many as I could personally. I replied to one who was an elementary teacher at Westmount elementary school, in Halifax Nova Scotia.  She sent me the original email back with the title as a politician you should learn how to write, and then corrected and underlined all my spelling mistakes in RED.  I responded back by saying as an educator you should be able to recognize someone with a disability and I never heard from her again.

Even though I am no longer in politics I still believe in expressing my opinions and thoughts on social media. Every time I do people come after me regarding my spelling, many people are primary educators. I am all for debate and differences of opinions, but it shows that people rather attack you personally and attack your weakness.

Both my positive and negative experiences with my learning difference have shaped me and taught me that my Dyslexia and ADD are the best gifts I have could have been given.  Here are a few and why.

Weakness:  understanding my weaknesshas allowed me to put supports in place around me that help me to succeed. Most people who do not have a LD will never share their weakness as society does not have space for weakness and they will do everything they can to hide them. Often this leads to failure.

Failing: I know how to fail, yes it still sucks but I know how to brush myself off and stand back up. People without LD may experience their first failure in their adult life and do not have the tools to deal with it. In other words, I can dust myself off and jump back up and keep going

I look at things differently:  This allows me to see many options instead of one. My racing mind allows me to look beyond what is given and this usually leads to solutions and creativity that most people would not see.

Empathy: As most of my youth,  and adult life was spent constantly bumping up against challenges and negativity I have a propensity to help others. I want to make sure that others do not go through what I went through but also, I think more about others then myself. This can be a positive, but I also understand the negatives if I am not careful

Hyper focus:  I tend to embrace things that require me to concentrate on one thing because if you mess up you will hurt yourself. Like Climbing, Motocross, surfing etc. These activities train my mind to focus on one task at a time.

There are many other amazing gifts that I have because of being dyslexic but this best part of it all it makes me who I am today and like I have said it is the best gift I have ever received.  But do not kid yourself this was a long road to get where I am today. There also was a very dark part in university where I just want to be high all the time instead of being on Ritalin. This was a year in my life that that all I wanted was to be like everyone else. I just wanted to be stoned my mind was turned off and I could focus on school. It was a year of smoking an ounce of weed every three weeks it was a year I felt normal. I could study, I got my best grades, and I could focus on the classroom. But this was not me this was not who I was and soon after graduation I never smoked another joint.  But even though things on the outside where going well the inside was complete turmoil, and it took me many years to except who I was and be comfortable of who I am.

Today I am married to the most amazing women who puts up with my ADD and dyslexia and who loves me for who I am. Yes, there are days that I drive her nuts as she says I am like a lion trapped in a cage passing around the house.  But I also have two amazing girls who love me for everything that I am.

So, as you can see maybe my education ride was not a positive experience and yes, it is hard to back to the classroom and yes, it is hard when people pick you apart on social media because of your spelling, especially educators. But every time I get teased about my spelling, I ask them if they tease people in a wheelchair. As people who are dyslexic struggle in many ways, and we need to accept the amazing people for who they are. They will help your business grow, they will show you things you have never thought about, and they are great leaders. They just need the acceptance and understanding from people and a little compassion. Do not point out their spelling errors if you can read it and understand it then leave it. If it truly makes no sense and  it happens to me all the time. Reach out and ask what I am trying to say all you are doing is reach out and giving me, a hand and I will embrace the hand.

This is the coles notes version of my story. My educational experience in Nova Scotia was hell and I do not have a lot of love for today’s education system as I believe we can do so much more for our kids who may struggle. But I will tell every parent of a child with a learning disability that it is the best gift that they can be given and that they need support to find their path. To those who may be still struggling in their adult life it is ok to feel the way you do you are not alone. To educators, please keep this in mind from Brene Brown.

“85% of the men and women I have interviewed over the last 15 years can remember a shaming incident at school that was so devastating, it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners. Here is the other statistic, over 90% of the men and women we interviewed can remember a specific teacher, coach or administrator who made them believe in their self-worth, when no one else did. You can be the same person–but–what it means is—do not ever question the power you have with the people you teach. Learning is inherently vulnerable, and it is like you have got a classroom full of turtles without shells. And the minute they put the shell back on, they are protected from their peers and the teacher or from whomever, but no learning can come in—because no vulnerability, no learning.” –

To parents I saw this once as a bumper sticker and please keep this in mind.

“ Thanks for sending your kid to Harvard, when they graduate, they will be working for my dyslexic Son/Daughter”

Thank you for taking the time to read my story and please share the idea is to help people and take the stigma that so many people may feel  it is a gift and it is the best gift I have ever received.

10 thoughts on “How my dyslexia and A.D.D. became my greatest gift.

  1. Bravo! Bravo! Every family with dyslexia sitting at their table should read this ..And every teacher or employer who do not see a physical disability & therefore do not understand the daily and constant struggle of one with a different brain and way of being in the world. Thanks for this for all those families and all those students you will help.

  2. Wow, Joachim, I read every word!
    It was hard to face these stories as an educator. I did my Education degree in Special Education. We were one of the first BEd classes to actually know what a Learning Disability is. We understood what the label implied: that the person with the label had to be smart to get it. That, in the IQ test there had to be at least two standard deviations (15+15 points difference) among the sub-test scores, meaning you had an above average score in one type of thinking but a below average score in at least one other type of test. I like to think this made me sensitive to kids who struggled with this dissonance in their heads.
    What embarrasses me, then, is not so much my own approach to students but my compliance with all that you experienced. For each teacher you described, I can name five just like them.As a school counsellor, I tried hard to counter-balance their approach. I even tried to show them another way of understanding the child but, in the name of keeping peace in the building and not undermining colleagues, I did not blow the whistle on those teachers.
    I hear you when you say essentially that “what did not kill you made you stronger”. I just feel that there are other ways to become strong so all of this was unnecessary.
    Kudos to you for sharing your story. It will undoubtedly help others (It has helped me) but I think it is bound to be most beneficial to you. Thank-you and best of luck. As I once heard Dr Phil more or less say, “You are not your past. You are someone who has moved beyond your past”.

    1. Thank you for you kind words. I am glad that you took something away from this and if I can help you in any way spread this story with your colleges I am happy to help.

  3. Joachim, you are an amazing man and although I have not had personal contact with you since we were childhood friends at summer camp, we do keep in touch through social media and are both alumni of that said boarding school. You are strong and brave for sharing your story. You are deserving of your beautiful wife and girls and of the successes you have achieved. School kids can be mean and hurtful, I also have many experiences I could share 🙁 Stay strong and keep speaking out and hopefully one day we will meet again xx

  4. Joachim – thank you so much for sharing more of your story. I have always been happy to have you as a friend. Your voice will help others in need of hearing it – both learners and I think more importantly the teachers in their lives. Be well my friend.

  5. As a former NS public school teacher and mom to a kid with dyslexia, this makes me so VERY sad! For my entire teaching career, I would shout from the (lonely) rooftop that we were clinging to anantiquated industrial model of education (widgets in- grads out) that served absolutely no one. I had the privilege to work with Grade 10, and subsequently11 and 12 students who had expressed an interest in future post-secondary trades education. I am a HUGE advocate for students pursuing skilled trades education, but at the same time, I often wondered if some of my students had chosen this path as a default because of their poor literacy/numeracy skills.In other words, chose to pursue a “hands-on” career rather than one that privileged reading, writing, and/or mathematics. The overwhelming majority of my students were challenged in numerous ways – ADD and ADHD, dyslexia,dysgraphia, weak numeracy skills. Often, these all presented concurrently in these students. 

    What I faced with each September class of incoming Grade10 students, was consequently, a room full of disengaged, angry, unfocused, and just plain down-trodden individuals who by that time clearly resented being mandated at age 14/15 to be in my presence. I felt much more like their jailer than their teacher. I’m not commenting here to laud my own efforts to help my students see their strengths and cope with their weaknesses but rather to send another salvo toward a system that created them in the first place. When Iinitially faced the overwhelming task of helping these kids find their voices, I sought help from school resource teachers. To a person, the response was some form of “give them iPads.” I am not denying that there is a great deal of good assistive technology available to kids, and my son, for one,benefitted greatly from some of this tech. What I am, however, instead pointing to is our woefully inadequate and antiquated system that created these angry (and rightfully so!) kids in the first place. Most were victims of the”Whole Language” approach to reading and writing which never equipped them with any phonetic tools to approach their language learning. Study after study to this day points to Orton Gillingham-related methodologies that rely heavily on phonetic skills such as phonemic awareness as the absolute gold standard for teaching ALL students the foundational skills of literacy, and still, this evidence-based method of learning is mostly ignored or watered down beyond recognition in early education in this province.  

    To me and a lot of other educators, the solution is crystal clear and likely ghastly expensive (but then so is the criminal justice system that eventually deals with too many of these students). Throw ALL the resources you have including but not limited to one-on-one assistance for kids who need it, phonetics-based reading education, individual programming based on student interests and enthusiasm (yes – videogames can be part of this), and above all, recognizing that each one of these people is someone’s child in need of compassion, love, and care.

    1. Your comments are bang on. Our education system is broken and your recommendation are the ones that we need to focus on.
      If my story can help start this dialogue then that would make me so happy.
      Please feel free to share this with anyone in the education system, teachers, department of education or union. We all need to work togeather to change out education system

  6. You showed us your “underbelly”, and for that I congratulate you . We, as a society, are terrifically concerned that we don’t show bias toward colour, race or religion, but your ADD and Dislexia condition are seldom, if ever mentioned. We are so proud of you, Joachim, and you should be also. Life is always a struggle, and you have shown us how to cope with so many of them. Joe and I thank you most sincerely.

  7. Thank you for being open about your experiences. As the dad of a 7-year old daughter, we are starting to see signs of learning difficulties, and honest reflections like yours can truly help us navigate a path forward to help her make the most of school, and beyond. Most appreciative.

  8. Dear Joachim. You probably don’t remember me but I surely remember you and your sister, Monika. I remember thinking of you as a clever, funny, and handsome boy. Thank you for taking the time and strength for writing about your LD, but thank you more for leading such a great life and showing such persistence. Your learning disability has not turned into a living disability. Instead it seems that you have been an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story. Much love, Francine

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