I was ten years old before I could read. As I looked at words, they would move. Sometimes they would run together, blurring into new, different words. Other times, the letters would change shape, becoming characters totally foreign to the English alphabet. The longer I looked at the words, the harder it would get to interpret them. I muddled my way through elementary school, embarrassed and mortified by my inability to do what my peers could accomplish without a thought. Reading was easy, I was told by teachers. The issue was simply that I was stupid.
My father did what he could to help me. In the early hours of the morning, before he had to leave for work, he would wake me, and take me downstairs to study the alphabet. We always went into the crawlspace beneath the stairs, a windowless alcove, with low ceilings, barely enough room for the tall body of my father to stoop into. Every time we entered that dark crawlspace, I felt ashamed I wasn’t the son he wanted me to be. No matter how many times we performed this ritual, him withdrawing a deck of alphabet flashcards and presenting them to me, I could not memorize the letters. He would show and I would watch as the letters folded, bent, rotated.
“If I get hurt,” he once shouted as I failed again beneath the stairs, “and you have to take me to a hospital, how are you going to find it if you can’t tell an H?” Tears streamed down my face as I silently looked at him. He rubbed his eyes in frustration, and left me there.
I was ten when the first teacher discovered my dyslexia. Ms. Papke moved into the city from somewhere out west. She was a short woman, with bright red hair and an energetic personality, her classroom always lively with her passionate lessons. It didn’t take her long to notice I was struggling as the school year took off. She invited me to stay with her after class one day and gave me a test. The yellow brick walls and their posters of the sciences mocked me as I shivered at her desk, looking over the materials she presented me with. She asked me what letters looked like while I read them. She showed me pages with words painted on them in splotchy, familiar messes.
“Do they look like this?” She asked. I nodded.
She taught me that dyslexia affects the way the brain interprets information, especially visual information. By using a colored filter over a page, she explained, my brain could be fooled into allowing the letters to sit still. Filtering out blue light from hitting the page would supposedly give my brain less work to do when looking at the letters; reduce the strain on my eyes, and allow me to see what was really there. I didn’t expect much the first time she placed the faint blue plastic filter over the page of Where the Wild Things Are at her desk in the corner of the classroom. I watched the letters, waiting for them to contort as always. But they didn’t. They held still. Like magic. Still, it took time and practice, and a number of other techniques, but a change had occurred. I could read.
I was starved for stories. I had heard some from my mother when she was feeling well enough to share them. Epic poems like The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. Fantasy adventures like The Hobbit, and journeys across space with Dune. She was a collector of books, and owned thousands of them, if a child’s memory is to be trusted. They could be found everywhere in the house, bookshelves, in stacks on the floor, with yellowed pages and green and gold embossments. I loved hearing those stories, and always wanted more. Before I could read, I would ask my mother to share these stories with me. Sometimes she would. Usually she would be asleep, or lost so deeply in thought that I couldn’t reach her. Before I could read I would pull the books from the shelves in the living room, just to feel them. I would spend countless hours alone with my mother’s silent books. Run my hands over their surfaces, and imagine what was in them. I would open them, and try to see the letters as words rather than chaos. Every time I lifted the cover of a book, the musty aroma of wet sand or incense washed over me. Surprising what you notice about a book when you can’t read it. It was a lonely time in my life.
One book among her countless literature held my attention more than any other; among the paperback collection: a stylized cover of a scarred man, dark and handsome. His hands were outstretched, holding a crooked staff toward a tower. On the tower, a dragon was unfolding, a tendril of grey smoke coiling from its nostrils. The first time I found it, I took it from the shelf and held it with a kind of reverence. The spine was covered in white striations, and the pages within it hung loosely in some places. Mother had read it so much it was falling apart. No other book in her collection held this appearance. For years I would return to this book, take it carefully from the shelf, and look at the art of it. I was ten when I read the book for the first time. In those pages I met Ged, the Sparrowhawk.
Inside the cover was a map drawn by the author. Ursula K. Le Guin named every island, I remember thinking the first time I saw it. She created those names. The map depicted what was called The Archipelago, over a hundred islands covering a great sea. She called it Earthsea; and Earthsea was a land of wizards. A story of a young boy called Ged, whose father is distant and cold. The only mother he knows is a witch, who makes him sit in her smoky hovel as she prepares her charms, never showing him love or kindness.
Ged had a way with words, and in their world, words were power. For a wizard of Earthsea, the Old Language could change the world around them, and even change themselves. Ged is lonely and proud; wild and gifted. I clutched that book at the desk in my room, near the double paned window overlooking the backyard and the houses which shared it. Page after page I read, my backside aching in the hard wooden chair. Leaning forward under the dim lamp light, absorbing every word I could. In many ways, I wanted to be Ged. He overcame the murderous raiders on his home island of Gont. For his great deed, Ogion, one of the greatest of all wizards, takes Ged as his pupil. Ogion’s love for Ged touched me. The boy was not his son, yet he held him in the highest esteem, respected his decisions, while still being a mentor and authority on the mountains of Re Albi. Ogion’s unconditional love for Ged was an unfamiliar concept then; that love was magic to me as well. But as I read, I realized Le Guin was the one who truly had a way with words. She drew me deeper into her world— the legends her citizens believe, the celebrations they hold. I read in wonder as her characters danced with the moon into the sea. Her works were a kind of wizardry, and in many ways I wanted to be her, too.
Ged’s pride is his greatest obstacle. He gains few friends in his education as a wizard, aside from the loner Vetch, and his professors who saw his potential. One evening, in an act of supreme pride, Ged attempts a powerful summoning spell which unleashes a terrible shadow, nearly killing himself. I returned to the cover, the scars of the man there more clear than they were before on that cloudless autumn day, nestled by the window in my tiny bedroom. I, too, had scars. Though mine were not on the outside. The pains I felt at my father’s disappointment, and my mother’s absence; the pain of my dyslexia, of being told so much that I was stupid by teachers, carved at me in the same way.
My mother was an educated woman. She had a Masters Degrees in fine arts. Her study, as well as the rest of the house, was filled with her sculptures and paintings; bronze statues depicting forlorn women who clutched their bellies as they looked into the distance. Impressionist landscapes, where the limbs of the trees hung limp and low. Her art was beautiful to me; a symbol of her success and creativity. I held no such academic excellence. I had only just learned to read, and my grades in school reflected this ineptitude. If I can just finish this book my mother loves so much, I thought, I will be good enough. As I look back on those days, I see now she and I were so similar. I think she spent so much time with her books, or her art, looking for somewhere to escape to. Father worked long days, often not returning home until well after dark. She slept all day to avoid that loneliness. We were both looking for somewhere we could belong, just as we were. And we both found it in A Wizard of Earthsea.
While I applied what I had learned from Ms. Papke to improve my school performance, I worked the hardest to read that magical book. Dyslexia didn’t only make interpreting letters difficult, it made reading for extended periods painful. An hour of reading, I got light sensitivity. Another thirty minutes, a migraine. Then vertigo. But I couldn’t stop. It felt like there was so much on the line; that I had so much time to make up for. I couldn’t understand why reading, which to me is interpreting the imagination of an author, gave me migraines when my own imagination did not. From a young age I found comfort in imagining stories of my own. I would imagine creatures, friends and enemies, great voyages across eternal seas. In my mind, worlds were born, lived out their natural lifespans, and died in an instant. Reading showed me I was not alone in this creativity. Every book in my mother’s collection had been written by someone. Ursula K. Le Guin had written the incredible book that was in my hands. I wanted to create stories just as captivating as she did.
As I finished A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time, I sat at the old schoolhouse desk in my room, a gift from my mother, and pulled out a sheet of yellow construction paper. I drew a map, modeling off what Le Guin had drawn in her own book. The first snow of winter touched the window as my hands groped with a kneaded eraser over the paper. I could see in my mind what I wanted; a world of dragons, a place where a fantastic tale could be woven. I could see adventures being lived in the world behind my eyes, yet the paper before me was just a smudged mess. My mind could now interpret words; my hands were not so easy to train. As I looked at my broken words and messy penmanship, shame weld up in me. Weakly, I held on hope that with enough time it would be good enough. I pulled another sheet of paper from the desk drawer, and began again. I went to bed that night, my hands and nails stained with graphite.
I read A Wizard of Earthsea cover to cover before the end of the school year. Then I read it again. I started reading other books. I read Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert. Anne McCaffrey and JRR Tolkien. But I kept returning to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wizard. I practiced my writing, training my hand to obey my mind, to write the letters into words. When Ged completes his wizard’s training in A Wizard of Earthsea, he went about his duty to serve the people around him as best he could. But the shadow he loosed continued to follow him, bringing danger and destruction to everyone it touched, threatening to destroy him completely. My own shadow of shame followed me in much the same way as I practiced.
When Ged fights the shadow, the harder he fights, the stronger it becomes. I loved him for his tenacity, for his willingness to fight a thing so powerful despite the fear of it. So one day, as I looked over my maps and writings stacked in my desk I swallowed my fear, and went my mother in to show what I had made. It was almost Christmas, my grades had improved marginally, and I was ready for the holiday break. Mother was busy in the kitchen, preparing fudge for a church function, when I asked her to come and see my work. I took her to my room down the hall, the sun setting beyond the neighboring houses past our snow-covered yard, and opened the lid of my desk. I held out my drawings and writings, hoping that finally I was good enough. She sat on my bed and looked through them quietly. Then she handed them back to me with a soft, sad smile. I don’t remember what she said to me. I do remember what I felt. An icy pain ached in my heart as she spoke, pointing at my crooked letters and mishmashes of words. She couldn’t read what I’d written, or maybe she just didn’t want to try. A stab of shame came in like a tide as she gestured to my muddy writings and splotched maps. It was to me a confirmation of what I had known for so long. I was still not good enough. And I believed in that moment I never would be. I knew it was foolish pride to ever consider an alternative could be true.
By the end of Le Guin’s book, Ged defeats his foe. The shadow he lets loose on the world tries to destroy him, nearly succeeds, and then fails. Ged chases his shadow to the edge of Earthsea. There, the spirit world and the world of the living meet with invisible shores. Upon those shores, Ged overcomes his shadow by accepting it as part of himself. The two collide in a blinding light, and he is made whole. Ged was good enough to succeed. But I didn’t understand. Ged was not real. Le Guin set out to write a story with a protagonist who overcame his weakness. There was no one to make my life but me.
I tried to hide my writing my mother after that. It wasn’t hard. Her depression frequently kept her from even knowing to ask about it. Though sometimes she would catch me, and nestle beside me to look at what I was doing. She’d flash her sad smile and let out a long sigh. My father caught me once as well. It was near spring, the school year drawing to a close, and I was at my desk at about two in the morning; I found it the best time to continue my work without drawing attention. That, and there was something about writing by starlight that seemed to connect me to Ged on those nights. I suddenly became aware as I wrote I was being watched, and with a start looked toward the open door of my bedroom to see my father standing there.
“What are you doing?” He asked. I quickly put my things back into the desk, but he came closer, a command in his appearance to present what I had. Nervously, I retrieved the notebook with my writings. As he looked over my sloppy handwriting, he frowned. He was terrifying in the dim light of my desk lamp. Large, with thick muscles and rough hands from his time in the Marine Corps., as well as his work as a cobbler. I knew he wouldn’t shout at me, because it was so late, but he had other ways of making me fear him. I watched his hands for sign of a tightening fist. In the dim light of my desk lamp, he stepped closer. The veins in his feet pulsed as he walked. He sat heavily on my bed, and leaned toward me. I wanted to disappear. But he did not threaten me that night.
“Writing with pen and paper,” he said, “Isn’t ever going to look great. I struggle with it, too. That’s why I like typing. It comes out like book print. Do you want to learn to type?”
I sat frozen with fear in the cold morning air near the dew streaked window. But I liked that idea very much. Typing always be legible, and computers could even catch my spelling errors for me. The following Saturday he took me to the study and booted up a typing program. The computer whirred quietly on the heavy oak desk as he stood behind me. His callused hands gripped my wrists and placed them on the keys. He showed me there were little tabs on the “F” and “J” keys, and placed my hands over them. My fingers rested lightly over the keys as he went through a lengthy laundry list of how to use it: pinky to “A.” Ring finger to “S.” I did my best to follow his instructions, but I still found great difficulty with my hands, unable to learn where to place my fingers or how to get the words from my head and into the keys. These sessions went on for months, even into the summer after the school year had ended, and Ms. Papke was no longer there to help me. He would stand solemnly behind me as I typed, correcting my mistakes as I made them, his patience wearing thin with each error. And the thinner his patience grew, the thicker my shame became.
Through the years, leaving elementary school behind and entering high school, I just wanted to disappear. I could see it, a world where I was not there, a world where everything was better without me. It was a dark shadow over me, whispering what felt like a pure truth: there was no hope. And I believed it. I went to my mother for help, the thought of this gnawing pain burning inside me like a coal in a fabric basket. She sat on the chair in the living room beneath a painting of her grandfather Emery. He sat on his farmstead porch, looking mournfully into the distance. I told her of my pains. She slapped me across the face, yelled about how selfish I was. My cheek smarted as I collapsed under the weight of mounting pain in mind and body. I lay there on the living room rug for a long time. She left me there.
In quiet solitude I honed the skills Ms. Papke taught me, slowly gaining reading comprehension as the years passed. At the time I didn’t realize how much I’d grown and changed by training in those skills. I still thought of what Ged had done as this herculean feat, overcoming his shadow out in the open with powerful magic. Yet over the course of a few years I’d done the same thing. By slowly and carefully facing my dyslexia, making it a part of myself, I learned how to read with it instead of against it. My dyslexic brain interprets things differently; it’s designed to take information in large amounts. I always describe it as seeing the forest, but not the trees. Little pieces of information, like letters, get lost in the big picture. But as I focus, pull my mind toward looking at those little pieces, I see them fitting together not just into words, but entire pages.
I remember one day I was reading in the living room. I sat in a big green chair, beneath the painting of Emery. His listless stare hovered behind me as I read. My fingers glided over the pages of A Wizard of Earthsea, the familiar tale absorbing as if by osmosis, when my father came up to me. He looked tired, his tight military haircut stark against his sharp face and dark mustache.
“You’re turning those pages pretty fast,” He said. “Are you really reading that fast?”
I looked at my father, then back to the text. I was reading that fast. He smiled at me that day. I don’t recall him ever having done that before. A warmth washed over me as he smiled.
It was around that time that a high school English teacher took notice of me. Mrs. Canon asked me to stay behind in her English class one day. Her pale grey eyes matched her grey rimmed glasses as she stared at me from across her desk. I was nervous that my work had lapsed, that she would attack me over my spelling errors or grammar. It was the opposite. She told me she liked my work, and asked if I had ever participated in a competition before. She invited me to attend the next one for our school, and I agreed. Mrs. Canon became a mentor to me. She tutored me in my writing, helping me improve upon what Ms. Papke taught me years before. She introduced me to the academic club in my school, where I made close friends for the first time. They appreciated my awkward humor and morose sensibilities.
One day, while finishing Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, I found myself thinking about Ged once more. He had become my oldest friend in the years I spent reading about him. I saw a smile on his face as I thought about him. One that said he believed in me. A silly thought, that a character in a book could be there for me. Yet he was. And has been, ever since I began my journey as a reader. I pondered on what Le Guin was really hoping to do in writing Ged. As have I looked into her life and history, I’ve found she had simply set out to tell a good story. It was the same for many authors I’d grown to love. They each had unique histories, traumas, and fortunes that shaped them into who they were. They were people just like me. Perhaps they didn’t see writing and reading as the same kind of magic as I did. But to me, being a writer and being a wizard are one in the same. With their words, they change the world, and sometimes if they are careful enough, they change themselves.