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Dyslexic tells of his tortured childhood

Sunday, February 11, 2007

By Mark Roth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Paul Caldera was a boy, he would sit down at the kitchen table every night after supper so his mother, an English teacher, could tutor him in reading.

It was the worst experience of his life.

The boy had dyslexia, although he wouldn't find that out for another 35 years, in part because his mother refused to accept that explanation for his tortured, error-filled reading.

In an essay he laboriously wrote recently to explain his disability, he recalled those evenings in Middleboro, Mass.

"Every night after dinner Dad would wash the dishes and utensils -- all the utensils save one, the wooden spoon, which was used to encourage me to concentrate, and guide me in my intellectual pursuits.

"It must have been extremely frustrating for my mother. There, right before her very eyes, was the word 'that' and I was saying, 'was' or 'where.' After a couple of good cracks with the spoon or her hand, I would utter the word 'that' or whatever word I was stuck on."

Because he was quick to understand new things and could speak fluently, his mother was convinced he just wasn't trying hard enough to learn how to read.

"I can remember mentioning to her this word dyslexia," he said in an interview. "I had heard it on the playground, and I said, 'Hey, maybe I have dyslexia,' and she said, 'You don't have dyslexia.' "

Today, Mr. Caldera, 54, is a software engineer with Edvocacy Research Corp., working with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh to test a digital pen that can be used by teachers to score reading assessment tests and upload the results directly into a computer.

Despite his severe reading disability, Mr. Caldera managed to make it through college and achieve success as a computer scientist.

Like many other bright, dyslexic people, he found ingenious ways to hide or compensate for his disability.

He got through Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., by using his ears instead of his eyes.

"I was a political science and economics major," he said, "and I made it by listening and not missing class. I had to go to class because I knew the only way I was going to get the input was from the teacher's mouth. I've never a read a book cover to cover in my life."

When he did have to read, he said, "it was like carrying sacks of sand up a hill. It's exhausting to me to look at a whole page of text. The thought of having to read that whole page is just such a mental effort for me."

If he encountered a professor who made his students read aloud from their assignments, "as much as I loved to participate orally, I'd go up to the teacher and say I'd really love it if you don't ask me to read aloud in class because I stutter."

Later, during a brief stint as a real estate agent, Mr. Caldera did well, but if a client asked him to explain a passage in a sales agreement, he'd say, "You know, this is a legal document, and so you should consult your lawyer about that."

Eventually, Mr. Caldera became a computer programmer. The logic of software made sense to him, and his inability to spell didn't matter as much as it would have in other fields.

He rose through the ranks to become a principal software engineer at Digital Equipment Corp., a pioneering computer firm. As DEC began to falter, though, a seventh round of layoffs put him on the street in the early 1990s.

At the age of 41, he was faced with using his severance money to seek retraining in his field.

"That's great for a normal person," he said, "but I'm not your normal Joe. So I just got out the Boston Yellow Pages and went through it until I found a reference to a school that diagnoses reading problems, the Lindamood-Bell School."

"I made an appointment and went in for an evaluation," he wrote in his essay. "Several days later, I went back to discuss the results from the battery of tests. For the sake of brevity and clarity I will put it in a nutshell: I was reading on a second-grade level, and was informed that I was dyslexic.

"It was not a sad day for me -- quite the contrary. Now I knew what was wrong. I had a learning disability; I was not stupid. Oh, I was different, to be sure, but not stupid. That was the most important affirmation for me."

In the past 15 years, Mr. Caldera has become a better reader, but not a good one. "I probably have to read a sentence three times before I get it."

Knowing that dyslexia can be inherited, he told his wife he didn't want to have children, "because I didn't want a kid of mine to go through what I went through. It would have been like a life sentence of torture."

When he thinks of the millions of children who struggle with reading today, Mr. Caldera has a clear wish.

"I would love to see a kid be assessed early, for someone to identify his problem and have the parents understand that there's no stigma in having your kid labeled as learning-disabled.

"Figure out the remediation and get him on his way so that by the time he's in first grade, he's reading at the same level as other kids."

Paul Caldera gives talks to students these days to tell them about his experience.

"I always start like this: I say, 'Hi, I'm Paul, and I have dyslexia.' And the reason I start the same way that alcoholics start at AA is that dyslexia affects the same spectrum of people as alcoholism: rich, poor, black, white, everyone."

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