Chapter Excerpt — Paul Orfalea

"More Than Money" by Neil Cavuto

From Chapter Eight: Adding It Up!

Those born with dyslexia have to struggle with and compensate for the misunderstood and often embarrassing medical disorder throughout their entire lives, even when they go on to remarkably successful careers. Richard Branson has, even as a multibillionaire.

This condition is probably hardest though when dyslexics are young: Imagine being a teenager, already faced with the ample challenges inherent to that period, and having to overcome learning disabilities that carry heavy emotional baggage for good measure.

This complexity of this sort of learning disability makes school a permanent struggle, both educationally and socially. Three special people, though — Diane Swonk, Paul Orfalea, and Barbara Corcoran — responded to these obstacles by becoming stronger, more determined, and intensely focused on somehow succeeding.

Paul Orfalea describes well the problems he experienced growing up and the painful consequences of difficulties at school for young dyslexics. As he explained, it’s hard enough to just keep your head above water.

A severe dyslexic, Orfalea graduated eighth from the bottom of his high school class of 1,500. (“To be honest,” he once said, “I don’t know how seven people got below me.”) He relied on humor to combat his anxieties, and maintained a healthy sense of optimism as well. In a revealing interview with First Person, a collection of essays by those with learning disabilities, Orfalea offered hope for those who suffer from learning disabilities.

“In second grade,” he says, “I was in a Catholic school with 40 or 50 kids in my class. We were supposed to learn to read prayers and match letter blocks to the letters in the prayers. By April or May, I still didn’t know the alphabet and couldn’t read. I memorized the prayers so the nun thought I was reading. Finally, she figured out that I didn’t even know my alphabet, and I can remember her expression of total shock that I had gotten all the way through the second grade without her knowing this.”

He went on to explain how his parents offered his brother and sister $50 to teach him the alphabet, “But that didn’t work. So I flunked second grade. I had the same nun again, and she was mean.  She paddled me for two years, but I still didn’t learn the alphabet or how to read.”

Orfalea explained how years later, his mother found a remedial reading teacher who understood his dyslexia and helped him work with phonetics to work around it. “By seventh and eight grade, I still had barely learned how to read,” he told First Person. With characteristic self-effacing humor, he added, “I wasn’t too worried about it then because I somehow knew I’d have my own business one day, and I figured I’d hire someone to read to me.”

The interview with First Person reads like a casual, very humble, “if-I-can-get-through-you-can-get-through” life lesson; in remarkably few words and with great humor and wit, Orfalea described how even against enormous odds, you can succeed.

He remembered the embarrassment of being thought stupid, of working at his Dad’s factory and overhearing a fellow laborer say, “Don’t let him do that, he can’t even read.”

He admitted a 1.2 grade point average, reading Cliff Notes, and watching great plays on TV instead of reading books, and recalls overcoming spelling errors and dismissive teachers.

I remember a kid in college who dealt with dyslexia challenges, saying only that he got used to working twice as hard to get half the grades. That image stuck with me.

Orfalea explained that he got so many little things wrong, but got a few big things right — and how important that was, in creating copy giant Kinko’s.

The foregoing is excerpted from More Than Money by Neil Cavuto. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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