"An educator today who had me in their classroom, I think, would be pretty worried."
Patricia Polacco didn't learn to read until she was 14 years old. The successful children's author visited Fox Creek Elementary School in Bloomington last week, and described how she fought back against dyslexia, dysnumeria and dysgraphia, as well as failure of sensory integration, which means Polacco had trouble holding still. Her teachers were at a loss to understand the youngster.
"When I was a kid, they weren't trained to understand all this," explained Polacco. "They knew I was intelligent. They'd say to me all the time that I wasn't applying myself, I wasn't trying. I was trying, with all my might, and I could not hold still. It was very difficult."
Then a teacher entered her life that changed everything, an educator she later immortalized in her book, "Thank You, Mr. Falker."
"His background was more in theater. He owned a dinner theater downtown, and he was used to working with eccentric children. He looked beyond what everyone else saw. So he targeting my artwork. With my particular disability, when one part of the brain is shut down, another part—the artistic side—goes into hyperdrive. He asked me to come in and wash blackboards one night. He asked me to make letters and numbers, and he knew then that I couldn't do it."
Ashamed, Polacco wanted to run. But then a reassuring hand pressed against her back.
"The thing of it is, even today, when I come across something that I can't face, his hand is still in the center of my back," she said, her eyes misty. "I can still feel it."
"He told me that he knew what was wrong and he could find someone to help me."
Polacco worked with a reading expert, plus an art teacher to tackle her disabilities. Her art teacher put Polacco in front of books featuring the work of M.C. Escher, an artist who played with symmetry and perspective.
"And that's when I understood that I see negative space around positive matter. That's how I read. It was the 'ah-ha' moment."
Polacco went on to study art history and become an icon restorer. But the work didn't satisfy her artistic cravings. So at the age of 41, Polacco started anew, taking her talent for drawing and love of storytelling and forging a new career as a children's author.
"It's scary. The reason people don't take risks is not because they're afraid of failure, but because they're afraid of success. It's far trickier. When you are successful, the onus of performance is on you. Failure? We do it everyday. I'm really good at it," Polacco added with a laugh.
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