Education Update Interviews Writer Gary Karton at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): How does someone with dyslexia see words or letters?
Gary Karton (GK): It was really tough for me. The thing for me was, you know it’s so funny; I never called dyslexia until I met ALI (Advanced Learning Institute). They are a great organization; they make books for children who are deaf and with learning disabilities. My mom always told that I have this visual perception of learning but they’re experts and they said, that’s all a part of dyslexia. Dyslexia is not just about moving the letters around. For me, it was really tough to focus on the reading and then comprehend what I was seeing. This teacher I would go to her class every Wednesday and she would do three things: tape-record me and I would talk into the tape recorder. I would read into that and I would hear back and it would help me understand what I was reading. We read a lot of sports sections, I was a Cubs fan and the last thing for some reason, she had this obsession with languages and accents.
PR: Did your learning disability interfere with your reading?
GK: It was always hard for me to read. I remember going to the hospital as a young kid and getting tested. The thing that was hard for me to focus on the reading. I couldn’t understand what I was reading. In the third grade, I had a teacher who I would meet with every Wednesday and she would have me speak into a tape recorder. After the third grade I moved on and never talked about it. I didn’t want anyone to know I had a disability. I graduated high school in 1987. I remember sitting in classes and struggling. I would try to fake it.
PR: How did things progress after third grade?
GK: I just kind of got by. It was a struggle. I didn’t do the reading assignments very often and I would really prepare to speak out loud in the classroom. What ended up happening was that I came up with strategies on my own. When I got a little older instead of going to the library and researching about the Civil War for research papers I would look up ‘Civil War’ in the phonebook and call what I found. So usually it would be a store. I’d ask them if they knew anyone who could explain about the topic and eventually I’d get a hold of a professor or someone who knew. I’d interview them and write the paper. The teachers loved it. I had great grades. They loved that I had ‘original research’ when really it was my way of getting away from the reading.
PR: Did you have the support of any other students or teachers when you were in high school?
GK: Nobody knew. The first time I was on TV in Dallas was the first time many people found out. Even someone I knew my whole life didn’t realize I had a disability until that moment.
PR: What was it that actually helped you to go on to the next level of your life?
GK: Even to this day, I don’t like to read but I kept going through college. I’m pretty good with math, science and psychology. I really developed a love of asking questions and once I got to college I really gained more confidence. I wasn’t afraid to try new things. In High School I hid under the shadows but in college at University of Rochester it completely changed.
PR: What was the crucial turning point that gave you that confidence?
GK: I’ve never actually told this story to anyone. When I was in the first week of college this girl came up to me and asked to sit with me. And I remember just being so shocked. I was completely surprised. And really in college I just didn’t mind trying. I didn’t mind showing who I was. If people liked me, that was good, but if not it was okay.
PR: Do you think it was part of just maturing and growing older too?
GK: I think it was. And University of Rochester really helped… I felt I had a chance to do things over again. It was the only school I applied to and somehow I got in. It was a great school and a perfect fit. I was so lucky. The reading didn’t change though. It was very hard until I had a professor in Social Psych and he made us read a book a month. He said to me “I don’t want you to read this book and write a report. I want you to tell me how this book makes you feel and what it makes you think about.” I could read the first paragraph and my mind would go somewhere. And then I really lucked into a job at the Washington Post as a sports reporter.
Adam Sugerman (AS): What did you cover at the Washington Post?
GK: I covered all sports. I started for this new high school sports editor. I was the first guy he hired. I was just so happy to be there and I did anything. I learned so much from Neil Greenberg (my editor). He taught me how to write. They sent me to the horse show in DC every year and I’d write two stories a day and I would write on anything.
AS: There’s an amazing story about Bill Cosby’s brother who went back to college when he had grandchildren so he could learn to read and he is thrilled. It’s amazing. Do you want to share anything amazing about what’s happened to you?
GK: When I had kids I wanted to do everything possible to make sure they loved to read. When I started reading to my kids I read all the time. Dr. Seuss, Series of Unfortunate Events, Peter and the Starcatcher …everything. I would use different voices to read to them and we would all read together. It was the first time I really embraced it and that led to us reading so many books for hours.
AS: That’s so great because it’s bonding with you and your sons and it’s you overcoming an obstacle!
GK: Once they learned how to read they would catch MY mistakes!
AS: Who are some of your mentors?
GK: I always hoped for a certain mentor and honestly it’s something I never had. Neil was great but I didn’t have someone to really say “you have something and I want to help you develop that.”
AS: We’ve made some terrific progress with technological tools that can help kids with disabilities. Has technological tools helped you at all?
GK: I am a huge proponent of books on tape. I happen to drive often and I find that the books on tape are the best accompaniment.
AS: Tell us more about your book.
GK: You can’t make kids love to read. If you’re bad at something it’s hard to do it. What I learned is that you need to find a way to make reading fun and if you can make it fun kids will do it. With my new book I wanted to make sure my chapters were really short and that the writing was big so that it could be easy for kids to read. The publisher, Brattle, really cares about getting kids reading. I didn’t want pictures in the book because it hampers down the imagination.
AS: Can you think of a difficult moment in your life that you overcame?
GK: When I was at the Post I was way over my head. I never wrote on deadline before. I remember getting my first assignment and having no idea how to write. One time a few weeks later there was a football game that needed coverage and absolutely nobody could do it so I volunteered and they still refused to give it to me. I remember feeling like I must have been the lowest in this company as humanely possible. The thing was I didn’t feel bad about it, it was almost energizing because I looked at it like “there is nowhere for me to go but up!” It was a really great feeling and ever since then if I’m having a bad day I tell myself tomorrow will be a good day. Everyone has bad days.
AS: That’s such a great attitude. Can you share a particularly ebullient moment in your life?
GK: I have to say that the biggest gift anyone can have is to know what you want to do in your life. I will say going into schools and talking to kids and getting them inspired… it’s a great gift. When they come in they’re smiling. They ask question after question. It’s an amazing feeling.
AS: Who do you admire in writing for children’s books?
GK: First of all I admire anyone who can bang out these books. All of these children’s authors are amazing. I loved the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. He writes so beautifully.
AS: What about Harry Potter?
GK: I’ve actually never read it but I think that when you can overcome obstacles like that it’s just so cool. J.K. Rowling’s story is incredible. She made it happen! I think the books are amazing.
AS: How do you write? Do you use a tape recorder?
GK: Here’s the deal with the writing. I’m not a good writer. I grind away. I start writing and it’s terrible and I work and work and work at it until its good. It’s not natural and it’s not something that comes easy to me. Someone told me to write what you like to read. For me to like to read it would have to be pretty good. It all came together because I don’t use clichés and I don’t want to do something that’s been done before. Everything I read comes straight from my imagination- I don’t read enough to steal anything. As soon as I start writing and I feel I know where the chapter needs to end I just stop right there
AS: What about social media? Do you read social media?
GK: I don’t do any of that stuff. I don’t do Twitter or Facebook or any of that. I tried Twitter but my wife pointed out it’s just not who I am. #