Growing up, I thought I was the only kid like me in the world. Many years later, I came to understand that my story is the story of millions of Americans who struggle with literacy. We all have some obstacle with which we’ve had to wrestle. What I finally figured out was that I was the only person in my life who could do anything about what was holding me back. That realization was a quantum leap.
In the early 1960s, McAlisterville, PA, population 800, was a bustling Rockwellian village an hour northwest of Harrisburg, the state capital. I was in first grade, and I don’t think any kid in the history of the world ever loved school more than I did. My teacher, Mrs. Parsons, was a petite lady in her early forties with a pleasant smile and a passionate dedication to each student’s achievement. On gray, dreary days, she often called me to the front of the classroom and said, “Nelson, how about perking things up? Sing a song or tell us a story.”
“Sure, Mrs. Parsons!” I’d say, brimming with enthusiasm to entertain the class. Under Mrs. Parsons’ tutelage, I began to read one-syllable words. See Spot run. Go, Dick, go. Look, Jane, look!
One day, Mrs. Parsons pulled me aside as I was coming in from recess and asked,“Nelson, where does your mother take you for speaking and voice lessons?” I told her I didn’t understand the question. “Oh,” she said, realizing that whatever it was she saw in me somehow came naturally.
With the guidance and encouragement of Mrs. Parsons, I made up my mind about a future career. Every person in Juniata County listened to WJUN 1220 AM’s Ralph Parker, the station’s owner, who had a wonderful voice. Mrs. Parsons would compare my voice to his and say, “Oh, Nelson, with that voice of yours, I can just hear you on WJUN when you grow up.” I took note of that.
When I entered Mrs. Williams’s second grade class, I was eager to recapture the same sort of success I had enjoyed in first grade. Mrs. Williams was a nice lady, and all the older kids I knew said she was friendly. Soon after the year began, however, something went wrong. All the other kids seemed to be doing fine, but I was struggling. The words in my readings had multiple syllables and were harder to read. Trying to put them together into a sentence was difficult. And more difficult than second-grade reading was second-grade writing. I just need to practice more, I thought, so I took my books and papers home each night, hiding in my room as I tried to make sense of them all.
One day in class, to my horror, Mrs. Williams called on me to read out loud. I stammered and stuttered and mispronounced almost every word. The other kids read well, but I couldn’t get through a sentence. A few kids snickered, and soon most of the class was laughing. Mrs. Williams quieted the class and called on someone else to read out loud. I was so humiliated, I wanted to cry. But crying was not an option.
As the school year marched on, I watched my classmates grow while I shrank. There was so much confusing information that I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t take it all in. But I tried and struggled to do my best for Mrs. Williams.
Though I was having a hard time, I didn’t feel dumb. Outside of school, everything made sense. When I looked at my dad’s oil truck, I knew exactly how it worked and the mechanics of how the fuel went through the hose and into the tanks. But I doubted myself because I couldn’t read. Fortunately, somehow, I passed second grade, more determined than ever that third grade would be a fresh start.
Unfortunately, a month and a half into third grade, I was barely treading water. In class, I felt more and more like an outsider. I couldn’t keep up, and my boredom was maddening. At the same time, I was constantly on the edge of my seat, hoping I wouldn’t get called upon and be embarrassed in front of the class. My classmates had mastered printing their names in second grade—a task with which I still struggled. If someone asked me to spell my first name out loud, I could rattle off N-E-L-SO-N. But getting that from my head and down onto paper was a struggle.
That was the year we moved on to cursive, which to me looked like scribble. Mrs. Clark handed out worksheets every morning with the usual directive: “Write your name in cursive on the top of your paper.” I really tried, but every day my name came out as a jumble of illegible chicken scratch.
Mrs. Clark came up with a plan she felt would encourage me to try harder. One morning, we were busy hanging up our hats, gloves and coats, when she wrote something big across the blackboard. We took our seats and looked at the curious etchings on the board. That’s when Mrs. Clark tapped her pointer on her desk several times to get everyone’s attention.
“Class, class,” she said. “Does anyone know what I have written on the chalkboard?” Nobody seemed to know. “This is how Nelson Charles Lauver lazily scribbled his name on his paper yesterday.”
The room erupted in laughter and chanted, “Nezon Chass Liver! Nezon Chass Liver! Nezon Chass Liver!”
“This is what you are to call Nelson for the rest of the day,” Mrs. Clark instructed the class, “until tomorrow when I’m sure his name will be something different.” I laughed along with them to seem unaffected, but on the inside, I was thinking: I hate you, I hate you for this. Why are you doing this to me?
Lazy? I wasn’t lazy. At that moment, instead of being thought of as the lazy kid, or the dumb kid, I chose to be known as the “bad kid.” I knew there would be ramifications, but in keeping with my new “bad kid” persona, I pushed Mrs. Clark’s crazy-button at every opportune moment. Making a face at her, making an inappropriate remark, acting indifferent, or just ignoring her helped prevent her from calling on me, for the sake of her personal sanity.
Mrs. Clark often sent me to the hallway with my desk and chair so I would not disrupt class. This was embarrassing because anyone who entered the school for any reason could see me sitting there, alone. But that could never compare with the embarrassment I felt at being the “dumb kid.”
If, on occasion, Mrs. Clark did call on me, I’d often throw something—a book, a pencil, a tablet. I got in trouble routinely, and was frequently sent to see the senior teacher and disciplinarian, Miss Marybeth. She was a solid woman with a sturdy center of gravity, strapping arms and shoulders, and not a touch of makeup. Her thick, blonde hair was neatly wrapped up in a bun, atop which sat her ever-present prayer covering. She was a pious woman who could recite the Bible cover to cover.
Miss Marybeth’s disciplinary “office” was a desk inside the janitorial storage room. Beside her desk was a chair where she counseled children, right before she paddled them. The construction of the paddle was well thought out, and bore all the efficiency that could be crafted in a Pennsylvania Dutchman’s woodworking shop.
Miss Marybeth’s paddle followed the age-old standard design. The handle accommodated a double-fisted swing. A dozen or so three-quarter-inch holes had been drilled through the paddle to ensure it whistled through the air with maximum velocity. The whistling sound served another purpose, too: it struck terror into the heart of the child who was about to be anointed with the sting of hellfire.
I was sent to see Miss Marybeth for my first counseling session after hurling a book at Mrs. Clark. I devised a plan as I sat in the chair of counsel, waiting for Miss Marybeth to arrive and warm my ass with religion. It was a brilliant plan, I might add, and one of which I’m still secretly proud. I decided to place the onus of my bad behavior on someone else.
Finally, Miss Marybeth presented herself to deal with my book-hurling infraction. She took the paddle down from its hook on the wall and laid it on the desk as she prepared to counsel me. I handed her a note from Mrs. Clark. She examined it, refolded it, and laid it on top of the paddle.
“Nelson,” she said in her thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent,“what do you have to say for yourself?”
I looked down at my shoes and quietly said, “I didn’t do it.”
“Then do tell, Nelson. Who was it?”
I swallowed hard for effect, kept my eyes focused on my shoes, and then softly uttered: “It was Satan.”
Miss Marybeth gasped and pushed back in her chair, hurriedly reciting a passage to ward off the dark angel.
“Satan said he wants you to paddle my backside until it turns purple,” I said.
Miss Marybeth sprang to her feet in defiance, uttering a passage that included something about “the protective blood of Jesus.” She hung the paddle back on the wall and boldly proclaimed, “I will not!” But the school’s male teachers were not so easily manipulated. As my antics got me thrown out of class again and again, I received regular paddlings.
One day, a teacher hit me at the wrong angle, and with such force that the blow broke my arm. On other occasions, after being sent to the principal’s office, I received “in-school suspension,” which meant being thrown into a tiny vault with a heavy-duty steel door. The vault’s original purpose was to store cafeteria money, locker keys, and anything else worthy of security. But now, in the hands of the principal, it was a jail cell for incorrigible youth. Locked in the dark for full school days, I breathed shallowly so I didn’t use up all the oxygen. Inside that cell, I couldn’t tell whether five minutes or two hours had passed, and I was always afraid I would die in there.
In late summer 1974, I was less than five years away from being able to officially drop out of school at sixteen. At the same time, I felt a nagging concern about what my future would hold. I kept telling myself everything would be okay. I’d be able to make a go of it as a businessman or farmer. I just needed to do the rest of my “time” first.
I actually hated the idea of becoming a drop-out because it meant everyone who had ever said I was lazy and didn’t apply myself would now have irrefutable evidence to back up their claim. Mom and Dad wanted each of their three kids to have a diploma, and I knew they were going to be heartsick if I didn’t earn mine. But from my perspective, more years of sitting in school and not participating seemed like a waste of time. I was 90 percent sure that if I stayed, the principal would eventually provide me with a diploma, just to get me out of his sight.
One day, as I earned money painting lines for parking spaces, a guy pulled up beside me to ask for directions. I rattled off the directions as only a local could, and then pulled the start cord on my paint sprayer to get back to work. The man went back to his car only to return several minutes later with a tablet and pen, asking me to write down the directions. I told them to him again, as he tried to force the tablet and pen upon me.
My struggle was painfully apparent to both of us. Finally, he took the pen and the tablet back and asked, “You can’t read or write, can you?”
I paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. “You are correct, sir. I am functionally illiterate.”
“Have you ever heard of dyslexia?” he asked.
“Sir, I’ve never heard the term you just spit out,” I replied, “but my father had me evaluated by some of the best medical minds, and I’m doubtful that, at this point in my life, anyone can help me.”
“I disagree,” the man said. “If you are indeed dyslexic, as I suspect you may be, there is great hope for you. Let’s sit down over here on the tailgate of your truck and talk.”
We talked for an hour and a half, and I opened up to this stranger who had a comfortable grandfatherly quality. I told him all about my school years, when my reading and writing difficulties began, how I covered them up, and the unfortunate results. I told him about my fears of being the dumb kid when I just wanted to be normal.
The man went on to tell me that dyslexia has nothing to do with one’s level of intelligence, and rattled off a list of people throughout history who were thought to have dyslexia: Nelson Rockefeller, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and others.
“Dyslexia is simply a disconnect, a processing issue inside the brain, which makes reading and writing difficult,” the man said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with your intelligence.”
Having a name for my challenge made me feel hopeful, but at the same time, I was overwhelmed. If this was my problem, how could I possibly get a handle on it? But cautious optimism grew inside me. The man suggested I start by contacting the Pennsylvania State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to get an expert evaluation.
That evening I called my mom and told her I’d met a gentleman who thought I might have something called dyslexia. She said that, just a few days earlier, she had caught a news snippet about dyslexia, and encouraged me to find out more.
My initial meeting with OVR took place at the Office of Employment Security in Lewistown, PA. My caseworker secured me an appointment for an evaluation with a doctor in State College, who indeed diagnosed me with dyslexia. Although the doctor determined my above-average strength in auditory processing (listening skills) would be helpful in my rehabilitation, her official report noted great weakness in visual memory and stated, “because of his age and the severity of the involvement, extensive intervention will be needed.”
The bottom line: professionals believed it would be nearly impossible for me to make significant progress in learning to read and write on my own. My best bet, they said, would be to hire a tutor and work one on one. I returned home that evening to a message on my answering machine from one of State College’s graduate students, Cheryl. She offered her services as my private tutor, at no charge, for as long as I needed. She said she was willing to put in the time if I was serious about learning. I immediately took her up on her offer.
I began 90-minute tutoring sessions, two to three evenings a week, with Cheryl. She was amazingly dedicated and arrived each night with a fresh lesson plan. Contrary to popular belief, the experience of dyslexia is not akin to seeing words and letters backwards or upside down. In my case, at least, it is more of a confused mass of letters and words on a page—as if someone has placed a piece of window screen over the text and moves it around while I try to read through it. With Cheryl’s help, I soon discovered that larger, double-spaced print made a tremendous difference for me.
Cheryl also suggested we try placing various colored sheets of cellophane over the text. Her plan worked! Yellow cellophane filters helped calm the chaos and anxiety in my brain.
Another helpful tool came in the form of an inexpensive set of phonetic audio teaching tapes I bought at a yard sale for five dollars. The tapes sounded as if they had been recorded around a kitchen table by a husband and wife with a guitar, but they worked. After working with Cheryl for six weeks, I found I’d made great progress. I could read multisyllable words and could sometimes read all the way to the end of a sentence. I was motivated to keep going.
By spring 1994, I was 30 and no longer functionally illiterate. My reading had improved dramatically, but not without 18 months of determined practice. The goal of my rehabilitation was to help me reach my full potential in a career for which I was well suited.
As I weighed the options in my mind, my childhood dream of expressing my thoughts and ideas over the airwaves as a broadcaster appealed to me more and more. “I’d like to be a broadcaster,” I told my caseworker.
“I talked to them about there futures and the fact that, if they had a dream, they should never allow anyone to take it away”
“Wow, we’ve never had anyone make that request. I’m not sure where to begin.”
I had been kicking the idea of becoming a broadcaster around in my head for a while. I thought the best way to start would be to visit a professional recording studio and make an audition tape. My caseworker agreed and, within a couple of weeks, I recorded my first voice audition tape at a studio in Lancaster, PA. On my tape, I told a story about my Uncle Roy who, during World War II, had been forced to parachute out of his aircraft after it had been hit by enemy fire. Not only did he survive the incident but, with the help of the French underground, Roy spent 90 days on the run, disguised as a peasant woman riding a bicycle. He eluded German troops and triumphantly made his way back into Allied territory.
The studio owner thought it was rather odd to place a story like this on a demo and tried to talk me out of it. But being different was exactly what I intended. I wanted to be noticed.
I decided to throw myself completely into my new career. I sold all of my line-painting equipment, except for my pickup truck, and traveled around town, shaking hands, smiling, and talking with everyone from ad agencies looking for voices for radio and TV commercials to documentary filmmakers who hired narrators. Slowly, I developed a studio schedule as a freelance voice-over artist. As it turned out, the story on my demo tape became the hook that made people sit up, pay attention, and ultimately hire me. Producers loved the fact that I was just a real guy who could tell a good story.
Narration work wasn’t that hard to come by, and later I heard that Accu-Weather—one of the world’s largest privately owned weather forecasting services—was hiring. Emboldened by my recent successes, I decided to cold call Accu-Weather.
Though Accu-Weather’s director of broadcasting seemed reluctant to take me seriously because of my lack of “newsroom experience,” I finally convinced him to take a listen to my audition tape. By the time I left his office, I had a part-time job. Accu-Weather produced and sold local weather reports to hundreds of radio and TV newsrooms throughout the United States and Canada. Here I was, the kid who had been petrified to read in front of 25 of my fellow students, now reading the weather broadcast to millions of listeners.
Occasionally, however, I was haunted by my school years. I couldn’t go back and change anything, but I wondered about all of the kids who might have been, at that very moment, going through what I’d been through. East Juniata still had the same principal, and most of the same teachers were still there—even the bad ones.
In my mind, while I had accepted culpability for my role in receiving a botched education, the principal and the others weren’t off the hook if they were still using the same teaching methods of my youth. I tossed and turned in bed at night as I thought about the kid who might now be locked up in the principal’s vault. I thought about the kids who were now dealing with the teachers who had paddled me and who had broken my arm. Could I truly be considered rehabilitated if I simply went on with my life with no thought for those who might still be struggling?
The debate went on in my head for months. I finally came to the conclusion that, at the very least, I needed to approach the superintendent of schools and ask a few questions regarding the current policies for identifying students with learning disabilities, punishment practices, and, most of all, use of the vault.
I contacted various special education advocacy groups throughout the state to inquire how the Juniata County School District measured up against other schools, in respect to providing services to children with learning disabilities. I wasn’t surprised when I learned the school district was seriously deficient and out of compliance with state law. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Education was sadly understaffed in the area of enforcement. It was a watchdog without teeth.
I wrote briefly of my own story and detailed the punishments I had received while attending East Juniata. I expressed my concern for current students who might be in need of special services to help them with learning challenges. I inquired about current forms of punishment and, more specifically, asked if students were still being confined in the school vault.
I wrote the school superintendent. When he didn’t answer my letter, I wrote to him again. Even after I’d placed several calls to his office, I was politely told by his secretary, “The doctor is unavailable to speak at this time.”
After a few more restless nights, I sat on the sofa in my living room and stared at a list of phone numbers. Finally, I mustered some courage, picked up the phone, and called various local and regional news organizations. I told them my personal story and expressed my concern that there were still students in Juniata County with special learning needs who were not receiving help. I also condemned heavy-handed punishment and the use of the vault.
All hell broke loose. Members of the press showed up in Juniata County with pens and pads, microphones, news vans, satellite dishes and TV cameras. Within an hour of the first news van rolling up to the school, a knock came at my door. A private courier stood before me with a sealed envelope that carried my name. Inside the envelope, on Juniata County School District stationery, was a personal letter from the superintendent, requesting a meeting to discuss my concerns at a time and place of my choosing. I met with the superintendent and my old school principal, two days later, in the district’s administration building. Both men were furious that I’d had the audacity to contact the press.
I told the superintendent I simply wanted answers to some of my questions: what steps are you taking to identify students with special learning needs? Do you still use the vault to lock up kids? Are students still pounded into submission? Are children with learning problems still paddled as “remediation” for their learning difficulties? What steps are you taking to become compliant with the special education laws? But these men only seemed to be interested in having me call off the press. When I said I had no button to magically stop the media from looking into the problem, the superintendent warned me:
“This will not go well for you, Lauver.”
“I’m not afraid,” I told him. “I can’t imagine that, even with all your power, there is anything you can do to me that’s worse than what I’ve already survived.”
I left the two men in the superintendent’s office, both of them frantically wondering how they could dodge the media. I received letters, phone calls, and voicemails from angry citizens who felt I had no right to “meddle” in these matters. At the same time, my phone rang off the hook with calls from parents who were concerned about the overzealous punishments their children had received at school. My fears were confirmed over and over by parents who spoke of the lack of help for their children with learning problems. Few parents were willing to stand up and fight, however, for fear of retaliation. Reporters eventually lost interest in my concerns and moved on to the next story, but a small group of parents and community leaders started to organize and question the practices of the Juniata County School District. For the most part, their questions were ignored. Then Juniata County changed forever.
In a relatively short period of time, four separate suicides of teenage boys from East Juniata High School rocked our community to the core. Each of the boys had been having trouble at school. Finally, the good and decent people of Juniata County found their voices, stood up, and started asking questions about the state of education in the county.
This time, there were too many voices to be ignored.
The family of one of the boys who’d committed suicide filed suit against the school district in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The lawsuit stated the young man frequently visited the principal’s office, routinely pleading for academic and emotional help. The suit asserted that the 16-year-old boy had clearly been denied the services guaranteed to him under state and federal law. After his concerns were routinely ignored, the young man had finally reached his breaking point. Feeling there was no hope for him, he used a gun to take his own life, in the living room of his family’s home. Attorneys for the school district bristled as they vowed to fight the “baseless lawsuit.”
It was obvious—after countless legal depositions from many faculty, administrators and former students, such as myself—that East Juniata High School had long been an unpleasant and often brutal place for children with learning problems. The depositions made it clear that, if you were a kid in need of special help, Juniata County, PA, was the last place you wanted to be.
Under oath, the school’s principal admitted he had, over the years, used the school’s fireproof vault as an isolation chamber to punish students. Shortly after this admission, the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, and the principal left East Juniata High School after having served 30 years as principal. The newly empowered people of Juniata County voted in a new board of education, which worked diligently to bring our schools into compliance with state and federal laws regarding special education.
One day, out of the blue, I received a call from a woman in Kansas, with a request that would take me as far out of my comfort zone as I had ever gone. She was the sales manager for a large insurance agency. “I’m in charge of a group of insurance salespeople who are having a lousy year,” she told me, “and they need some motivation. If you come to Kansas and tell the story of how your life started, the challenges you faced, and where you are today, I think my people will be inspired. I’m looking for a real person with a real story of determination and grit, and I know you’re the person for the job. I’ll pay you $3,500, plus expenses.”
A month later, I appeared before this woman’s team. I was nervous, at first, but as time went on, I loosened up and began to enjoy myself. At the end of the talk, the group gave me a standing ovation. I flew out of Wichita, KS, that night, feeling confident and thinking I just might want to pursue a career in public speaking.
After a bit of research, I learned about a gentleman who ran a speakers bureau in Hollywood that specialized in speakers with disabilities. I called him and, about six weeks later, he called me back. He wanted to send me to Minnesota to speak at a community college. This college didn’t have a very big budget, and I don’t think he had anyone else on his roster who would go for the small amount of money offered, so he decided to take a chance on me.
It proved to be a solid engagement, and the audience liked me. Soon, the speakers’ bureau began sending me out more often. I told my personal story to live audiences all over the country. Just a few, at first, and then more and more, as time went on. I spoke at corporate conventions, colleges, universities, governmental agencies and teacher conferences. I even gave a keynote address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
But of the 1,000-plus speaking engagements I’ve had since that very first one in Kansas, the one that stands out as the most personally rewarding was on in October 2003, when I was invited to my old high school to give a talk to a small class of about 20 students who had learning disabilities.
I greeted the class of ninth- and tenth-graders and began to share my story. I didn’t sugarcoat it. I gave them all the details. I told them what it was like for me, 20-some years ago, sitting in their same seats. I talked to them about their futures and the fact that, if they have a dream, they should never allow anyone to take it away.
Driving home, I knew I had helped to bring about the change I had witnessed. But most of all, I realized the time I put in as a student at East Juniata had not been in vain. It had made me resilient and helped me find my voice.