At first, letters were just a jumble to Heather Long. When her elementary school classmates were already absorbing books, Long was still spelling out words in shaving cream to learn them.
She remembers her parents’ surprise when they received a call from her school, telling them there was something wrong with their otherwise bright daughter and she was lagging behind.
Dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) were making it difficult for her to pursue her academic passions. But after years of hard work, the Wellesley College economics and English major has vaulted past many of her peers and will find herself at Britain’s Oxford University next year as a Rhodes Scholar studying English and modern history.
“It’s like the Publisher’s Clearing House for academics,” Long, 21, joked in a telephone interview from Pamplona, Spain, where she is spending her senior year abroad. “There’s a little luck involved and a lot of help and support. I’ve gotten the confidence to say I’d like to get a Ph.D. in English and one day be an English professor.”
Long competed with 963 applicants, of whom 32 were chosen from the United States to join a pool of international winners of the Rhodes Scholarship, created in 1902 by British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes.
Math was always easy for her, but she had trouble remembering words. She’d spend hours with tutors, practicing reading and writing. Her mother read aloud to her, and Long did book reports from audio tapes. She says she was 10 or 11 before she really was able to read. To make sense of the hazy cloud of words floating on the page, Long has learned “to sort of dance around the perfect word.”
“I can remember general ideas. But having to remember the exact phrase as it’s written out is difficult,” Long said. “A lot of times, with dyslexia, you’re mixing up the words. With dyslexia you really have to memorize words and what they look like and what they sound like.”
Even at Wellesley, where she has been honored for academic achievement, Long’s mind has played tricks on her. When she tried to read Chaucer, the unfamiliar spellings of Middle English at first befuddled her.
It was a fifth-grade teacher who gave her the incentive to achieve her goals, Long said.
“She was one of the first teachers in my life who thought I was gifted (she actually tried to recommend me for the school gifted program), instead of simply ‘slow,’” Long said, elaborating on her experience in an e-mail.
What she couldn’t do with a pen, Long tried to do with a joke.
“In grade school, I simply tried to be the class clown as a way to ‘shine,’ since I could not do it via academics. Humor was a way to cope, or a defense mechanism,” Long wrote.
Long’s father, Charles Long, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, describes her as a vibrant, outgoing child. He and Heather’s mother are not surprised by her achievements, he said. “Obviously, we’re very proud and very happy for her. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and, of course, we’re proud as parents,” he said.
It’s not unusual for those with dyslexia to conquer their reading demons and succeed later in life, especially when they’re motivated by intense curiosity, said Rosalie Fink, a literacy professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, whose research has focused on high-achieving dyslexics.