Her Way with Words
This Wellesley student battled learning problems and dyslexia to earn a Rhodes scholarship.
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 hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) 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.
“Each of them learned to read quite well by adulthood by becoming interested in something of passionate curiosity to them. While many of them were left back and had to repeat grades, they became better readers by reading a lot in a narrow area of interest,” Fink said.
Long said she entered college wanting to be an economist, which she felt played to her strength in math, but she later found the confidence to follow her passion for literature as well.
Long said she has been “in awe of my peers” at Wellesley, not only because it takes her longer to write papers, but because her classmates are able to “devour novels in mere hours,” she said.
But, Long said, her slow reading pace also has been beneficial, since it means she reads with more appreciation. And the hours she spent learning to read by listening blossomed into a love of book and poetry readings.
“It doesn’t shock me that she would be able to overcome hardships and setbacks,” said Wellesley English professor Kathryn Lynch, who had Long as a student in two Chaucer classes. “She has an amazing ability to be able to balance responsibilities.”
During her freshman year at Wellesley, Long began volunteering at the medium-security Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Framingham, helping female prisoners publish a magazine and start a book club.
“She’s been a positive influence here,” said Pam MacEachern, director of classification and treatment at the prison. “It certainly says a lot about her character to keep a level of classes and then finding time to come in and help inmates.”
The magazine, Behind the Walls, gives incarcerated women the opportunity to write about current events. Book club discussions focus on changes occurring in the fictional characters’ lives. “It’s been a really powerful way to have people address their own problems,” Long said.
Long isn’t above breaking away from her studies. She makes a brief appearance as an extra in Mona Lisa Smile, a movie starring Julia Roberts that was partially shot on the Wellesley campus. Long attended a special screening with her Wellesley friends during a visit home over the Christmas holiday.
She is also a collegiate fencer who competed at the 2002 NCAA Regionals and Junior Olympics.
“‘Narrow’ is not a word for her,” said Alexandra May, a friend at Wellesley.
“I think the reason I like Heather so much is, not only is she very driven and so scholarly, she can be a lot of fun too,” May said. “I can tease her about the fact that Alan Greenspan is her hero.”
Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.