Piper Otterbein: Overcoming Dyslexia, Finding Passion at TEDxYouth@CEHS (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Piper Otterbein’s TEDx Talk: Overcoming Dyslexia, Finding Passion at TEDxYouth@CEHS Conference.

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Piper Otterbein

I can remember the first time I realized something was wrong. I can remember the first time I was told I have dyslexia. I can remember being in first or second grade when my teacher pulled me off the hallway into a small classroom. She sat me down and she put five magnetic letters on the board. And she said: “Piper read this to me. What do these five letters say?”

And I looked at it, and I kept staring at it, and I said, “I’m not really sure what that says.”

She said “Okay, that’s okay, but that’s your name.”

I remember this feeling like it happened this morning. I can assure you my face went beet red. I was beyond embarrassed that at that very moment I couldn’t even read my own name. I can remember in the following year when my Mom picked me up from the house where I went for tutoring. The tutor came outside and said, “Mary Beth, I need you to work with Piper on sequencing. She’s still not understanding what makes up a dollar. Here’s four quarters just sit her down and keep singing the dollar song.”

So as soon as we got home we sat at the table and we said it together four or five times. Twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, a dollar. And then it was my turn to repeat it back. Twenty-five, fifty –?

‘Piper, twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, a dollar. Try again.’

‘Twenty-five, fifty –‘

‘Piper it’s just four things. Twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, a dollar.’

I can remember how having dyslexia affected me from Elementary School to Middle School. I can remember being under the impression that I had to master certain aspects of school and overcome this. I thought it was the only way.

From first grade to eighth grade I was taken out of normal regular classes to be taught in a different way. In fourth grade I was told I wouldn’t be able to take a foreign language. In sixth grade I was told it was essential to master my multiplication facts in order to continue.

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I did everything I could to try to graduate out of these programs they were putting me in. I knew I couldn’t learn like the rest of you, but all I wanted to do was be in the normal conventional classes with you. But as I sat there in my pink dress and flowered headband, I just didn’t want to be different.

I can remember fighting to get out of these classrooms. My parents helped me in every way they could to get me educated outside of the Cape Elizabeth School System. I was repeatedly IQ tested because my results didn’t make sense. It would come back in Superior Excellence in numerous categories. It really just came down to the fact that my brain worked in completely different ways than others.

Come eighth grade, I saw one final doctor for one final IQ test. And his only conclusion, give the girl a calculator and a dictionary. After about a dozen meetings with my parents, teachers, instructional support advisors and even the administration I finally heard exactly what I wanted to hear. As long as you maintain your grades and advocate for yourself you can graduate from the Instructional Support Program.

Even when I graduated it’s not like this all just went away. Every single day I’m reminded that I still have dyslexia. For example, this summer I worked on the food truck, Mainely Burgers. Being the cashier and taking people’s burger orders. I spelled onions “U-N-I-O-N-S”. And it wasn’t until about three weeks later that the boys finally started to say “Piper, did he want unions on that burger?”

Or, “Piper, did Mary order a large union ring or a small union ring?”

Sometimes I call my best friend Chelsea, ask her how to spell one word and hang up. Spell Check never knows what I’m trying to say. And my SAT scores. Those were fun. When the May SATs rolled around, I took them once with no prep and my scores came back and I got a 1350. I immediately called my Mom, my Dad, my brother and cried to them about my 1350. Not one school I was looking into accepted scores remotely around 1350. So for the second SATs I did two hours of prep three times a week with a one-on-one tutor for a month. And my scores came back and I got a 1350. Thirteen fifty was my destiny.

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And most recently I was writing a letter to thank a college professor for meeting with me. Just about four or five sentences. I wrote them once on a sticky note, revised it. Wrote it again on a sticky note, revised it. Then I circled words, which looked like they were misspelled, and Google searched them. Then I wrote the letter in pencil on the card, wrote over it in pen. That was the process it took for just four to five sentences. I used to put so much time and energy in trying to overcome my dyslexia.

But when I arrived at High School enough was enough. I realized it wasn’t going to be important for me to master things like my multiplication facts, my ability in a foreign language and figuring out why I couldn’t comprehend these books I was reading. What was important is that I found what I loved to do and strengthened what I enjoyed. I found so much enjoyment in working. I worked at my Mom’s furniture store, I babysat, and I even volunteered on the Cape Elizabeth ambulance.

I found enjoyment in organizing events. Helping to create one of the most memorable proms and even helped plan the event that you are sitting in right now. And most recently, I found that my creative brain is the one that suits me best.

This past summer I completed 250 hours of artwork at the Maine College of Art. And when I arrived for my senior year, I dropped math, science and a foreign language. I found my passion and at this very moment I’m pursuing it.

Next Fall I will be attending Savannah College of Art & Design majoring in Accessory Design and minoring in Business. My challenge for each of you today is to find what you love, find what you enjoy and pursue it. Work hard, eat well, and fall in love with everything.

Thank you.