How Russell Cosby Overcame Dyslexia
In Fifth Grade
When Russell Cosby was in fifth grade he went into his reading class, opened up the book, and had an anxiety attack. Up until that point he had been able to figure out what the books were about by relying on the pictures. But now it was just alphabet soup. With no pictures to help him figure out the story, he realized that he didn't really know how to read.
Because he couldn't read and write, neighborhood kids started to call him dumb and stupid. His friends would test him. They'd say, "Russell - how do you spell sky?"
Russell couldn't answer.
"You don't know how to spell sky? Man you're dumb!" they'd say.
Recently, Russell Cosby spoke to an enthusiastic audience of faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Russell, who's Bill Cosby's brother, wanted everybody to know that having a learning disability is not the end of the road, but only the beginning of a challenge.
"He'll grow out of it"
"I used to work for this man in the neighborhood who sold fruits and vegetables," Russell Cosby told the audience. "One day I was helping a lady in the neighborhood get her groceries. She said 'Make a list - I want some tomatoes, I want some fish, I want some peppers.' Then she looked at my list and said 'You and my son are in the same grade - come on, what is this?' Then she said, 'You're just dumb,' and a shop full of people heard her."
"So then I began to build a shell. The kids were saying I was stupid. The neighbors were saying I was dumb. The school system said I was slow. So my mother took me to a psychiatrist who said 'He'll grow out of it - I promise you.' Well, I never did."
Russell went to trade school, became an interior decorator, got married and raised a family. But he never really "grew" out of his problem.
College at 52
Russell's nephew Ennis knew what his uncle was going through. Ennis graduated from Landmark College, the nation's only accredited college specifically for students with learning disabilities. Ennis, who had been diagnosed as dyslexic, encouraged his uncle to go to Landmark to get tested and to go on and get his college degree.
Russell Cosby said, "I couldn't do it when I was young. I'm 52 years old. You know I can't do it now."
But Ennis didn't budge. He made his uncle get tested.
After taking the test at Landmark - which lasted more than a day, it was discovered that Russell Cosby did in fact have dyslexia.
"You're dyslexic, but you can be taught"
The staff went over the test results with him and they said, "You're dyslexic but you can be taught." At 52 years old, Russell had his doubts. But he did enroll at Landmark College. He gave it a chance. Now, his reading skills are improving and he's really enjoying taking classes.
"I found out two years ago that I was reading at a third grade level. Now if you saw me, you'd think I was going for my Ph.D. I love it. I enjoy it. "
Growing Self Esteem
And from that point on his self esteem began to grow.
When he was in sixth grade, he would hide his book in a paper bag so no one would know what he was reading - because it was at such a low level. At Landmark, everyone knows that he has a learning problem and that he's there to straighten it out. There's no stigma attached to his dyslexia anymore. He's there to learn and he's not ashamed of that.
Russell says that others who have learning difficulties can overcome their own obstacles, just like he did.
"I've heard that teachers at regular schools are being taught about learning differences and that's important," he says to the audience. "If you just teach one way, then a lot of learning disabled kids are not going to get it. The teachers have to find out how their students learn. They need to try to get the information across in more than one way. Probably in every classroom there are four or five kids who aren't getting it. We all have to learn and respect one another because LD people aren't dumb. I never thought I was dumb. I always wondered why it took me so long to do things, but I never thought I was dumb."
Will teachers listen? Will they try to reach the kid in the back of the classroom who hides his book in a paper bag on the way home from school? Russell Cosby knows that this is just the beginning of changing the way people think about dyslexia. He is speaking out for the thousands of Americans who have learning difficulties. He is telling us that it doesn't matter how fast people learn, only that they do.