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A pianist’s journey with dyslexia

A 10-year-old boy sits in a circle listening to Christian songs with a group of kids his own age. A youth pastor instructs the children to get out a piece of paper and write down how the song makes them feel. The boy looks around the Sunday school room, his anxiety growing. It’s a game he’s very familiar with. But this time there’s no escaping.
One by one the kids drop their papers into a bowl. It’s his turn. He picks up a piece of paper. The youth pastor rushes over to give him a microphone. He opens his mouth to read, but the words never make it out.
“Hey buddy, that’s upside down,” the youth pastor calls out, noticing the boy’s paper.
Laughter fills the room. “He’s probably dyslexic,” another kid shouts.
The boy just sits there, wishing in that moment he could just disappear.

He played the piano that night. He knew he was unlike the other kids. There was something wrong with him – he was sure of it. But as soon as his fingers touched those keys it didn’t matter. In that moment, reality was a distant place. The assortment of keys, the distinct sound of each, and how once played together took the boy’s mind to far away places.
The tune he played in his head was coming to life right in front of him. There was not one key that was better than the other. Each played a unique part in the construction of the melody. As the music came pouring out, his worries faded, his struggles grew smaller, and peace replaced his usual anxiety. He was finally free.
“It was tough seeing younger kids learn things much quicker than you,” said Andrew Olivarez, who is now 25. “I spent hours and hours trying to learn how to read. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t trying hard enough. That other kids were clearly trying harder.”
Think back to everything you have ever read – whether it is a text message, work email, a favorite book, or even your daily dose of news. Normal readers go through the same process. First, looking up words in our mental dictionary and stringing them together so they make sense within the context of a complete sentence or thought. We are converting characters into sounds and then combining those words into speech without even acknowledging the brain’s intricate process.
Our brain works at an astounding rate, deciphering text almost effortlessly. Unfortunately, for over47 million Americans that isn’t the case.
Although those affected by dyslexia have a hard time looking at specific words and identifying which corresponding mental picture goes with it, an even greater problem lies in stringing together all the mental pictures described in a coherent sentence. The development of the overall picture being formed is stopped with each new word, especially when an unknown word is read. By the end of the paragraph, a dyslexic reader can end up with a series of unrelated pictures with blank spots in between and absolutely no idea of what was just read.
“I think my dyslexia caught my parent’s off guard,” said Andrew. “They didn’t really know anything about it until I was seven. When it came to practical steps my family struggled. I felt alone.”
Andrew is the second oldest in a family with four children. Him and his sibling were raised to fear God and shy away from worldly things, public school being one of them. Andrew was homeschooled for as long as he could remember. While his dad ran an auto-body shop in Auburn, his mom homeschooled him and siblings.
A keyboard lies on the ground. The boy’s neighbor had let his family borrow it not too long ago. The six-year-old boy reaches for the keys. “Chariots of Fire” is playing on the TV screen in the room. He places his fingers on the keyboard and starts mimicking the theme song he hears coming from the TV.
His fingers grace the piano keys effortlessly. His dad and uncle look at him, amazed. It’s his first time playing.
For Andrew’s family, there was no specific homeschooling schedule or lesson plan in place. On good days, Mrs. Olivarez would have the kids work on math problems or read. Almost any other time, they could do whatever they wanted. Andrew would always choose the piano. He would play any chance he got.
A dinosaur egg makes its way from one place to the next, each time falling into the wrong hands. A symphony mimics all the dramatic movement unfolding in each scene. The boy’s eyes remain glued to the screen, as the grandiose musical score incites the wonder and imagination of an ancient dinosaur world.
A wave of happiness sweeps over the 10-year-old. In that moment, watching Disney’s “Dinosaur” for the first time, he knew he wanted to move people with music in the same way it moved him.
“‘He might have something, we just don’t know,’ I remember my parents saying,” said Andrew. “That’s the problem with homeschooling. If I had gone to public school, they would have detected it earlier.”
When Andrew was 13, his parents took him to the Hope Clinic to better understand his dyslexia. The doctor tested Andrew’s vision to see whether his eyesight contributed to his reading difficulties.
He left with a pair of glasses and a slim understanding of what was wrong with him.
The doctor advised him to wear his glasses every time he read. The glasses would help his eyes focus and help him process the words on a page much better.
“I could read a little bit better, but not much,” said Andrew. “I would write whole words backwards. It’s weird because I didn’t even think about it. It was hard to tell the difference between similar info, too. It all gets sorted into one category in my mind, with my brain ignoring the specifics of things. It didn’t matter how much I focused on one thing, it would all get jumbled with the rest of the info.”
He went to the Hope Clinic a few more times. His parents couldn’t afford consistent appointments.
“I still think that there were other things they could have done,” Andrew said. “I don’t like being an angry person, so I’m not going to be mad at them for the rest of my life. They definitely messed up and they’ve said that before. But, now we’re here. We have to think about the present.”
To this day, Andrew struggles with reading and writing. It can take him a while to read things, decipher text properly, or spell words accurately. Yet, in all these years he has never given up on bettering his reading and writing skills.
More importantly, he continues to pursue his passion for music. He plays the piano daily, composes and records his own music, and even created an original score for aSeattle International Film Festival award-winning short film.
The seven-year-old boy makes his way over to his usual spot. He places his fingers on the keyboard, letting each key mimic his emotions. Each note said more than he could ever say out loud. His fingers jump from one key to the next, constructing a harmonious melody along the way. His mind goes to its usual place, while his fingers continue to dance gracefully with every note played.
The music grows fainter, until eventually coming to a stop. He takes his hands off the keyboard and places them neatly on his lap. He just wrote his first song.
He calls it “The Journey.”

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