Saturday, May 05, 2012
Living with Dyslexia: Anna Franz story
When Anna Franz, a 23-year-old UAB exchange student from Munich, Germany, was in elementary school, she desperately told her mother: “Mommy, I think there is only space for one word in my head.” She realized that she had much more difficulty learning how to read and write than most other children of her age.
Franz is one of several persons in her family to struggle from dyslexia, a reading and writing disorder.
Despite Franz’s fight with orthography and reading, she has been successful in school. Unlike many other people with the same symptoms, she graduated from high school in 2008 and is currently studying biology as an exchange student at UAB.
In a recent interview conducted in German, Franz did not in the least convey the impression that she has been leading a life ruled by sometimes depressing learning difficulties.
She came along smiling, apparently flattered that somebody wanted to write an article about her. She is articulate and confident.
Her desk in her dormitory is orderly, framed by a pile of thick books on each side with titles such as “Genetics and Conceptual Approach,” “The Molecular Biology of the Cell,” and “The Hunger Games.”
Not quite what one would expect on the desk of a person with a reading disorder who avoided reading books until the sixth grade.
The German Association of Dyslexia and Dyscalculia estimates that four to six percent of the German population suffers from dyslexia and related disability.
Depending on the severity, dyslexic children and adults confuse letters and sounds. They are unable to retain pronunciations and meanings of words even after they have read them countless times.
They fail to make sense of texts that seem to be a breeze for others. Sometimes they even develop mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, caused by constant failure.
It is difficult for average readers to understand what it is like not to be able to process a word’s pronunciation or meaning instantly, even though you have seen it numerous times.
When dyslexia was first described more than a century ago, dyslexics were regarded as less intelligent or lazy.
Today scientists know that it is not a flaw of the character but a disorder in the brain, caused by glitches and entirely independent of a person’s intelligence.
Statistics indicate that affected persons sometimes even have abilities in other fields that transcend those of people without the disorder.
In an article in 2003, Time magazine reported that dyslexics are “overrepresented in the top ranks of artists, scientists, and business executives,” but also in jail.
How life turns out for them depends to a high degree on when parents discover the problem and what they do to help children manage it.
Fortunately, Franz’s first-grade teacher was sensitive to dyslexia. Having a son with the same problem, the teacher noticed that Franz was struggling more than her classmates and recommended that she be tested.
The diagnosis was “dyslexia combined with anxiety of being over-challenged,” according to Franz’s father Werner Franz.
“Prior to the diagnosis I was very frustrated because I had such great difficulties and my classmates were faster than me,” Franz said.
Her parents then sent her to a school for children with learning disabilities where she was the best student in her class. She was aided by therapy lessons that facilitated her ability to read and write.
By grade five, she transferred to a middle school, as it is called in Germany, for “normal” people.
The major turning point in Franz’s education occurred in the seventh grade, when she suddenly developed an interest in reading books. The publication of Harry Potter was the triggering event that turned her into a bookworm.
As the third installment of the Harry Potter series was published in Germany, Franz remembers clearly that she got up early in the morning in order to be the first one to rush into the bookstore at opening time to get the book.
In middle school, Franz did not take a back seat. Her GPA surpassed that of many of her fellow students. Then she soared through high school with flying colors and attained a GPA of 2.0, which is the equivalent of a high B to low A in the United States.
Spurred by success and the realization that her hard work paid off, she moved on to college.
After a short excurse in computer science for one semester, she started studying biology in Leipzig, Germany. For the past eight months, she has been studying as an exchange student at UAB.
The commission that decided on her acceptance to the exchange program was convinced of her strong will to succeed and disregarded her difficulties in English.
Her success was neither an accident nor predestined, but a combination of the right decisions made by her parents, her undaunted volition to invest more time and effort than her peers to reach her goals, as well as unconditional support of her family and friends.
“Anna had to study so much more – especially for languages – to get somewhere,” said her mother, Ute Franz.
It has never been an option for Franz to surrender to dyslexia. “I always wanted to know the right spelling of a word. I just never gave up,” she said.
In high school, Franz knew some fellow dyslexics who thought differently. “I’ll write the way I want, and the teacher can try to find out what I mean,” they said angrily.
“I think my motivation has something to do with my parents,” said Franz. “They are both university graduates and have well paid jobs, so I have never doubted that I would do the best of my life that I could.”
Franz and her parents agree that her greatest achievement in life was that she made it from a school for children with learning disabilities to a successful student.
When asked about her greatest fears in life she smiled hesitatingly, rolled her eyes, looked at the ceiling for a second before saying, “My entire life has been a fight with dyslexia. There is nothing for me to be scared of.”
Her lifelong learning difficulties have made her the strong person she needs to be in order to live up to her high aspirations. It has turned her into a person eager to earn her merits in the field in which she has always had the most problems: education.
A Masters degree and a PhD in biology are the next steps on Franz’s agenda. She tries to reach for the stars and her development shows that there is no reason why she should not be able to get hold of them.