The nun’s ruler snapped across Anne Burke’s knuckles as she struggled to form words onto a page.
Burke, who is chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, has come a long way from being that Chicago school girl who wanted to write from right to left.
“I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was doing. My friends were getting As and Bs and I was getting Cs,” she said.
Growing up in the 1950s, Burke derived much of her self-worth from athletics not academics.
“Neither of my parents had gone to high school so I wasn’t under a lot of pressure to get good grades. I guess I just thought I wasn’t a good student. It took me a lot longer to read things than many of my peers.”
It was not until she was well into adulthood that she learned that there is a name for the different way she perceived the world: dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but it in no way affects general intelligence.
In fact, dyslexics tend to have high intelligence levels, Sally Shaywitz, a Yale University physician specializing in dyslexia, told me during a telephone interview Monday.
Gavin Newsom, California’s governor; Henry Winkler, an actor and producer; David Boies, one of the nation’s top appellate lawyers; Charles Schwab, a businessman specializing in discount brokerage services; and Tim Tebow, a Heisman trophy winner and NFL quarterback are among the most well-known dyslexics.
Successful dyslexics are greatly shaped by their childhood struggles but have found coping strategies Shaywitz said.
“I was at conference and many prominent people who are dyslexics there. Someone asked what school was like for them when they were younger and they all ended up crying,” she said.
As a journalist I can relate to the challenges Burke and others have faced. I, too, am dyslexic.
I was never struck with a ruler, but I had a third-grade teacher who would shake me like a rag doll. She was a woman who brimmed with contempt for those who struggled.
Over and over she and another third-grade teacher would say, “You just aren’t trying.”
If only they had known just how hard I was trying.
For me, the solution came in the form of my mother. For two years she would sit with me each day and we would read a book together. She’d read one page aloud, I’d read the next. She’d gently correct me when I mispronounced or misread a word.
Shaywitz said this approach of listening, modeling and correcting is now the gold standard for teaching dyslexics to read.
But she added that since dyslexics perceive the world differently they tend to be original thinkers with problem solving skills.
“We are risk takers,” Burke said.
Burke attended college for a year but when the school moved from Chicago to a western suburb, she dropped out and began working with disabled children in the Chicago Park District, which led to her establishing the Chicago Special Olympics in 1968 and later helped expand the program into the International Special Olympics.
Burke and her husband, Ed, a Chicago alderman, are licensed foster parents who have five children, only one of whom is biologically theirs.
“When three of the children were young, she left her job with the park district with plans to return. Instead she went back to college and earned a degree in education from DePaul in 1976.
Four years later, her husband encouraged her to apply to law school saying she could do more for children with disabilities as a lawyer than she could through direct service.
“When you are dyslexic, you learn coping skills. I was admitted to three different law schools, but I chose Chicago-Kent (College of Law) because it was the one that didn’t require an accounting class.”
Math is often difficult for dyslexics because like reading it involves the interpretation of symbols, numbers and letters.
In 1987, Burke was appointed to the Illinois Court of Claims. In 1995 she became an appellate judge and 2006 she joined the state supreme court.
It’s an intriguing career path for someone who early on had trouble reading.
“Reading law cases is like reading stories or novels. I find it fascinating to learn the circumstances with each case,” she said.
I’ve read many of Burke’s decisions over the years. They are well reasoned and well written.
But what strikes me as most significant about Burke is her empathy for others. Her struggle to learn not only has made her a better judge. but a better person. It may well explain her desire to help disabled children through the Special Olympics and foster care.
She dislikes the word “disability.”
“I say ‘learning difference’ Dyslexia is just a different way of perceiving the world. It’s helped me gain problem solving skills and take risks that others might never consider.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.