A captivated audience of 5th and 6th graders asked Charles Schwab for advice — but not about the stock market. “Was it very hard to tell your friends you had dyslexia?” a child asked earnestly. It was one of many questions Mr. Schwab fielded during his October 2003 visit to the Neighborhood School in lower Manhattan about his experiences growing up with a learning disability.
Q: Do you still have dyslexia?
Mr. Schwab: The answer is yes. You never really get rid of it. You just have to deal with it, and it’s not all that bad, frankly. I mean, I can read well…but I read slowly and I know that; I just have to take a little bit more time. If I’m really anxious to read something I just cut out the time and put my effort into it and do it.
I loved books like Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities, things like that. They were called “the classics” back then. I don’t know what they are now, but those are my favorite books. They still are my favorite books. I don’t read a lot of books now for pleasure; I just read sort of business stuff because I’m a slow reader.
Q: How old were you — what grade were you in — when you found out that you needed help?
Mr. Schwab: Well let me tell you what happened with me. This goes back a long time, and I was in school like this, when I was your age, a long time ago, and — science didn’t understand this issue then. And it’s only come about in the last 10 or 15 years that they really began to understand what dyslexia is and its impacts. It impacts about one in seven of us, almost 15% of the population.
But they didn’t know that 40 years ago when I was going to school. And so I went through all those years without really knowing, always sort of [wondering], How come I’m just a little bit slower than everybody else in the classroom, it seems? And what happened, of course, for me happened when my youngest son — I have five kids — was identified as having a learning problem, [called] dyslexia.
And so I was then in my late 30’s, before I found out that he had it and that he had all the same issues that I had when I was a kid. So I said, “I now understand what Michael is contending with because I had the same issues when I was his age.” And so I didn’t really find out about this until really maybe 20 years ago, 15 years ago I guess it’d be now.
So I think you kids have a real advantage to understand [about learning issues] younger because you can deal with it more with your parents and work on it hard.
Q: My name is Megan, and do any of your other kids have dyslexia?
Mr. Schwab: Well, you know, I think one other kid does have it but was never identified as such because my youngest is 27, so it goes back to the period of let’s say 20 years ago when the schools didn’t really know, why these kids were having problems with, let’s say, reading. But I have ten grandchildren and I know I’ve got at least two kids there that have a learning issue.
Q: How did you become so successful?
Mr. Schwab: Well, thank you. You know what I did — and I think it’s really true for kids who have these issues is, as soon as you can, find out what you really like in life and focus on it as hard as you can. Try to read, even though you’re going to read slowly, read everything you can about it. Look at pictorials, look at TV, look at whatever you can in terms of information — Internet access — on the subjects that you really like, and really specialize in that. That’s what I did with investments. I really liked it when I was 13 and I got to like it more and more as I went along in life, but I’m not good in other things. I’m really good in this thing, but not good in a lot of things. So that’s okay. It’s okay to specialize.
Q: Was it very hard to tell your friends that you had dyslexia? Like if they asked you to read something was it hard to tell them, or were you too afraid to?
Mr. Schwab: Well, as I said, I didn’t know, they didn’t have this label or this name given to me. I couldn’t memorize a poem. I hated to go up in front of the class, and I’d always mess it up. I could never memorize three words in a row. It was awful. So I was always embarrassed to go up in front of the class. I always considered myself pretty smart, but I couldn’t memorize three words in a row. It was unbelievable.
And so those were issues when I was a kid. As you know, I didn’t read very fast, so my book reports always seemed to be behind the eight ball. You know I never was really good at that stuff. I was good at math. I could count pretty well, and so I was fortunate. So I emphasized my good side and didn’t emphasize my bad side as much. But I know what you mean about having some issues around being a little bit embarrassed about this. But you’ve got to think about your strengths even more than your weaknesses. Figure those out.
Q: My name is Christian. There’s this one thing…[a list that has] a whole bunch of different people that say what they had trouble with…
Mr. Schwab: You mean famous people or people that…
Q: Yeah like they had Jackie Chan and all the other people.
Mr. Schwab: Well you guys probably never seen Fortune magazine before [shows kids the magazine cover], it’s probably something your dad reads. That’s me. That’s me when I was 13. Anyway there’s an article here — this was done years ago — but all these guys here, this guy, you ever heard of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Music and stuff? [That’s the founder,] Richard Branson, he’s a dyslexic. Craig McCall; he’s Nextel, the Nextel telephone. He’s the guy who started that and bunch of other things. He’s brilliant. I know him. I know all these guys actually. John Chambers, ever hear of Cisco Systems?
Q: Oh, my aunt works for them.
Mr. Schwab: Yeah. The guy who runs that company is John Chambers and he’s a dyslexic. So there are a lot of people who — they even said Einstein, I never knew Einstein — anyway there are a lot of people who deal with the issue [dyslexia] and [they] focus in on the things that they love and excel in them.
Q: Did you get upset when you found out that you had dyslexia or were you happy that you found out?
Mr. Schwab: You know, in my case I was really happy. It answered a lot of questions I had about myself when I was a child. And I know it’s the toughest thing to deal with and the toughest thing to get over — contemplating you have the problem and how to deal with it. And so that’s what it is all about: trying to deal with it in an upbeat way and make life what it is — a good thing. Let’s see, who hasn’t asked a question yet?
Q: Were you nervous reading in front of your classmates or anything?
Mr. Schwab: Oh, yeah, nervous. Oh. I’d get up there and they say, okay, it’s your turn to read a paragraph. I hated that. I really hated it and I always stumbled my way through it. And I guess that’s what’s hopeful now is teachers will understand that you might have this issue and won’t embarrass you.