Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

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“Jay Leno here, calling for Aidan.”

This was the voice I heard when I picked up our home phone one day in April.

“One second,” I said, trying to sound natural, as if people like Jay Leno called our house all the time. I banged on Aidan’s door and whisper-shouted, “It’s Jay Leno!”

The call was not entirely out of the blue. We had met Mr. Leno the previous night for 10 minutes right before his performance in Fayetteville, N.C., about an hour from where we live. Bill Kirby, a writer for The Fayetteville Observer, had sneaked in my 16-year-old son, Aidan, to meet him when he heard about Aidan’s project. Over the last year, Aidan had written letters to successful dyslexics asking if they had any advice for a dyslexic high school student like him. He had written to Jay Leno three times.

“Did I answer?” Mr. Leno had asked him.

“No, but that’s O.K.,” Aidan had said.

Dyslexia, a neurological difference that impairs the ability to read, often greatly impairs performance in school.

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

“Probably smarter,” he had answered.

“You could ask,” I had said.

And so, over the last year, he had written to 100 successful dyslexics. Ten responded. Dr. Delos Cosgrove, a surgeon and chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, was the first. He started his letter, “Dyslexia is an advantage in the fact that it makes us think more creatively.”

The second person to write back, the economist Diane Swonk, said among other things, “Success is the process of learning from failures, and I had more learning experiences than many.”

The sculptor Thomas Sayre said, “It appears that most dyslexics are improvisers. We have to be.”

Not one letter denied the challenges that come with having a significant learning difference. Instead, each letter provided the perspective that can only be gained over time. They all said, in their own ways, “Kid, you’re going to be O.K.”

My son pinned their letters up. He looked at these letters when preparing for a test or writing a paper or recovering from a bad grade. It would be nice to say that they provided the perfect antidote. They certainly did help, as did his academic accommodations. But midway through the year, his teachers called a meeting to see if anything more could be done.

Aidan’s principal, David Schwenker, wondered aloud whether taking one less class each semester might be the answer. “It would mean graduating one year later,” he said, “but then you could stay in honors classes.” Aidan was crestfallen.

It was fortuitous that writer John Irving’s letter arrived around then. In it, Mr. Irving wrote, “You need to give yourself more time; it takes you longer to do things than it takes your friends. So what? If you do it well?” It helped to know that Mr. Irving, himself, had taken an extra year to finish high school. He graduated in 1961, when accommodations for disabilities were far less common. Aidan decided to do the same.

We are each born with different strengths and weaknesses, and learning to live with these is part of every life. What is regrettable is that often, far too early, the path some of us choose is shaped more by what we can’t do than what we can.

But back to Jay Leno.

By phone, he told Aidan many stories, including one in which his high school guidance counselor had recommended that he consider the training program at McDonald’s. Mr. Leno paused and chuckled. He obviously hadn’t listened to the guidance counselor. In fact, he went on to say, years later, he had invited this very guidance counselor to “The Tonight Show,” where he introduced him and they both laughed about that misguided advice.

The lesson Mr. Leno was trying to impart, I think, is that at the end of the day, Aidan is the one in the driver’s seat of his life. He can choose to follow or ignore any guidance offered. Mr. Leno also shared that the path he chose was not always easy — for a period early in his career, he slept in an alley in New York City at 44th Street and Ninth Avenue — while doing standup five or six nights a week for little pay.

Over the course of this past year, through conversations like this one and the letters he received, Aidan didn’t discover the secret to success for dyslexics. If anything, he discovered that there was no secret — except persistence, humor, improvisation and grit.

Was the project a waste of time? Far from it. Had he not had dyslexia and been in distress, Aidan would never have reached out for advice. He would never have connected with Mr. Leno or others who offered valuable insights, including the poet Philip Schultz and the explorer Ann Bancroft. He would not have written a book about this experience. And that book is opening doors he could never have imagined.