Richard Engel, NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent and recipient of the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, has been on hand for many of the big moments in recent history. He was the only American journalist to stay in Baghdad for the duration of the Iraq war and was on hand for the Arab Spring, reporting from Tahrir Square and Benghazi. He was also kidnapped in Syria—an experience he wrote about last month in Vanity Fair.
But before all the risks and awards and magazine stories, Engel was a kid growing up in New York with dyslexia. And not a very exceptional one, either, he told the group gathered for the Child Mind Institute’s “Evening With Richard Engel” event last Friday at the 92nd Street Y. “When you start having confidence problems,” as he was, “you’re not that popular. I was a kid at school.”
Early on he seemed like a bright student. He attended a Montessori school and there were no signs of any learning disorder, although he remembers needing to sing the alphabet song a lot to remember his letters. Things changed when he transferred to the competitive Riverdale Country School in the fourth grade and began taking tests for the first time. He was shocked to find himself “failing miserably,” with grades that didn’t reflect his real comprehension of the material. Proactive, his parents determined that he had dyslexia and sent their son to work with learning specialists and tutors. Meanwhile, Engel’s confidence plummeted, and he started developing behavior issues. “The more I was coddled and made to feel like a person with a defect, the more angry I’d feel,” he told the audience. He said he even attacked a teacher with a xylophone “right to the side of the head” and remembers being asked to leave Riverdale more than once.
Engel’s message at the event, part of Speak Up for Kids, was about the importance of addressing the emotional impact of struggling with a learning disorder. Academic success is important in childhood—now seemingly more than ever—and it’s easy for parents, teachers, and specialists to focus most of our attention on helping kids who are falling behind catch up. But for many kids, the experience is a demoralizing one. They’re told that they’re different from their peers and asked to devote their time and attention to learning different ways to learn—all while still toughing out school, a frustrating experience on its own.
Engel met with the learning specialists and slogged through school, sticking to the sidelines, for several years before experiencing what he calls the turning point in his life: going to a wilderness survival camp in Wyoming when he was thirteen.
He was the only city kid there, and he was given a gun and a knife and trusted to take care of himself. “You’re handed a chainsaw with no instruction of any kind,” Engel remembered. Far from feeling “coddled,” he knew that the consequences of screwing up with a chainsaw were unmistakably real. The sensation, he says, was exhilarating. Engel took to the pared down wilderness lifestyle easily, at one point taking charge and becoming a de facto leader of the other kids during a survival hike. It was a huge shot of confidence to the kid who up until that point hadn’t really distinguished himself in any way.
When he got back to school he felt like a different person. “Confidence is everything,” Engel told the audience. “Once you start having success, you build on success.” Buoyed by his triumph at camp, he found that he was getting popular at school, and schoolwork was getting easier. He also found the curriculum in high school more interesting, which helped him learn.
His adventuring continued from there. He spent his junior year abroad, studying in Italy and became fluent in Italian, despite being told he’d never learn another language. (If anyone’s counting Engel says he now also knows French, Spanish, and four dialects of Arabic.) Most importantly, it was in Italy that he began to appreciate his affinity and talent for being thrown into an alien environment and forced to tread water. He had found his passion. After graduating from Stanford he was ready to immerse himself in another foreign culture, so he packed a few bags, took $2,000 out of the bank, and moved to Cairo to become a foreign correspondent. He built his career there, and he’s been in the Middle East pretty much ever since.
When asked if he had advice for parents of kids who are struggling with their learning disorders, Engel had his answer ready. Finding his confidence changed everything for him, and he says it wasn’t a coincidence. So Engel advises, “Let him find something he really succeeds at. He has to find it, or she has to find it, and really come to terms with it, adopt it, and be successful at it, whatever it happens to be, without your help.” Finding reasons to feel good about oneself is crucial for all kids, but it is especially important for kids with learning disorders who may have been struggling in school and internalizing their setbacks. With success, kids may even come to consider their dyslexia a gift, like Engel does. As he pointed out, “Who wants to think like everyone else?”