Undiagnosed dyslexia forced him to drop out of high school, but O.C. man’s mission now is to help those with the neurological condition

You’re not applying yourself.

You need to work harder.

You’re stupid.

As a child growing up in Fullerton, John Rodrigues heard the criticisms over and over in response to his poor performance in the classroom.

He internalized the negative comments. At 16, he dropped out of high school.

“I just stopped caring about anything,” Rodrigues recalls.

It wasn’t until years later that Rodrigues, now 47, discovered his low grades had nothing to do with a lack of intelligence or work ethic.

“At the time I didn’t know it but I was an undiagnosed dyslexic,” said Rodrigues, a husband and father of a 5-year old girl, who now dedicates his life to raising awareness about the learning disorder through his nonprofit ThinkLexic.

The International Dyslexia Assn. and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development define dyslexia as a neurological condition that causes difficulty with reading, spelling, writing and sometimes speaking.

According to the Dyslexia Assn., up to 20% of the population has a language-based learning disability. Of that number, dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.

People with dyslexia have trouble processing certain types of information, such as letter sounds and symbols and blending them together to form words.

But while dyslexics might struggle in traditional learning environments, they excel when taught to their strengths, Rodrigues said.

October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month, and Rodrigues’ message is this: Dyslexia is not a condition to be loathed or stigmatized but a unique gift to be lauded.

He’ll be sharing his journey during a presentation Oct. 18 at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano.

Noted dyslexics include Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso, according to the Dyslexia Assn.

“I feel dyslexic kids are more excited about new information … discovering,” Rodrigues said. “Don’t teach me something that everybody already knows about for 100 years. Let me discover something.”

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who credits his dyslexia as the reason for his success, would agree.

“I genuinely think that when someone says to you, ‘Johnny’s got dyslexia’, you should get down on your knees, shake the child’s hand and say, ‘well done, you lucky, lucky boy,’ ” said Oliver in an interview with Radio Times.

In his 2013 book, “High School Dropout to Harvard,” Rodrigues recounts his childhood struggles in school and being labeled as an unsatisfactory student before dropping out.

Just before quitting school, Rodrigues took a cooking class through a Regional Occupational Program.

He began learning through senses he hadn’t used since kindergarten such as sight, sound and touch.

He got a job as a cook in the banquet department of an Anaheim hotel.

One day he was drawn to executive chef Charles Collins, who was using a chainsaw to carve into a 300-pound block of ice.

The chef’s creation was a large heart with two love birds.

“It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life,” Rodrigues said.

Under Collins’ tutelage, Rodrigues learned the art of ice sculpting.

“For the first time in my life, it felt natural,” he said. “It felt relaxed.”

Within a few months, Rodrigues was creating ice sculptures for five-star functions.

“Now I’m having fun doing something I like and getting paid well,” Rodrigues said. “All I thought about was carving.”

He made ice carvings for a major hotel chain, a Hawaiian cruise line and then an Italian cruise line.

In his late teens through early 20s, the high school dropout was traveling the world and making a good living.

Eventually, Rodrigues went in a new direction and took a job teaching at a culinary school, and then opted to return to school.

He did poorly in a placement test for Fullerton College.

Rodrigues was sitting outside a college counselor’s office, waiting his turn when he noticed a poster on the wall with the title: “Signs that you have dyslexia.”

A series of symptoms were listed beneath the heading and Rodrigues related to nearly all of them.

Rodrigues found out there were different ways of learning more suited to his strengths.

In 2003, Rodrigues was accepted at UC Berkeley, mainly on the strength of an essay on the application in which he challenged a theory presented by one of the university’s professors.

After attending Berkeley for a year, Rodrigues was accepted at Harvard University, where he spent two semesters before going back to Berkeley and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

He worked at Teach For America, a nonprofit that enlists educators and advocates for children living in extreme poverty. Rodrigues taught children with learning disabilities.

Rodrigues then went on to start ThinkLexic, which advocates for early screening and offers training for educators on ways to improve teaching methods for dyslexic students.

“Most of my life, they focused on what I was bad at,” Rodrigues said. “When you focus on what you are good at, things just start happening.”

Rodrigues’ talk at JSerra Catholic High School is open to the public. Pre-registration is required. The event will be 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at 26351 Junipero Serra Road, San Juan Capistrano in The Center Room.

Lou Ponsi is a contributor to Times Community News.

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