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Conn. governor's example inspires students

GREENWICH, Conn. -- Teachers said he was mentally retarded. Some of his nastier classmates called him dummy. Today, Dannel P. Malloy is called something else: governor of Connecticut.

Malloy, who still struggles with reading and calls writing "almost impossible," credits his lifelong struggle with dyslexia for developing listening skills and memory tricks he uses every day with constituents and legislators.

Despite reaching his state's top elected position, he still has lingering embarrassment over his learning difficulties, Malloy told students yesterday at the Eagle Hill School, a private campus for children with language-based learning disorders like his own.

"I have to tell you, I'll be right up front about it: I'm the governor of the state of Connecticut and I can't write anything well," Malloy told the rapt students. "This is who we are. I can't write things. I'm embarrassed all the time about that, particularly if people don't know that about me."

Malloy's election last year as governor placed him on the national stage as an increasingly public face for awareness of learning disorders. He's a vocal advocate for early intervention to help students compensate for those disabilities.

His tactics entail dictating his correspondence to others, jotting a few words on a scrap of paper to jog his memory for his off-the-cuff speeches, and memorizing short greetings to write on autographs -- usually, "Keep up the good work!"

The International Dyslexia Association says as much as 20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability like his, in which people have difficulty decoding and recognizing words. It's believed to have neurological and genetic causes.

Malloy, who is 55 and the youngest of eight, was born with coordination problems that made it difficult for him to button his clothes and tie his shoes until about fifth grade.

Malloy spoke candidly to the students about his struggles growing up in Stamford in the 1960s, recalling teachers posting his failing scores on the classroom board, or how he stayed away from collecting baseball cards because deciphering the words and statistics was so torturous.

He credits his mother Agnes and other adults who saw his potential, encouraged him to pursue his passions for public speaking and government, and refused to let him be defined by his disability.

His message hit home with Katie Nelson, 13, of New Rochelle, who has attended Eagle Hill for five years and will return to a traditional school next fall. "It's cool that someone who's so successful in his life had some of the same difficulties that we do," she said.