The Right to Read

The Right to Read

“The sadness experienced in school stays with you forever. Early wounds may heal, but the scars are a constant reminder of a painful experience with the traditional method of learning.”

So says Joan Esposito, president and founder of Santa Barbara’s Dyslexia Awareness & Resource Center. Joan and her husband, Leslie Esposito, started the non-profit group at 928 Carpinteria Street in 1990.

As stereotypes die hard, Joan Esposito’s journey to her present persona is peppered with unhappiness. Today, she passionately works to help others read, saddened only by the lateness of her purpose.

“I learned the hard way, at 44, that you can attain anything through education, but without it, you can’t go anywhere.”

Born in Liverpool, England during the Nazi blitz, Joan suffered through the British school system of the 1940s and ’50s with undiagnosed dyslexia. Her difficulties with spelling, multiplication and reading were blamed on her traumatic birth and stressful early years. It wasn’t until she sought help at Santa Barbara City College that she understood her perception problems and learned to read.

…A neat and tidy girl

“I knew something was wrong with me and that I wasn’t stupid. I had intelligent parents and siblings. But I couldn’t get the identification of letters in sequence…what you call decoding. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it. Arithmetic was just as tough, especially the times tables. The ridicule of the other kids and the frustration of the teachers made school sheer torture.”

It is still visibly painful for Joan to tell of her high school diploma, that in lieu of grades listed her attributes as “… a neat and tidy girl from a good family.”

Without the educational background to land an office position, Joan worked in London as a factory worker and as a chambermaid. With her savings, she came to Los Angeles to work as a manicurist. Her lack of scholastic skills did nothing to dampen her vivacious personality and she became an expert at memorizing what she needed to know.

Married to a successful literary agent a few years later, Joan learned the roles of Hollywood hostess, cook, decorator, and conversationalist by developing an ear for dialogue and adopting the styles of her new peers.

“I was brought into his career where I was expected to join him on business meetings and entertain his clients at our home with lavish dinner parties.”

A successful pretender

Rather than cave in to her feelings of inadequacy and panic, Joan memorized all she heard in business conversations, on the television and radio, and learned to talk with anyone. But serving a party of eight with a delicious home-cooked meal scared the beejesus out of her!

“I was too ashamed to tell my husband that I couldn’t read the cookbooks. So I went to cooking classes and watched the chef’s every move and then went home and did the same. I spent the entire day making sure the table looked just like the magazine photo and the meal was an exact copy of what I learned the day before.”

Joan was a successful pretender in Beverly Hills. When she moved to Montecito in 1976, she successfully continued her charade for the first few years.

“I immersed myself in decorating a huge George Washington Smith home on upper Hot Springs Road, while trying to make a difficult marriage work. I managed the redecorating part, but not the marriage.”

Within a few years, Joan found herself divorced, a single mother with an uncertain future. Joan knew her reading problems didn’t fit her lifestyle as a Montecito resident in an eclectic community with an abundance of intellectuals. Languishing amidst the surrounding luxury, she lived daily with her fears of her limitations. Then, her worst nightmare became a reality.

Her son had it too

“My son was having a terrible time at school with spelling and reading. He was unable to properly concentrate and downed constantly, disrupting things. I kept my own reading problems a dark secret, afraid to admit to anyone that I couldn’t even help my son with his homework. I had to go to the parent-teacher conference alone, not understanding what the teacher was talking about.”

Determined to help, Joan took the same diagnostic tests as her son and discovered that she shared the same dyslexic learning problems that could only be tackled by special teaching. Once the dyslexia was identified, Joan learned to read and comprehend, compensating for her unique view of letters and shapes.

Joan married realtor Les Esposito in 1987. He spent years as a Catholic priest in secondary education, where as a high school principal in the Los Angeles Parochial Schools, he saw firsthand the struggles of dyslexic students. Joan boasts of their great marriage where she is comfortable in sharing her constant learning process.

Still struggling with the permanent effects of dyslexia, Joan has become an activist for education. Her contacts range from the mothers of juvenile gang members to former First Lady Barbara Bush. Presidential dyslexic son Neil Bush was tutored by his mother, who has encouraged Joan’s work.

Joan’s now-grown son, Joel Brand, is a foreign correspondent for both print and broadcast media.

Her “motivation” now under control

Once Joel was able to read correctly, he went on to Cate School and to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he served as editor of The Daily Nexus. While visiting friends in Eastern Europe who had begun a newspaper, war broke out in Bosnia.

“I got this phone call saying, ‘Mom, I’m in the right place at the right time! I’m going to cover this as a free-lancer.’ I was worried sick–even when he told me about his bullet-proof vest–but pretty proud when he called to tell me he was sending his stories from Sarajevo to Newsweek. He was only twenty one.”

Joel Brand spent three years in Sarajevo under contract to both Newsweek and the London Times. During that time, he also wrote for the Washington Post, Irish Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and appeared live on CNN and National Public Radio. He is currently an anchor for Channel One, the educational news station.

“If anyone had told me that my son would make his living with the written word–when neither one of us could spell–I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Joan is determined to make up for lost time. She works long hours, trying to secure state legislation benefiting the learning-disabled and is writing a book on her experiences.

Life is good. The dyslexia is now just a lingering inconvenience that Joan refers to as “my motivation.”

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