Elias Grabowski is a senior at Kennebunk High School who has overcome obstacles to become an accomplished and ambitious young adult.

KENNEBUNK, Maine — In the second grade, Elias Grabowski wanted to be anyone but himself.

He wanted to be “normal.” He wanted to fit in with his classmates. He wanted to be able to read.

Instead, making sense of the words on a page did not come easily to him. This made him feel different from others. It also made him susceptible to those who did not understand him.

“My teachers did not understand,” Grabowski said. “They thought I was unmotivated.”

He was not unmotivated.

He had — rather, he has — dyslexia, a condition in which an individual has difficulty processing letters, words and symbols. Today, as then, Grabowski said he yawns as he reads because the effort of trying to match his mind’s quick pace with the actual time needed to process words can be exhausting.

His experience isn’t uncommon. About 3.5% of American students, slightly more than 2 million children, receive special educational services for a reading disorder, according to an article by the Society for Neuroscience. Across all age groups, as many as one in five people experience some symptoms of dyslexia, though not all of them would qualify for special education, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

Elias Grabowski is a senior at Kennebunk High School who has overcome obstacles to become an accomplished and ambitious young adult.

Grabowski shifted from public to private school when he was in the second grade and later rejoined his original classmates as an eighth-grader at the Middle School of the Kennebunks. A year later, as a freshman at Kennebunk High School, he met his teacher, Linda Ruskoski, a literacy specialist who is among those to make a positive difference in his life thus far.

And now? Grabowski, a senior, has won a writing contest and a $1,000 scholarship for college. He is setting his sights on applying for college, where he plans to major in economics and minor in creative writing.

“I’m a bit ambitious,” Grabowski said during a recent interview. “I’m pretty resilient. I have tenacity … I want to own a business and create something and be remembered.”

Linda Ruskoski, a reading teacher at Kennebunk High School, practices word pronunciation with Eli Grabowski through her word boxes.

The New England Association for College Admission Counseling (NEACAC) held the contest over the summer and chose Grabowski’s submission as the winner from among all submissions in Maine. In this distinction, he joins winners from the five other New England states.

In his essay, “The Best Teacher Ever,” Grabowski, then a junior, wrote about the positive impact Ruskoski had not just on his efforts to improve as a reader but also those toward believing in himself.

Grabowski, who will soon turn 18, said he reads and spells below his grade level, but he has the tools and the mindset he needs to keep making progress and succeed.

He said he reads text using the same kind of tools blind people use. A computer program, called Read and Write, allows him to highlight text so that it can be read to him. It works the other way, too: to write, he speaks, and his words appear on screen.

“That’s how my writing turns out,” he said. “Those are tools that I will use for the rest of my life.”

Linda Ruskoski, a reading teacher at Kennebunk High School, practices word pronunciation with Elias Grabowski through her word boxes.

Tools as in software, yes — but Grabowski has tools he has developed within, as well. It’s one thing to speak and make words appear on a screen. It’s another to find the right words and make sure something articulate and eloquent is staring back at you from your laptop.

“I’m pretty good at standing up and speaking and enunciating my voice,” he said. “I’m in the process of trying to do a TED talk. I really want to do one.”

The TED talk, naturally, would seek to inform and inspire.

Grabowski’s experience is evidence that there are many ways to learn — many paths on which we can pursue our interests. He paints. He follows and studies the stock market and says, “If you need to know anything about Bitcoin, I’m your guy.” He learned to play the piano by listening to the notes because anything printed on a sheet is difficult for him; he said he has performed at his church and at Atria, a retirement community in Kennebunk.

“I rely on myself,” he said, then quickly added, “I can’t succeed without the people around me.”

Linda Ruskoski, a reading teacher at Kennebunk High School, goes over the learning bulletin board with Elias Grabowski on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

Grabowski named Ruskoski as one such person. In an interview, he described Ruskoski as “incredibly kind.” In the essay he wrote for the NEACAC contest, he praised her as a teacher “with true passion for what she does, and she stops at nothing to see improvements.”

“I learned with her that it’s OK to be different,” he said.

Asked what inspires him, Grabowski linked his can-do attitude and growth mindset to an ideal that is perhaps not too often cited by young people.

“I’m incredibly inspired by the American Dream,” he said. “I understand how much we have, what opportunities we have. I appreciate the system.”

Ruskoski shared the recommendation letter she wrote for Grabowski for his college application. In the letter, she highlighted his perseverance and his determination not to let his challenges define him.

“It has been my joy to have worked with Eli these past four years,” she wrote. “His progress has fed my soul.”

Ruskoski described Grabowski as “the perfect example of a student who could have closed the door before he ever opened it.” She noted that, despite his challenges, Grabowski embraced his weaknesses and turned them into assets that are serving him in his daily life.

The path that Grabowski has chosen is not guaranteed to someone with his struggles and challenges. Indeed, according to the Society for Neuroscience piece, young people whose dyslexia goes untreated face higher risks than their peers.

“Youth with untreated dyslexia are more likely than their non-dyslexic peers to drop out of high school and become unemployed, underemployed, or incarcerated,” the Society stated.

Linda Ruskoski, a reading teacher at Kennebunk High School, goes through worksheets with Elias Grabowski on Monday afternoon.

In the second grade, Grabowski wanted to be someone else. Now there’s no one else he’d rather be.

“Now I’m realizing that I have gifts that no one else has,” he said. “Now I love learning because I have the right tools.”

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