Billy Bob Thornton’s Dyslexia On and “Off the Page”
“So I’m Billy Bob Thornton and I’m a dyslexic,” his interview begins. Thornton is talking to Harvey Hubbell V in a YouTube excerpt from the comedy documentary “Dislecksia: the movie.” “When I was growing up, they just thought I was slow. Teachers thought I was lazy.” Thornton adds, except for plays, “I never wanted to be anything that school taught me.… I was only in drama because there were girls in there.” Statistically, one in seven Americans has some degree of dyslexia. Like many dyslexics, Thornton discovered his diagnosis as an adult. Thornton’s family and teachers didn’t understand.
Thornton lives, and learns, both on and “off the page.” His acting debut came in grade school “in a little town in Arkansas” in the ’60s. His part consisted of one word. “Hark.” He said, “Harp.” Today, he learns lines by hearing dialog read to him, over and over. “Reading is painful,” Thornton admits. He developed his original concept of Swing Blade for live theater, with an opening monolog of “eight or nine minutes” worked out and memorized without ever writing a word. “Once I learn… I’ll never forget it.”
Billy Bob Thornton is no fan of five classic subjects taught in a strict and formal way. A frustrated algebra teacher confronted him, asking, “Well what if you want to be a building engineer?” Thornton replied, “Ma’am, I promise ya with all my heart and soul, I’m never gonna wanta be a building engineer.” He and his teachers were never on the same page. “It’s like you live on some different plane or something… You don’t even deal with things the way most people do.”
An Academy Award winner with his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, he is equally proud to have been selected in 2002 for what he calls the Lab School of Washington’s ‘Hall of Fame for the Learning Disabled.’ “I’m in that,” he says. “Seriously. Plaques on the wall, the whole deal.” Others honored that year were John Sandner of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Olympic gold medalist Jim Shea, and Dr. Dan Carson, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. “So it wasn’t, you know, like me and a couple of serial killers.”
Before Billy Bob Thornton’s induction, the Lab School showed him around their internationally renowned campus. Thornton totally approved. “Kids in history class all dressed up, one like Shakespeare, one like Da Vinci. Not just some guy’s name on a page… Hey, there’s a novel idea—make school interesting…. Why not do this every minute?” He loves the idea of “free artistic schools” allowing students to learn “in a direction of interest.” Thornton is passionate about education for the challenged. “Anything you’ve got that prevents you from learning in the conventional sense” can turn out with a little creative learning not to be disability after all. “I can do all of those things,” says Billy Bob Thornton now.