CAPE ELIZABETH — From the time he entered school, William McCarthy has seen his lessons differently.
“Dyslexia is quite a misunderstood thing on a deeper level. It is more than just switching letters,” he said about the learning disability that has shaped his future studies into realms not readily understood by an average reader.
On June 10, McCarthy, 18, and his class graduated in commencement ceremonies at Fort Williams Park. In the fall, McCarthy will enter Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, with plans to become a physicist.
Ultimately, McCarthy said he would like to take theoretical “string theory” physics and make it practical for engineers to develop technology, perhaps for defense use.
“If I can also create the practicality, that would be cool, too,” he said.
Lofty goals from a young man who said he could not fully read until he was in fifth grade, and continued to struggle with math problems because the textbooks were language-based.
“I might see the same page and just have more trouble decoding it,” McCarthy said.
If decoding the written word has been a challenge, unlocking the workings of the universe has been a joy for McCarthy.
“I would easily get stressed out at school, so something I would do is a physics problem,” he said.
McCarthy’s mother, Candee Kaknes, said she has seen her son become almost euphoric when the logic of a math or physics problem reveals itself.
“I have learned so much from him everyday, so much about perseverance and how to stay grounded,” she said.
While McCarthy is adept at staying grounded, his desire to learn about laws of the universe has encompassed most of his life.
“When he went to kindergarten, he wanted to learn how to build bridges from toothpicks and learn how to read,” Kaknes said.
Toothpick bridges came more readily than reading. Because William’s father, Terry McCarthy, also had dyslexia, his parents knew they had to get William individualized learning plans.
“From the get-go, we made sure he knew it was not about him, it was about how the school system teaches kids. It was not about his value or a measure of his intelligence, but about his learning style,” Kaknes said.
McCarthy has attended public school locally and in Brunswick and Gray, and his mother credits staff at Cape Elizabeth-based Aucocisco School for helping him comprehend what was on the pages in front of him. McCarthy took summer classes there in elementary school and was a full-time student in the program from fifth through eighth grades.
“When I was younger, it was absolutely frustrating,” McCarthy said. “I knew I wasn’t stupid, but I didn’t understand how (others) could learn it more quickly.”
Delving into math and science became an escape, he said.
“I enjoyed the puzzle and figuring things out because I couldn’t figure out so much of my life,” McCarthy said.
Kaknes said Cape Elizabeth staffers have done a “phenomenal” job supporting her son, but she and Instructional Support Teacher Tammy Thatcher said the lion’s share of credit goes to McCarthy.
“He was always willing to try any new learning strategy that I might have suggested and in most cases would find a way to adapt those strategies and make them his own,” Thatcher said.
To earn his Eagle Scout badge, McCarthy developed a program where high school students with learning disabilities will visit middle school students with similar disabilities to help guide their transition to high school.
“He was also always willing to help other students. It didn’t matter how much Will had going on in his own life, if a peer needed help, he was the first to offer,” Thatcher said.
His interest in the sciences also led McCarthy to become part of the school’s championship mock trial team, where he often portrays expert witnesses in cases.
“The team is great, and to an extent, I like the argument part,” he said.
McCarthy has also won individual awards as part of the speech team, with an oratory about the “gift” of dyslexia.
“Public speaking is scary, I feel sick to my stomach before every time I do,” McCarthy said. “But it goes away once I am in front of people, and I feel comfortable.”
His high school legacy will be one of individuality, recognizing knowledge comes to people in different ways, he said.
“I have never felt trapped,” McCarthy said. “I have learned how I learn.”
William McCarthy graduated with the Cape Elizabeth Class of 2012 and will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall. He was diagnosed with dyslexia as a young student.