Dyslexia

Just Keeping It Real

Shouldn't every boy's bathroom come with a portable television?

Shouldn’t every boy’s bathroom come with an iPad television?

Since the school year began, I’ve had several opportunities to volunteer at our boys’ new school. While the main goal of these volunteer sessions has been to meet our household required number of volunteer hours, I’ve had the good fortune to spend most of those volunteer hours with my sons among their new friends. I went on a field trip with Joe to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to tour Broncos headquarters with his classmates. I worked at the annual Scholastic Book Fair and helped my sons select a plethora of new books for our ever-growing library of graphic novels. And, today, I helped the boys and their classmates make pies for Havern‘s annual Thanksgiving Day feast, which will be held this Wednesday during the boys’ regularly scheduled lunch times. The classes make the apple and pumpkin pies that the families will eat during that luncheon. It’s both a cost-saving measure (child labor is cheap, you know) and a way for the kids to gain some new skills while working with the occupational therapy team.

During my volunteer session today, I got to watch Luke in action as he used one of those fancy apple peeler/corer/slicer gadgets that always seem like such an awesome thing until you discover all it really does in your house is collect dust back in the corner of a rarely opened cupboard. So there Luke was, quickly and artfully using the gadget that, frankly, I’ve been afraid to buy for fear of peeling, coring, and slicing off my own hand. I was impressed by how he took to the task and how deftly he was managing to use that thing without requiring dozens of stitches. After Luke had whipped through the murder of no less than six apples without any personal or property damage, it was time to turn the apple spirals into slices for the pie.

Luke’s occupational therapist explained to the kids that they could unwind and tear the spirals into slices small enough to be tossed with lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon for the pie filling. And so several children began doing just that. I grabbed an apple too and meticulously began tearing a half of each spiral layer off into a perfect apple slice while Luke stood and watched everyone for a minute. At last with great flourish he seized an apple.

“Wouldn’t it go a lot faster if you just did this?” he asked as he simultaneously tore the peeled, cored, and spiral-sliced apple in half lengthwise through the missing apple core. There he stood with half the slices in one hand and the other half the slices in the other hand, looking at us all as if we were daft for not thinking of it first.

Now I’m not ashamed to admit that my 10-year-old son figured out this simple and speedy solution while I dutifully followed the instructions of the person in charge. I’m also not ashamed to admit that his idea never even crossed my mind. I was too dang busy being proud of my baby for not following directions and for instead thinking outside the box and using his incredible spatial reasoning skills to cut through, quite literally, the core of the task. I love how Luke’s mind works. I see it when he looks at a photo of a Lego creation and describes to me how it goes together before ever opening the box or unwrapping one plastic block. I see it when he envisions a completed piece of art in his head and offers me a list of every item he will need to fabricate it. Luke’s spatial skills remind me that his dyslexia is a gift. His brain works differently, and it is awesome.

The career of stay-at-home mom is often thankless, exhausting, and unnoticed. The days when you feel truly invigorated and confident are few and far between. Tonight I was enjoying Luke’s success vicariously by dreaming that somewhere along the line I’ve done something to contribute to his mental growth in a positive, outwardly visible way. Then, in the midst of my gleeful reverie, I heard my name being called loudly from down the hall.

“Mom….Mom??” the cry came from the boys’ bathroom. It was Joe.

“What?” I bellowed back.

“Mom…I need you. It’s important,” he called. And dutifully off I went to the bathroom.

There I found Joe taking his ritual evening bath. He had his iPad propped up against the tissue box holder. I noted with an eye roll that Monday Night Football was on the screen. I love how my boys have turned their iPads into portable television sets. Rough lives they lead those two.

“What, Joe?” I asked without attempting to hide my annoyance.

“Can you hit Dismiss, please?” he asked.

It was then that I noticed that the game was paused because his iPad battery was at 10%. Ugh.  Are you kidding me? Welcome to the story of my life as Mom. Just when I’m feeling validated about my decision to stay home and raise these two school-struggling children into intelligent, decent, and reasonable human beings, one of them reminds me that I’m merely here to keep things up and running. Yep. My boys are all about making sure I’m keeping it real.

 

 

 

The Forest For The Trees

The beginning of a grand new chapter...

The beginning of a grand new chapter…

Back to school time in our house, like many other homes, is marked by stress, uncertainty, and readjustment. Aside from the usual tension surrounding school re-entry, I have had the burden of wondering how our children would fare during another traditional school year and how their new teachers would adapt to their different learning needs and my requests for special accommodations for them. Honestly, I never know what to expect, and traditionally it has taken me some seriously positive self-talk to get through the first two weeks of school. (Well, self-talk and wine. Who are we kidding?)

My heightened level of personal anxiety surrounding the advent of the school year began the day Joe started Junior Kindergarten. That day, I walked him into his classroom as I had done in previous years to ease the apprehension of my nervous boy. I’d enrolled him in as many years of preschool as possible because I knew he would benefit from extra adjustment time. He was five then and beginning his third classroom experience. I was cautiously optimistic that upon meeting his teacher he would smile his shy little smile but remain quiet and be the sweet, deep-thinking little fellow he was at home. Instead, when his teacher Mrs. Smith approached him to introduce herself, Joe dropped to all fours and began to bark. I am not kidding. He was on all fours. Barking. To compound an already embarrassing situation, Joe had speech issues and his “woofs” were not woofs at all but were actually “wooks.” There he was, crawling around the floor in front of the other kids, wooking. It was awkward at best. The other parents looked at me sideways with bemused pity. The teacher, smiling politely, asked me what he was doing. I had to tell her that apparently he was pretending to be a dog and barking his own introduction, something he had never done before. At that point, I turned 50 shades of red, kissed my puppy on the head, wished Mrs. Smith well, and walked out. I cried most of the way home. And thus began my less than stellar experience with back to school. Sigh.

This year my back to school stress was compounded by the fact that they were starting at a new school. There was a whole new list of variables for me. New teachers and school staff I had not yet met. New classrooms. New pick-up and drop-off routines. New parents to meet. New procedures to learn. It was all way too much newness for introverted me. I went bravely forward with it, though, because Havern is a school for children with learning disabilities. For nearly a half a century they have been offering hope to parents like me with kids like Joe and Luke. If any school could offer the breakthrough chance our dyslexic sons need to get on track with learning, to achieve the way in which they are capable, and to at last feel smart despite their differences, Havern was it.

On the first day of school, both boys seemed surprisingly calm. I walked them to their classrooms and introduced them to their teachers. There were no barking dog incidents, so I left feeling fairly optimistic. When pick up time arrived, I stood on the lawn waiting for them to be dismissed to my care, praying that the day had gone well for them and that they were indeed committed to this change in their education. Joe ran out first and confidently announced that he had the “best school day ever.” Luke quickly followed and told me that his new school was “epic.” (I have no doubt this pronouncement was impacted by the knowledge that the school has a Lego Club.) I almost asked the principal to verify that my boys had truly been in school all day. Perhaps she could pinch me because this could not possibly be my reality. It was surreal.

I have spent most of the past six years running the gamut of emotions, vacillating between denial, anger, depression, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and even bitterness about our sons’ developmental and learning issues. I’ve wondered why them and why me? I’ve felt lost, just as they have. Tonight, though, after attending Back to School night and talking with other parents and the boys’ teachers, after sitting in their classrooms and looking at their class schedules, I finally see the forest for the trees. Our boys are not broken, and they never have been. They just hadn’t found their place yet. Tonight my dreams for them came true. They’ve finally found a home.

You’re Unique…Just Like Everyone Else

My "different" children

My “different” children

“Always remember you’re unique…just like everyone else.”

One of the biggest challenges being a kid with a learning difficulty is feeling different. I’ve watched both my sons as they tried to acclimate themselves to their differences at school and, by far, the biggest stress they faced was worrying about what the other kids would think of them. Joe, for about a year, did not tell anyone about his ADHD. He simply was not comfortable. He worked hard to try to fit in and that was how he wanted to deal with it. Eventually, he told a few friends who handled it just as I expected they would. They did not care. They attend a small school, and this group of 13 children have been together for 5 years. To his classmates, Joe is just Joe and knowing about his ADHD didn’t make him any different. When Luke was diagnosed with dyslexia in November, he also was adamant that he did not want anyone to know. I didn’t push him into telling anyone because I respected his apprehension, but I did mention to him (with permission) that his friend Annie Oakley (not her real name) also had struggles. I suggested that it might be good if both of them could talk to each other about their difficulties. He looked at me dubiously and took my counsel under advisement.

Early this past week, out of nowhere, Luke announced to most of his classmates that he had dyslexia. Like Joe’s classmates, they looked at him with a quizzical so-what attitude and moved on. No one understood or cared or asked questions. It was no big deal…with one exception. His partner in crime and fellow horse-lover friend, Annie, immediately glommed onto him, happy to have someone with whom to share her differences. Right after Luke’s confession, he got into the car and declared that he and Annie needed to have a play date (I love that he still uses that term) soon so they could “talk.” I thought that was about the cutest thing ever, so I set up a time for Annie to come to our house on Friday and stay for play time and dinner. The two of them were so excited they could barely focus at all at school before the play date. As proof, I offer up Luke’s spelling test grade, which has never been great but this week hit an all time low of 52% on a list that was not the toughest one he’s ever faced. Their palpable excitement would have been amusing if it weren’t exhausting me.

We had scarcely gotten everyone settled in the car Friday afternoon and weren’t even out of the school parking lot when Luke piped up.

“Okay. So, let’s talk about this ADHD and dyslexia thing.”

Instantly, Annie opened up. She told our boys about how she found out about her ADD and how her life has changed since her parents told her. She and Joe talked about attention-deficit with each other, and she and Luke talked about how hard it was needing special accommodations at school. They all talked about how demanding school was and how much they grappled with reading and timed tests. They talked about it non-stop for 20 minutes on the ride home, sharing stories, successes, and tips. They all felt comfortable about their differences because for those 20 minutes they weren’t different at all. It was, by far, the best 20 minutes I have ever spent in a car with children who weren’t sleeping. I was a fly on the wall for the most genuinely sincere conversation my boys have shared about their trials. Listening to them open up and, above all, be at peace with themselves was the greatest gift I’ve received since learning about their amazing brains.

The rest of the play date was a rousing success. The three of them had a blast being the funny and ingenious kids they are. They took turns making videos with Luke’s iPad as they pretended to be news reporters, fashion icons, and pop stars. Luke hammed it up for the camera with long, improvisational monologues that kept the others in stitches. At one point, Joe was wearing one of my dresses over his jeans and t-shirt and was topped off with a tangled mullet wig as he sang into a magic marker. My sons may not be A students, but their creativity knows no bounds. And Annie, who I have always regarded as very bright and sweet, met them as an equal the entire time. Hubby made his famous chicken nuggets and handcrafted milkshakes for them and that was the only time they were still and semi-quiet all afternoon.

When they were young and I had no experience with children, I had a hard time recognizing that our boys didn’t fit in with their peers, mostly likely because I didn’t want to admit it. Even when their teachers made reference to slower progress, I reasoned it away as late-bloomer syndrome. I subjected them repeatedly to age-appropriate activities that the books said they should be able to do but at which they continued to flounder. I could not understand why school was so difficult for them when they were creative problem solvers who made connections between disparate topics with ease. I grew increasingly frustrated when by age 8 they could not yet ride a bicycle or tie their shoes despite constant instruction. When it was spelled out to me by professionals that my children had actual, brain-related differences from other children, I was heartbroken. This was not what I expected when I signed up for parenthood. I thought we would have children who sailed through school like hubby and I did. No one wants their child to be “different” because “different” kids get beaten up. Eventually, though, to help them come to terms with their differences I had to make my peace with them. I stopped looking at my sons through the eyes of the struggles I knew they would have and instead allowed myself to see the benefits their unique brains would provide them. Sometimes thinking differently can make you highly successful. You need look no further than Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, or Ted Turner to recognize that. The other day, though, I have to admit that it felt pretty good to see them play in a group and feel for a while just like everyone else.

Hindsight Is Basically Unsweetened Chocolate

My view for three hours this morning.

My view for three hours this morning.

In what can only be labeled an attempt to undermine my sanity, hubby arranged for me to take his FJ Cruiser in today for new tires and an alignment. I am a fairly independent woman, but I loathe, despise, and deeply hate being forced to deal with anything even remotely car-related. I can do the minimum things (pump gas, wash and wax the car, change out a headlight, check tire pressure, and even change a tire) but I hate taking vehicles in for service. Most times when I take the car in, I am treated like what I am…a blonde female. Now, it’s true. I know next to nothing about the inner workings of an automobile, but I know many men who are floating in that same boat along with me…including my spouse. Oddly enough, though, when Steve takes the car in no one talks to him as if he’s low number on intelligence totem pole. After years of being talked  down to as if I’m barely equipped with an IQ of 70, I decided that one of the benefits of marriage for a woman is having a husband around to deal with things like cars, sprinkler systems, and spiders the size of my palm. So, I don’t do car visits. Until today, apparently.

Still, I determined to make the most of my opportunity. I packed some amusements for myself and purchased a grande vanilla non-fat latte from Starbucks to help me wile away the time. While I was sitting in the waiting room for a seemingly interminable three hours, I got to enjoy the vapid dialogue of daytime television hosts and the woman seated next to me who thought her personal phone conversation was important enough to share. I tried to block her out by putting my new Kindle Paperwhite to use. I pulled up the book on dyslexia that was recommended to me back in November when we learned about Luke’s learning difference. The dang book is 400 pages long and filled with all kinds of discussion about brain scans and reading remediation tactics. Up until now, I’d only been able to whittle my way through 17% of it because it’s hardly what you’d consider “light reading.” Today, I rationalized, was my chance to sit, focus, and plow through a couple chapters about how our son’s very interesting brain works.

The deeper I delved into the book, the more I saw our son in the pages. If I had ever held any doubt about Luke’s diagnosis, reading this book would have immediately eradicated them. No need for expensive and time consuming psychoeducational testing or brain scans. The list of potential clues to watch for read like a movie of my experience parenting Luke as he began to read: difficulty with rhyming, inability to say the entire alphabet, trouble recognizing letters, inability to read sight words, poor spelling, abysmal handwriting, and occasional word/letter reversals, all combined with an above average verbal ability and excellent listening comprehension. Despite all these clues, we were repeatedly assured that his skills were increasing, his reading level was improving. So, we pushed everything to the back of our minds. What I understand now is that too few people, including elementary school professionals, understand the signs to look for. Inundated with requests from over-protective, over-involved parents, teachers often assume that the parents are over-reacting and that the child is advancing within “normal” parameters. I get this. Still, I couldn’t help but think as I read today that if I had been armed with this book three years ago when Luke began reading instruction, I would have been more insistent with my concerns.

Experts in the field say that early intervention is key with children with dyslexia. The sooner the learning difference is identified, the more quickly the student can begin learning in a way that best suits their right-brained approach. The longer it takes to determine the problem, the further along a child is when she begins the catch up process. Unfortunately, too few people understand dyslexia, its components, its remediation. Too few people believe it’s a legitimate, real, and prevalent concern. (An estimated 20% of students would benefit from a different method of learning to read. Chew on that for a minute.) I had my suspicions about Luke. I made a conscious choice to let others’ reassurances placate me. I chose not to worry. I ignored my intuition. I now feel confident that we’re doing the right things for Luke. I now completely believe that he will become a competent reader. He may never be good at telling his left from his right, but he will read.

Timing is such a crucial thing in life, which is why the hindsight phrase is so resoundingly true. In hindsight, if I’d had Overcoming Dyslexia in my hands three years ago, we’d be three years ahead of where we are now with Luke and his struggles. But that, as they say, is water under the bridge. I need simply to be grateful that we uncovered Luke’s dyslexia when he was in 3rd grade and not 7th. If you look at it that way, I’m 4 years ahead of the curve, which is quite helpful. I guess hindsight is all in how you look at it. I mean, I never wanted to spend three hours in the service department at the dealership today to obtain my husband’s discounted tires, but if I hadn’t been stuck there with nothing but my Kindle to amuse me I would still be only 17% of the way through the book I started in late November. Hindsight is a bit like unsweetened chocolate. It’s not as awesome as milk or semisweet, but it’s still chocolate and that has to count for something.

Clearer Than A Crystal Ball

Yep. My son is a slacker.

My dyslexic son, the slacker.

My son has dyslexia. I blog about it quite often because I’m still struggling to understand it. If I ever get through the 400 page book I started reading about it, I might know more. But, for now, I’m picking up bits and pieces and starting to get a glimpse into what this revelation means for Luke. There are moments in your life when you’re struggling and something (call it fate, God, the Universe, whatever) gives you a pearl of insight that helps you see things more clearly. I had that experience today.

I was rifling through the papers in Luke’s take-home folder from school when I ran across a reading comprehension page he had done in class. He scored 2 out of 5 on it. This is not surprising given his reading issues and the fact that he’s only been in dyslexia tutoring for about six weeks now. He’s not there yet, so a 2 out of 5 isn’t a problem. He’s working on it. What bothered me about the paper was that in the top, right-hand corner his teacher had penned this comment: “Please read carefully!” When I read that, my brow furrowed. Really, lady? What part of dyslexia don’t you understand? Isn’t telling a dyslexic kid to read carefully a little like telling a blind person to watch where he’s going? It’s not as if Luke doesn’t want to read well. He can’t. It’s his fondest wish to be exactly like his classmates. He doesn’t want to be different. He doesn’t want to read slowly. He doesn’t want to ask for special accommodations or additional help, but he needs to. Chastising my kid for something he can’t help seems a bit unfair. Weeks ago I had a thirty minute conversation with his teacher so she could understand his struggles. Clearly, the information I presented to her didn’t sink in.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that this is what Luke will struggle with for the rest of his life. There is a significant portion of the population that doubts the very existence of dyslexia. These people think that the person with reading difficulty simply needs to work harder. The fact is that Luke doesn’t need to work harder to learn to read. He needs to work differently. That is what the dyslexia tutor is doing with Luke. She is teaching him to read a different way. I’ve already seen a difference. For the first time ever, he’s starting to be able to name rhyming pairs. This is progress. With tutoring like this, the kind that focuses on teaching to the way a right-brained person learns, he will read eventually. He will never be as fast or successful at it as a person without dyslexia, but he will read. And, he will spend his entire life trying to convince people that he really does need the extra assistance he requires. At least through college he will have to undergo hours and hours of testing every two years to guarantee his access to accommodations to help him keep up with his fellow classmates. Dyslexia never goes away, but you’d be hard pressed to convince most people (and most schools, apparently) that this is the case.

Luke’s best shot at success will come from his ability to self-advocate, to understand his issues and to be able to fight for and earn the necessary accommodations to ensure he gets onto a level playing field with his classmates. He’s going to have to be able to look a teacher who tells him to read more carefully in the eye and tell her that he’s reading as carefully as he can because he is dyslexic, and if she would like him to read more carefully he’s going to require extra time. Luckily for him, Luke has loads of self-confidence and charm. He has never been afraid to ask for what he wants or to negotiate to get his way. Those skills will serve him well in the future. As for me, I’m still working on my bravery and my advocacy skills. I’m going to start by reminding his teacher that he’s doing the best he can on his reading and he’ll probably go a lot further if she curbs the presumptive admonitions on his reading papers and sticks to positive reinforcement instead.

Schoolhouse Rock!

Schoolhouse rocks!

Schoolhouse rocks!

Today, my son’s dyslexia tutor suggested we get him some recorded songs to help our auditory learner remember his multiplication facts. Thinking that was a brilliant idea, I hit up my friend Google for some suggestions. As I was flipping through the treasure trove of information, I happened upon something I could not resist. Schoolhouse Rock! Need I say anything more? I have many happy memories of sitting in front of Saturday morning television watching cartoons and catching all kinds of useful information from Schoolhouse Rock! I tell you with absolute certainty that the only reason I can recite the entire Preamble to the Constitution is because I can sing it first in my head to a tune I remember from those Saturday mornings. True story.

Joe was sitting with me as I was looking  at Amazon trying to decide which DVDs to order. He looked over at my laptop and saw Schoolhouse Rock on the page. He got very excited.

“I’ve seen these!” he exclaimed. “My teacher shows these to us in class.”

“Really?” I replied. I knew his teacher, Mrs. Downs, was good people.

“Yes. All the math ones and some social studies ones. Here….I’ll show you,” he said as he ran off to grab his iPad.

He came back with a bunch of videos queued up on You Tube. He opened up the Elementary, My Dear video about the two times table and hit play. We sat and watched it. It made me smile. After that we watched Three Is A Magic Number. Then, I saw it in the side margin. A video of The Preamble. I clicked on the link.

“I know this one, Joe. Watch.”

Then, along with the video, I sang the entire Preamble while my son watched in complete amazement. At least, I think it was amazement. I prefer to think he was looking at me with awe because he had no idea I knew these videos rather than in horror because I should by law be banned from singing publicly. I prefer to think he’s continually shocked by how smart his mother truly is.

I have to wonder if my boys would have had struggled as much as they have with their math facts if they would have had the pleasure of sitting each Saturday morning and watching Schoolhouse Rock like I did. I’m not entirely sure that the Schoolhouse Rock songs cemented the math facts into my head, but it is kind of intriguing that 35 years later I still remember the words to the Preamble I learned while catching my dose of Saturday morning cartoons. It can’t all be coincidental. Some of the things I saw as a child stuck.

I wish more networks made programming choices based around what was best for people rather than what made them the most money. There was a time when there were public service announcements on television for our children to watch, things like Time for Timer where kids would learn about healthy food choices. Now, though, our kids get nothing but a healthy dose of ads for all sorts of processed junk food and then more junk food in the form of brainless programming all hours of the day and night, on demand even.

Maybe it’s a romantic notion to wish that we could go back to a time when there was some actual thought given as a society to how to raise children to become well-balanced, informed, thoughtful, healthy, and creative individuals. I admit it. I wish kids had less homework and more time on their bicycles, fewer hours of television and more hours for creative and social interaction with friends via a means other than texting. I’m a dinosaur, I know. I’m not suggesting we go back to the 1970’s (personally, bell bottoms pants were never a look I could rock), but it would be nice if we could give our kids a little bit of the childhood we had. It might be nice to give them a break from the innumerable activities topped off with hours of homework. As I think about Schoolhouse Rock, what becomes clear is that it’s not that our children watch too much television but rather that they watch too much of the wrong television. The things I learned on Saturday mornings have stuck with me this long, and now I’m going to share them with my kids. Hopefully they will remember Conjunction Junction and I’m Just A Bill and forget everything they’ve ever seen on My Little Pony.

Like Sands Through The Hourglass

Me and my two-year-old Luke

Me and my two-year-old Luke

Our youngest came down with a wretched cold on Sunday afternoon. By Sunday evening I knew he would have to be home with me on Monday. When our boys first started going to school, I would cringe and whine when they’d come down with a cold, not just because I knew I would be getting sick too but also because I knew that meant they would be home with me all day again. After all, I’d just gotten them into full day school and had begun to relish my emancipation from non-stop, boy-generated sound effects and full-day indentured servitude. I’d recently rediscovered the perfection in silence. I didn’t look forward to relinquishing it for even one day. That was years ago now, though, and yesterday I had a different experience when Luke stayed home with me. We ran a couple quick errands during which he was honestly helpful. Then, at home, we worked together on some of his school work. We read together. We watched Elf. Other than his constant hacking and my fear of getting in germs’ way, it was a wonderful day.

This morning while Joe was showering for school, Luke crawled into bed with me. He was crying. He didn’t want to go to school today. He was stuffy and not yet truly better, but he probably would survive the day. It was a sketchy call. If I were a parent who worked outside our home, he’d be going to school. End of story. But, I don’t work outside my home. I could tell his tears were real. He was stressed. He had so much to make up from Monday’s missed classes plus there was an additional large project he’d been working on and was hoping to complete. Last year, before I knew about his dyslexia, I would have mercilessly driven him to school despite his protestations and gone to yoga class unabated. Today, however, I really felt for him. I could understand how having all that work looming over his head at the end of a full day of school would seem an insurmountable task. I’m not afraid to admit it. I caved.

So today I spent my second full day this week alone with my youngest. We picked up a few groceries, selected a couple dress shirts for Christmas attire for them, and then we settled in at home with a goal of completing two days’ worth of school work as well as finishing most of his big project that is due Friday. I worked with him and, with just short breaks in between, we busted through all his work. By 2 p.m. I could see his shoulders raise as the weight of his heavy, third-grade world lessened on his shoulders. He was smiling more. I could tell he was feeling better. A couple times during the day I stopped to wonder if I had done the right thing, bailing him out of his nerves like that. Had I given him an easy way out? He probably would have benefited from the opportunity to fall behind and catch up slowly, finally realizing that the world did not come to a crashing halt because it took him a couple days to finish his work. Instead, I somewhat selfishly looked into his teary, hazel eyes and saw my two-year-old son, the one who used to climb into my lap every day to give me a hug and tell me he loved me. I gave into my emotions. I was weak.

At 2:20, he was starting to miss Joe so we hopped in the car to pick him up from his full day of school. On the way there, we chatted a bit. Then it got quiet. Out of nowhere, my 9 1/2 year old hit me with this.

“Mom?”

“Yeah, sweetie?”

“I’m going to miss you tomorrow. When is the next time we can have a full day together?”

With this remark, I no longer wondered if I had done the right thing keeping him out of school for an extra day. I had. I got to spend two, uninterrupted days with my youngest son. When Luke said he would miss me, I was the one who got misty. The time I have left with my boys is precious and quickly slipping through my grasp. The days when we will sit together on the couch watching movies and sharing Skittles are numbered. The passing of time is a necessary evil during this journey through life. I missed two days’ worth of yoga classes and alone time during which I could have accomplished much during this busy holiday season, but it was so worth it. Luke got his peace of mind, and I got to have two-year old Luke back. You can’t put a price on the rare opportunity to flip the hourglass over even if only for a moment with your children. I have no regrets.

Yep…They’re Special All Right

IMG_5889

Definitely our special kids!

A couple days ago I had to do something I’ve been dreading doing for a while now. I had to visit the principal at the boys’ small, private school and tell her that it’s likely that our boys won’t be returning next year. I had to tell her this now, months in advance of fall registration, because I need to pass along some evaluation requests about our boys from the school in which we’re hoping to enroll them next year. I wasn’t dreading this conversation because I thought I would get grief or because I eschew conflict (which I truly do). I was anxious about this conversation because for the past eight years this school has been a safe haven for our boys, a place where they felt loved even though they knew they weren’t exactly like all the other kids. It’s been a place where they’ve always felt special.

When Steve and I first received Joe’s ADHD diagnosis, the psychologist told us he might benefit from a more specialized learning environment or, at the very least, a school with special education services. We looked at our bright, articulate son and couldn’t even begin to imagine him at a special school because the term special somehow implied slow. Jokes from our childhood about the short bus began driving through our head. We considered switching him to a public school but, after talking with several special ed professionals, we determined that Joe might not even qualify for special ed assistance in a public school because the need is so great. I couldn’t imagine transferring him to our local public school, where the class size would be double the class size at the private school he was in, on the off chance that he’d receive enough services to make up for the deficit in personal teacher attention. So, we kept him where he was because at least there we knew they would accommodate his needs, and we knew he felt comfortable.

Turns out, though, that his comfort level isn’t enough of a reason to keep him at the school he’s always known. He and Luke, we’ve discovered, will benefit greatly from placement at a school that specializes in teaching students with learning differences. I recently read that 1 in 7 people have some type of learning difference. These type of issues often run in families. They are not indicative of lower intelligence, although most people seem to think they are. The truth is that a learning difference is just that, a different way the brain processes information. Because schools have to cater to the majority, most teaching is done in the systematic way that works best for most students. Our sons are not in the most category. It’s taken us a while to accept that they’re different. It’s taken us even longer to acknowledge that putting them in a special school doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them.

So, we’ve at last arrived at the place where we’re ready to make a big leap and switch them to a special school. As parents we’re finally able to admit that our boys are different and to believe that, although their differences are difficulties now, someday those differences will be valued as strengths. When I began to explain to the boys why they struggle the way they do, I wanted to put a positive spin on it for them. So, I did some research. I told them about Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, and Steven Spielberg. I told them how thinking differently made those men special in a good way and how their differences made them successful. I told them that while they may struggle greatly on the front end learning a new task, in the long run they may be better off for the unique perspective. Funny how the more I did research to try to help my boys feel better about themselves, the more I found myself feeling better about them and their potential. I no longer look at dyslexia as a life sentence (although Luke will have it for life), nor do I look at ADHD as an impenetrable road block. Do they make things a bit more difficult for my guys? Absolutely. But, as Luke told me after we watched The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia with them a few weeks ago, maybe true success requires a special brain, the kind of brain he knows he has. Go ahead. Call my kid special. I dare you. He’s just different enough to understand it’s a compliment.

Drawing The Box To Think Outside Of

They’re notes about Ben Franklin, obviously.

Kids come home with school papers every single day. When the boys were in kindergarten, I tried to save everything. Every paper seemed too precious to toss. Each drawing was a work of art. Each handwritten page a portent of the amazing stories yet to be told. By the end of Joe’s kindergarten year, I had a stack higher than I could manage. I promised myself I would go through them, select no more than 5 (or maybe 10 or perhaps 20 at the most) and toss the rest because I knew I could not keep every one of them. I’m pragmatic. I understood that if I saved everything we would have to move in three years’ time. Now that they’re older, the pieces of schoolwork I save are even fewer. I’m more likely to save an honor roll award or an awesome watercolor than I am a piece of their graded work. I’ve somehow created categories in my head of which work is somehow more important and trumps another piece of paper for the valuable space in the Save box.

Yesterday as I was going through Luke’s school folder, I came across a piece of notebook paper with Luke’s writing on it. In addition to words, there were drawings. I looked at it briefly and acknowledged that they were notes, but I couldn’t tell what exactly they were about.

“What is this paper?” I inquired.

“Notes for my Ben Franklin test,” he answered.

“When is the test?”

“On Thursday.”

“Oh. So these are your notes so you can study for the test?” I clarified.

“Yes. But, I don’t need them. I know it all already,” he replied.

I didn’t doubt him. He has a fairly good memory because, as I’ve said, he’s a great listener. What he’s not great at, though, is taking notes. As I glanced over the paper, I realized I could not understand at least a full two-thirds of what he had written. Luke’s spelling and handwriting are horrific which, I am now learning, is caused by dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is to writing what dyslexia is to reading. So, in Luke’s bi-weekly tutoring sessions, he’s working on cursive letter formations. I didn’t understand it at first, why he was writing when he should be learning to read, but it’s all interconnected.

I have to admit that when I saw Luke’s notes yesterday, I cringed. Joe used to bring home papers like Luke is writing now. When Joe brought those papers home, I cried. I only cringed yesterday because I know it gets better. I’ve seen progress in Joe’s work. It’s been slow, but it’s perceptible if you look closely enough. So, I know someday Luke’s written work will get better too. Still, when you look at a paper like that with your third grader’s work and you register that it looks like something a first grader would do, it’s sobering.

I shared Luke’s paper with a friend when I was looking over it yesterday. She tried to assure me that her daughter’s paper wasn’t much better and that she believed that, as her daughter reported, the teacher talks so fast during the note-taking, review portion of the class that it’s hard to keep up and be neat. Good friend that she is, she tried to help me believe that Luke’s notes were probably not that far off the notes of other children in the class. I appreciated her trying to make me feel better, but I wasn’t convinced. Then, tonight, she texted me this:

“I looked at Luke’s paper again now that I know more about Ben Franklin. And, it was really smart of him to draw the pictures. He knew what they meant. The lighting rod, the fireman, etc.”

When I’d looked at Luke’s paper yesterday, I was seeing only the writing. I looked past the drawings because Luke is always drawing. He’s been very artistic for as long as I can remember. He’s done elaborate battle scenes where he attaches page after page of lined notebook paper to each other so that he creates a mural that stretches 15 feet long. Luke always sees the big picture. He draws it too. Heather was right. His notes were filled with drawings, but they weren’t doodles as I had originally thought with my overly critical, left-brained parental eye. They were part of the notes. There on the page were the kite and the lightning bolt, a candle to represent his working in his brother’s candle shop, and a fireman to denote his work as a volunteer firefighter. Luke doesn’t think in words. He thinks in pictures. He knew he would have difficulty reading his notes, so he drew pictures so he would not forget. It was quite clever, actually, because what could be more difficult than asking a dyslexic kid who also suffers from dysgraphia to read notes he took with his own hand? Is that some sort of a cruel joke? That’s more painful than eating salt and vinegar chips when you have a mouth sore.

I am continually amazed by the way my sons have creatively adapted themselves to fit into the traditional school model that caters not at all to children with learning differences and difficulties. For all the days when I’m sad because they struggle so much, there are days like today that fill me with pride and wonder at their ability to think outside the box and see the big picture. And, you’d better believe that Luke’s note page with its innumerable spelling errors and non-existent grammar is going into the Save box. That paper taught me more about my son than any test ever could. I have no reason to be concerned about Luke. He’s light years ahead of his old mother. Not only is he able to think outside the box, but he can draw it first.

I Found The Silver Lining

Luke and a juvenile red-footed booby in the Galapagos.

When our youngest was assessed a few weeks back as having dyslexia, I have to admit that it wasn’t a total shock. Luke had never shown any interest in reading. Working with him on it had been a drag. He wheedled to get out of it, wiggled when we made him sit down, and then winced his way through it. And, honestly, we whimpered as he messed up words like “that” and “what” and “there” and “where.” We put him through four weeks of reading tutoring in between first and second grade. In second grade, Luke’s teacher kept him after school once a week for six weeks to review phonics with him. The kid struggled. But, he was doing so well with other things and he was making progress, so we reasoned that sooner or later he would turn that magic corner and all would be fine. What we didn’t understand then was that for Luke and all people with dyslexia there is no magic corner.

The school psychologist who tested him had very specific instructions for us when she gave us his test results. We were to get him a dyslexia tutor who specialized in a multi-sensory approach to teaching reading. We were not to penalize him for misspellings (which is a good thing because his spelling is appalling). And, to keep him up at grade level literature when he can’t read well enough to comprehend books at his grade level, we were to allow him to listen to books on CD rather than to force him to read them. One thing that struck me from our conversation with the psychologist was that, although Luke’s reading skills are about two years behind where they should be, his listening skills are more than two years ahead of most children his age. It’s not unlike that quote from The Sound of Music, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” Luke may not be the world’s greatest reader, but he is a phenomenal listener.

In preparation for Luke’s book report, which is due this week, we finished listening to his chosen book report book tonight. The four of us sat in the family room listening to The Mouse and The Motorcycle on our Bose home entertainment system. As we sat there, I thought about the days before television when people would gather around their radio to listen to the latest news, music, or program. When you use your ears and not your eyes, you’re more present with the other people in the room. There is something magical about hearing a story and noticing the acknowledgment and reaction in the faces of others. You’re present to share in their understanding. You’re simply more tuned in to the story and to each other. It’s pretty cool.

When I’ve mentioned to people that an accommodation we’re making with Luke now is allowing him to listen to books rather than actually attempting to read the book, I register a Hey…no fair look in their faces. Why should my kid get to listen to a book while their child actually has to read the book? I get where they’re coming from. I can see how it seems not right. Then I explain that although Luke can read words, he’s not truly reading. He spends so much time trying to figure out each and every sound in each and every word that he is unable to grasp the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Imagine trying to sound out “superficially” and then by the time you’ve finished sounding it out properly you have no idea what words preceded it. There is no fluidity. There is no comprehension. There are words, difficult, solitary, and devoid of collective meaning. Yes. He can read. But he can’t read.

I tell you what, though, that kid can listen. During our audio program tonight, I would pause the player every couple chapters to ask Luke comprehension questions. These were not easy, yes/no questions. These were designed to elicit specific contextual details from the story. What did the mouse do with his tail when he rode the motorcycle? What was the boy’s hotel room number? What killed the mouse’s father? Name some foods the boy brought back for the mouse and his family. Luke answered every question in great detail without missing a beat. When we sit and he reads text, he fidgets and squirms and has no clue regarding what he’s very clearly recited aloud. When Luke listens to a story, even when he appears to be checked out, he’s still getting it. This is the boy I’ve always known, the one who appears to be in his own world and yet when asked can repeat verbatim what was just said. Reading is an important skill. In fact, it’s crucial to becoming a successful adult. But, listening is a dying art. Luke will learn to read, but how many youth of today will learn to be effective and empathetic listeners? Luke may be living with the cloud of dyslexia, but that cloud’s silver lining may just make it worth the trouble.