Havern School

The Book Without Pictures

ImageFew things are as burdensome to a child with dyslexia as required reading. At least, this is what I have discerned over years of working with Luke and watching him battle with text. Because the only way out is through, Luke has to work twice as hard as typical children to make half the progress in reading. With a couple years of personalized instruction in decoding (phonics for children with dyslexia) and comprehension, he has made huge strides. He has jumped four grade levels in reading in two years. He is now a sixth grader reading at fifth-grade level. Things are getting easier, but they are still not easy.

And so, reading continues to be Luke’s least favorite activity. It’s the last bit of homework he chooses to attack each night. On the rare occasions that I can convince him to read aloud so I can track his progress, I swear the process is more difficult for me than it is for him. He is painfully slow, stumbling over words most children his age would not blink twice at. He continues to interchange “what” with “that” and “why” with “who” often enough that I find myself unable to follow along with the story in places. But, along he plugs, undaunted, while I do my own decoding to keep up.

For a couple months now, I’ve watched Luke carrying around this hardback book and pulling it out during his reading period. I never really thought about it much. I knew the title, had a vague idea what the story was about and that his teacher had chosen it for him, and that was where my brain came to rest on it. It was a book about a soldier in Afghanistan who felt compelled to save the stray dogs he found there. And it combined two of Luke’s favorite topics: war and puppies.

The other day, a little disheartened to see him still lugging around and reading the same book, I asked him about it.

“Luke…how many pages do you have left in that book? It seems like you have been reading it forever,” I said.

“About fifty, I think,” he replied easily.

“How long have you been reading that book now?” I asked.

“Since October sometime, I think. I can’t remember.”

“What page are you on?” I inquired.

“249” came the reply.

I sat with this number for a while, letting it slowly seep its way into my understanding like water filtering into sand. Two hundred forty-nine pages. Two hundred. Plus forty. Plus nine. Holy crap. That is a lot of pages for Luke.

“Can I take a look at it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, handing me Pen Farthing’s One Dog at a Time. All 308 pages of it. I flipped to the book’s center expecting to see a slew of photographs. There were none. Next, I paged carefully through the book. Twenty five chapters. Twelve point font. No drawings. No graphics. Adult vocabulary. War theme. Full of acronyms, foreign place names, and soldier-driven terminology. Then, it hit me. My eyes grew wide. This is a grown up’s book.

“Luke, this is a serious book. I’m really proud of you for sticking with it,” I praised.

“I’ve been going extra slowly because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything,” he told me.

“If you’re going to have this book at home over Christmas Break, I’d like to read it,” I told him. “I’m thinking we can share it and then when we’re both done we can have a book club meeting about it. Maybe we can go to Red Robin, just the two of us, and talk about it?”

“Sure,” he said. “It might take me a little longer to finish it, though,” he acknowledged.
“No worries,” I replied as I handed the book back to him so he could finish up his required twenty minutes of painstaking work.

I stood there, watching him for a few minutes, reveling in how tough he is. He is a warrior. Every day as a student he goes into battle, fighting to size up, outmaneuver, and slay the beasts that would diminish his opportunities for success. He knows more about himself and about what he can and cannot do than most adults I know. He struggles. He problem solves. He strategizes. He adjusts. And, most importantly, he perseveres. While reading a 300-page book at 12 might not be a tremendous effort for many children, it’s a Herculean task for Luke. So, I hope you’ll excuse me if I appear to zone out while you remind me again about your child’s sixth consecutive semester on the Dean’s List. I mean, that’s great and all, but my dyslexic son is nearly finished reading a three-hundred page book without pictures. Clearly, I win.

I Got My Report Card

So proud of these little monkeys

So proud of these little monkeys

A bunny can only learn what he has the humility to admit he doesn’t know. ~Bunny Buddhism

About five days ago we received a large and rather heavy envelope from the Havern School. From the cumbersome nature of the package, I sort of figured it was something dull (like an Annual Report) and I have no energy to deal with things like that. I’m lucky if I read all the way through the weekly email newsletters that have information I need to know (the same information, incidentally, that gets printed out and sent home in our sons’ backpacks but that I don’t get for three months because they forget to share anything that’s not a cold, a booger, or a piece of trash ). On the counter that large envelope sat while I went about my usual routine of ignoring the mail until it overwhelms the space and I am forced to reckon with it. Last night I finally opened that bad boy. Lo and behold, it was an annual report of sorts. It was the boys’ annual Academic and Therapy Reports.

As I’ve mentioned before, the boys’ school doesn’t provide traditional letter grades because students with learning disabilities typically struggle with standard assessments. Included in this large envelope was a cover letter from the Head of School explaining that “the faculty at Havern takes delight in the many other ways we observe and experience a student’s growth during the year — academically, emotionally, and socially.” In place of an online report card comprised of impersonal and mostly comment-free letter grades, I held 58 printed pages of precise information on my sons, what they have been studying, their strengths, their struggles, strategies that have helped them to improve, and recommendations on what we can work with them on over the summer. Fifty-eight frigging pages. I started to imagine that perhaps their school knows them better now than we do.

This was the first report card that reflected our sons back to me. Sure. Letter grades can offer a sense of a child’s success, but they can also mask problems. Luke had mostly A and B grades last year despite the fact that he was in third grade and had tested somewhere around a first grade reading level. These new reports, while overwhelming at first glance, provide an accurate picture of how far they’ve come and what’s next for us to tackle. The Havern School prides itself on seeing the whole child and, after flipping through the report pages, there is no doubt that the boys’ teachers, speech therapists, and occupational therapists understand and appreciate them as individuals. If you’re lucky, this is what a private education affords you.

For years while our boys were struggling and coming home with less than stellar grades, I felt like I was failing too. I mean, this is my job. I don’t work outside the home. I have no paying job. The boys are my job and, dammit, I take my job seriously. Letter grades don’t accurately reflect the amount of effort a parent puts into raising their child. Last night, though, as I leafed through the pages of the boys’ reports, I felt some validation because in with the information about how our boys are doing were words about who they are: respectful, well-mannered, reliable, hard-working, good sport, and conscientious. Admittedly, there were also some things in the reports to have a good giggle at. Luke’s report, in particular, mentioned his “enthusiasm” quite a bit. Enthusiasm is a teacher euphemism for talks-too-much-and-can’t-sit-still. And I had to smile at Joe’s occupational therapist’s mention of his  “mild gravitational insecurity” when it came to climbing the school’s rock wall at the beginning of the school year. I too suffer from mild gravitational insecurity. Joe’s classroom teachers mentioned what a deep thinking young man he is. Luke’s teachers mentioned his affinity for “cute, fluffy puppies” and his tendency toward being too hard on himself.

While I may not possess the unique neurological differences that our sons have, after reading the reports there’s no mistaking that these apples fell right under their family tree. I’ve often felt sorry for our boys. Having a hyper-critical, tough-minded, perfectionist mother when you’re struggling with dyslexia probably seems like a cruel joke. I see now, though, that my drive and determination to conquer whatever I attempt has filtered into my children in a way that might actually help them in the long run. These days, I make accommodations for my sons when they reach their threshold with school work, but along the way our boys learned from me that their issues are not an excuse for lack of effort or a bad attitude. I’m beyond proud of them for coming as far as they have this school year. It seems like just yesterday I left them on the school steps in August and crossed my fingers. All year I’ve been telling them to work hard and to believe in themselves and they will land squarely where they need to be. Turns out I should have taken my own advice.

I got my report card this year and I finally believe it’s one worth celebrating.

 

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.