reading

Never Tell Me The Odds

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My son’s prized book collection hidden behind a clay tank he created and his Pop characters

Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.

Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.

At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.

People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.

Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British armyHis teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.

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.

The Littlest Teachers

Me and my little teachers

Me and my little teachers

Thirteen years ago, I was about one month away from becoming a mother. Back then, I thought I had a fairly decent grasp on who I was. Thirteen years and two children later, I realize that I had no clue who I was or what things I was capable of. Becoming a mother is one thing. Being a mother day in and day out is another thing entirely. Mothers (and fathers too) are capable of incredible things, things far beyond what we imagine ourselves capable of. Back then, I thought the biggest obstacles to overcome with parenting would be cleaning up puke and missing out on sleep. I laugh at that now. All the things I expected would come easily to me did not. And from out of nowhere came new lessons about myself and about life. Tonight I want to share three things I have learned because I became a mother:

1) I am really good at reading aloud. Considering how much reading aloud in school caused near panic attacks that could only be lessened by mentally practicing every part of the story in front of me in class while waiting for my turn to read, this is a shock. Lately I’ve been reading The BFG by Roald Dahl to our boys. I do a voice for the Big Friendly Giant. It’s different from the one I did for Willy Wonka and the one I did for the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I have fun finding the character’s voices and acting out the books like plays. I look forward to reading aloud to our sons, not just because I enjoy it but also because they enjoy it. They may not be amazing readers themselves, but they love hearing a good story. We don’t read together every night, but on the nights that I read aloud I find that I feel pretty good about this talent I never realized I had.

2) I am actually quite okay living in a pit. Before I had children, I had things in my home under control. Everything had a place and everything was in its place. Bathrooms were cleaned regularly. My kitchen was spotless. In college, I would pick light-colored lint off the brown rug in my dorm room. I exchanged my sheets for fresh ones weekly on the assigned day. I would scrub the bathtubs in friends’ homes because the soap scum and filth bugged me. After having two boys, this monkey is no longer on my back. I get around to cleaning eventually, but I’ve learned that a clean house is overrated. If at my funeral someone says, “She kept such a nice home,” my life will have been a failure. A clean house is a sign of a dull person. Clearly, I am not as dull as I once was. This does not mean our house is up for condemnation or is overrun by a large colony of rats or anything. I’m just not losing any sleep over unmade beds or dusty ceiling fans. Life is too short to sweat these small details. I’d rather play Battleship with my son than wash his sheets, and I have to believe that is a wise choice.

3) I am wrong a lot. Before our sons were born, I believed I was fairly intelligent and was right a fair percentage of the time. I thought I had answers and my job in parenting was to share the answers with my children. Parenting has been for me, therefore, a thirteen year lesson in how little I actually know and how much I have to learn. Luckily for my personal growth, my children are gifted at pointing out how adept I am at making mistakes…like the time my three-year old son went on and on to anyone who would listen about how I got on the highway to drive them to school when, in fact, their school was nowhere near the highway. He told everyone. At first, these little lessons in my humanity were hard to swallow, but in time I realized that not having all the answers (or needing to have them) is a huge weight lifted. I’ve gotten good at admitting that I don’t know. Letting go of my need to be right has given me great freedom to be a goofball. And I’ve learned that goofball is far preferable to know-it-all.

I went into motherhood under the assumption that it would be a great education, and that it has been. I like myself far better now than I did thirteen years ago back when I thought I knew myself and had it all under control. Chaos is much more interesting, and so am I.

 

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.

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.