It isn’t often you allow yourself to learn from young teachers, to take a step back and see the lesson right in front of you. My son, struggling to read, gave me a lesson in the moment, but truthfully, it was a lesson for life.
He didn’t speak until he was almost three.
He communicated what he wanted and needed in other ways. Many friends mentioned their concern, and our pediatrician gave me a deadline for when we should consider testing, but I knew he could hear us. I knew he understood everything being said to him, so I let go of the worry for the time being, which is uncharacteristic of me. Then, a few months before his third birthday, at the dinner table, he said, “Would someone please pass the butter?” The room was silent. The shock held us suspended for minutes until I finally giggled and blurted out, “You’re talking!”
Six years old
At six, though, he was not learning his phonemes in conjunction with his letters. He loved stories, and he wanted me to read to him constantly, but he wouldn’t try to read himself. I was homeschooling, so I was not too concerned about grade levels or mastering subjects at a specific age yet. I thought he just needed more time. Afterall, he was late to speak and it turned out fine. Instead, I worried about pushing him too hard. I didn’t want him to dislike reading. Fellow mom friends agreed. They told me he was bright, and he would read when he wanted. I even heard an old wives tale from several people that children read when their teeth start to fall out. No matter how much I wanted this to be true, I would lie in bed at night and fret. It wasn’t that he couldn’t learn; it seemed like something more, something I dreaded.
I am dyslexic.
I didn’t find out until my third year of French in college. My French professor pulled me aside one day and asked me why I was writing everything backwards in sentences. I had no clue that I was writing backwards, but I was aware that tests in any subject were always challenging for me if I felt rushed or pressured. Growing up in a time that professional educators didn’t recognize dyslexia as a learning disability forced me to compensate for my school struggles. I read books constantly and taught myself how to memorize new words, adding to my vocabulary so that unknown words wouldn’t trip me up. I didn’t know I had dyslexia, but I knew that I had to help myself and work harder. To this day, if I come across a new word, I have to stop everything and ask for help. If I haven’t seen it written before, it is foreign to me. Luckily, I adore reading and collecting words, so this isn’t a problem often.
I was in denial about passing on dyslexia.
I didn’t want my son to have the same challenges I had. Instead of trusting my instincts, which are usually right, I pushed that nagging feeling aside and focused on the things we could do to support him. We joined boy book clubs, we acted out books, and we designed sets in our house, throwing pillows and blankets everywhere. It was a fairy land of stories.
As he grew a few years older, my son’s lack of progression in reading didn’t seem to bother him at all. He wasn’t stressed. He found ways around this problem, mostly using audiobooks to read. His transitions to do things were just slower and more methodical than everyone else. He wasn’t in a hurry. He still has that temperament – everything is going to be all right, all the time. He doesn’t get frustrated easily. He doesn’t feel like everything needs to be accomplished yesterday. It is a beautiful thing to see someone be so calm about life. He is living zen without even knowing what that is. He is a young teacher in serenity.
Unlike my son, I drove myself crazy with worry.
I couldn’t be patient and wait any longer. I needed to know if there was a larger problem. I was convinced he had a learning disability like me. To be proactive, I made him read all the time. I made flashcards of words and forced him to spell them. I pushed so hard that he was beginning to dislike working with me. He quit asking extra questions and didn’t dive in depth on any subject. It was painful to watch him close down when presented with my lessons. I was devastated that this was happening, but I couldn’t stop myself from pushing, and now he was going to hate school. Worse, he would hate learning!
When he was nine, we had him tested.
He did a full day of every test designed for an individual educational evaluation. I wanted every fact and figure I could get. I wanted to know how my boy’s brain worked so I could FIX it. I felt that I could solve all his problems if I just had some data.
A week after the testing, I met with the educational diagnostician. She looked across the table and said, “Your son is severely dyslexic and severely dysgraphic… just like you.” I am sure she saw the devastation in my eyes. I knew in my heart that I had given this to him, a genetic gift no one wants to share. Then she smiled and said, “He is also extremely smart; but more importantly, he will be fine. He has so many other talents.” We continued to discuss the numbers and charts she prepared, and my husband and I left there with a new plan and a bit of sadness.
We went home and had a long conversation with my son.
We were completely honest and gave him all the facts, good and bad. I worked hard to keep my emotions at bay. I didn’t want him to know that I felt terrible guilt and sadness. It was important to me that he understood why reading was challenging to him and why his brain worked differently. We explained the type of interventions we were going to take and how we were going to support him through it. I talked about dyslexia and my own school experiences. He didn’t react. He didn’t get upset. He simply said, “Okay.”
That night, I couldn’t sleep, worrying about his future.
I worried about all the obstacles he would face, and how he would always have to try harder. I also worried about his self esteem. This problem could never be fixed. Dyslexia and dysgraphia create a lifetime of reading and writing difficulties. Lying there, stressing over the results, I began envisioning my son’s life. I went from his elementary years to college and then to his professional years. In my mind, I was stamping out all the things I didn’t think he could do. It was ridiculous. I was imagining a very limited life for him, one he probably wouldn’t choose for himself anyway. I was far away from accepting the situation. I had completely forgotten that I coped in school being dyslexic. I forgot that he had me to support him, even if I couldn’t fix it. I wasn’t giving him any credit for all his talents. He would find new strengths throughout his life. Acknowledging this, though, didn’t give me immediate relief. I still tossed and turned all night.
The next morning, exhausted from my lack of sleep, I was trying to come up with a new school plan, something that would work to support him long-term. When my son came downstairs, he sat next to me and said, “Hey, Mom. I have been thinking about this whole dyslexic thing. Really, it is no big deal. Look how many books you read!“ Then he smiled and gave me a hug. Here, I was worried about a future that hadn’t happened yet, and he was taking it all in stride. He accepted his diagnosis and had already moved on. I had to let go as well. In that moment, I realized the diagnostician was right.