Thursday, December 3, 2009

Another "This is not what I expected"

This one is going to be a long one, but stay with me. For the full impact, you really need to understand the background.

I have learning disabilities. As an adult, they are a minor problem, but as a kid, they had a serious impact on me. I did so poorly in my first two years of school that they considered holding me back. My handwriting was illegible, I couldn't follow simple directions, and I often couldn't produce words for common things such a "cow" or "elevator". I also could not read.

What's interesting is that I could read words. If a teacher wrote the spelling list on the board I could read it, copy it down, and recall the words later. However, I couldn't read and comprehend anything longer than a sentence or two. While that will get you through kindergarten and maybe 1st grade, you can't progress through grade school with such limitations. And, considering this was happening around 1978 - 1980, there really wasn't much that many schools did with learning disabled kids other than hold them back and place them in separate Special Ed classes.

Only there was one problem with that approach. The first grader who couldn't say they alphabet or distinguish between a "b" a "d" and a "p" happened to be doing third grade math. Between my mom and some of the teachers at the school, there was enough push back on holding me back that they finally did some testing to figure out what they should do with me. In the process, they discovered that I met the requirements for the school's gifted program. I'm sure the person who got to reveal that little tidbit to my mom felt just a little awkward saying, "Well, it looks like you are right. Your daughter isn't an idiot. It turns out she's academically gifted. Oops, our bad."

The ironic thing about this? Being identified as gifted excluded me from receiving special education assistance for my still undiagnosed learning disabilities. At the time, the idea that gifted children could have learning disabilities was unheard of. Even now, many people still have a difficult time understanding how someone can be "twice exceptional." So, after making some improvements in my school work as the result of ADD drugs (which was a common misdiagnosis for 2E kids) I was placed in the pull out gifted program in third grade. I was placed in homeroom with the "phase 1" track kids and moved to math with the "phase 1" track kids. I was separated for reading and English and went with the "phase 3" track kids. My school performance improved a good bit.

However, I still couldn't read the way other kids could, and I was painfully aware of it. I come from a family of readers. There were always books and magazines throughout my home. My parents read to us often. Reading was just a part of life in my house. In particular, my mom and my sister are voracious readers. It's hard to even explain how those two simply inhale books. Not only are they both strong readers, but when we were little, it was a strong bond between the two of them. My mom would buy my sister the Little House on the Prairie books or Anne of Green Gables and then they would both read the books. They would share the experience of each book together.

As the youngest child, I will confess that I was very jealous of this bond they shared. As the baby, I often felt left out, and this only made that feeling worse. I don't know how many times I picked up Little House in the Big Woods and tried to read it. No matter how determined I was, I just couldn't follow it. I'd read the first page, but nothing would stick. After a few paragraphs I was hopelessly lost. I felt like a failure. By this time, all the girls in school were reading chapter books, and I couldn't get past the first page of the same stupid book I had tried to read a number of times. I felt like I was being excluded from a wonderful club with the amazing privileges great stories. A club in which all of my friends, my mom, and my sister were all members.

Finally, in fourth grade my mom took me for a private evaluation that determined that yes, I do have learning disabilities. They didn't give an exact name for my impairments, but they did provide advice and coping strategies to help me overcome the challenges of my learning disabilities which effected my reading, sequencing, audio processing, and hand writing. These skills really helped me improve even further in school, but there was one intervention that was nothing short of a miracle for me. Talking books.

They provided me access to the government's Talking Books for the blind program. What I was to do was read books along with the audio books. (They were on LP! Can you imagine?) It took some time to get me enrolled and for the equipment and talking book to be delivered. The first shipment included, at my request, Little House in the Big Woods. I remember sitting down on the sofa in the living room, putting the record on and opening the book. The voice started and I read along. And it worked. I was able to read. About half way through the book, I had to adjust the speed of the recording because I was going faster than the recording. I read the whole book in one sitting. THE WHOLE BOOK. Not a page, not a chapter, the complete book that I had wanted to read for several years.

And you know what? I didn't really love it the way my sister and mom did. I had joined their club only to discover that I wasn't sure I wanted to be part of it. I set Little House in the Big Woods aside and picked up A Wrinkle in Time, which I had never heard of, but my mom thought I might like. Wow, was she right. I devoured it, and in doing so I finally discovered just what was so magical about reading. Every book allowed me to step into a whole new world. It also allowed me to escape my own world.

The miracle of this exercise is that after reading three or four books with the talking books, I was actually able to read a book without any assistance. I guess the process rewired whatever was faulty in my brain and allowed me to become the voracious reader that I still am today.

Going through this process made reading a very emotional topic for me, and that was only strengthened as I got older and reading became my only escape from...well, from my mind. As I got older, and hit junior high and my hormones started going crazy, I also started to suffer from depression. I look back on those years and wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't been depressed, and I know it would have been very different. But, I do know what it would have been like if I hadn't been able to escape into the world of fiction. It would have been a very deep, dark pit of despair. Books saved me from a significant amount of suffering.

I will never forget the years I spent shut out of the world of reading. I will never forget the miracle that talking books gifted me with. And, I'll never forget that books were my comfort during a very difficult time in my life.

So, as you can see, I have a lot of emotions invested in reading.

Can you imagine my delight when at 14 months Michael became obsessed with letters? By 16 months, he could name all of the capital letters. By 20 months he could name the lowercase letters and identify all of the letter sounds. Most importantly, he had no problems identifying "M" and "W" or "b" and "d" and "p". At 37, I still have problems with "b" and "p". I was thrilled that it appeared that Michael did not have my learning disabilities.

Michael's letter obsession continued straight throughuntil he reached 2.5 and decided o split his time between letters and dinosaurs. He would run into the house and head straight for the fridge so he could play with his letters. To this day he still treats letters as if they are his closest friends. It's been an odd trip that has even left me a little concerned at times as his letter obsession clearly impacted his development in other areas. How could it not, if a child spends 4-5 hours a day trying to write letters, he's not working on gross motors skills at the same time.

Somewhere over the past six months or so, Michael has really started taking an interest in words. It's the logical next step for a letter obsessed child. Because of his interest, my mom, Andy and I have all induldged his interest in words. I've writen some many words at his request that even my hand writing has improved.

However, Michael never seemed interested in reading. He only seemed interested in spelling words. He rarely made any attempt at reading words even though he spent hours writing them. I could prod him to read single words, but he only tolerated so mcuh of that before ignoring me.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I don't want to push him to read. A 3.5 year old has no reason to be able to read. Studies show that pushing it on children often makes them resent the very thing you are trying to teach them. Clearly, I of all people know that you don't have to read early to end up being an avid reader. So, his lack of interest in reading is no big deal.

On the other hand, wouldn't it be cool if my kid could read? It would really set my mind at ease about possible learning disabilites. I would know for certain that he doesn't have the same problems I do. Plus, I could start to share books with him instead of just reading them to him. Woudln't it just be amazing if a mother who struggled so hard to read had a child that started to read early?

This brings me to last Saturday evening. Michael was being crabby and difficult. It was bedtime, but he didn't want to have anything to do with going to bed. He started pulling out all of the stalling techniques. "I'm hungry" and "I need to watch one more show" and "I need to go potty" followed imediately by "I'm not going potty." I was getting frustrated and annoyed while I watched him scribble on his Magna Doodle. So, I sat down next to him, took the Magna Doodle, and wrote "GO TO BED" on it. I heanded it back and walked out of the room.

Michael calls from the living room, "How do you spell WON'T?"

Son of a...

Michael read my note and understood it. I expected the first time Michael read a sentence to be an exciting moment, not an exaaperating one. I pictured us sitting together with a book with Michael reading as I ran my finger under the words. Instead, I got a flippant response to a simple request.

I think I add this to my file of "this is not what I expected" moments.

Oh, and to make matters worse, I refused to spell "won't" for him. When I came back into the room to try and get him moving towards bed, I looked at the Magna Doodle. It now read, "GO TO BED. NOT"

Great, my kid is a smart ass.


Deanna said...

Oh my gosh, Joanna! That's a great story and how awesome is that that Michael could read what you wrote! I'm so excited!

Maria said...

You are just now realizing that he is a smartass?! I have never met the kid and I could have told you that! Michael is awesome, and so are you for figuring him out so well and knowing just how he is. You guys can totally leave eachother funny noted now, that is always one of my favorite milestones.

DesiDVM said...

Just the other day I had one of those light-bulb moments watching J - he's also suddenly able to read (really read!) some words, and he's become obsessed with a number of his books because he just realized he can figure out the words by himself. As I watched him actually sounding out a word the other day, it occurred to me that maybe some of his behavior issues, esp. the potty regression, over the past weeks have to do with development in other parts of his brain.

That's great that Michael can read! My mom tells a similar story of how she didn't realize my twin sister and I (at age 3) could read until one day when we were riding in the cart at Target and began sounding out the word "Tampax" LOL.

Based on your writing (which is great) I'd never guess you have any learning disability.

Lindsay said...

Wow, what a great post! How encouraging.

And double Wow on Michael reading and writing back!

JTC gets homework from his school twice a week, but unless he seems interested in doing it, I blow it off. Like you said, I don't want to ruin it by pushing!

Heidi O said...

I love your story. I come from a family that reads and reads and I want the same for my kids. Our first has been reading since about the same age as Michael, I believe. He never looked back. He will be 6 in a month and I have been reading the Harry Potter books to him, he likes to follow along sometimes and at other times just lay and listen. I, thoroughly, enjoy sharing this part of my world with him.
Now Maggie on the other hand, she doesn't like to let me know how much she really knows. My guess is she will bust it out at some point and instead of words, she will write us a full sentence.
That 'won't' seems like a yin to Maggie's yang.

LauraC said...

Re: smartass. The apple doesn't fall from the tree.

Go Michael Go!!!

Stacey said...

That's totally and completely awesome!!

When I student taught 1st grade I had a little boy who thought he could not learn to read or write . He was also very, very angry. One day I wrote him a long letter telling him how much I cared about him. He read my letter and wrote back a letter that made complete sense (not spelled correctly, but decipherable). I took about three more exchanges before it dawned on him that he was reading and writing.

My husband thinks it's crazy to think about this now, but I have a pretty strong sense that Cole will not learn to read easily or as most children do. I may need your wisdom someday.

Beth said...

Wow Joanna. This was an awesome post--so well written. Your own story should serve as an inspiration to a lot of people. And I can understand your relief on seeing Michael reading. But holy crap--Michael's reading??? Awesome. Why don't you go ahead and give him those potty training books! LOL. Seriously--thanks for sharing your story. That explains a lot about your parenting skills--how you're very in tune with Michael's needs.

London said...

This is a great post. I've actually been stewing all day trying to think of a good comment to leave that summed up how I felt after reading it. All I could think of was the scene from Forrest Gump when he meets his son for the first time and all he asks is "Is he smart?" (NOT that you are Forrest Gump, that came out totally wrong!) But my point is that we all want so much for our children. We want them to be smarter than we were, more sucessful than we are, above all we want them to be happy.

Batman's reading too (as I've bragged before) and it just blows me away. I know I've taught him how, but part of it is all him. He amazes me. Michael too!

Julie said...

This is a great story Joanna, both yours and Michael's. First off, I am amazed that you had such trouble learning to read, given your ability to write such amazing posts. Second, I am amazed that the audio book re-wired your brain to allow you to overcome it! Wow! Third, those Little House books were my fave as a kid too :) Most of all--HOLY GUACAMOLE Michael can read?! That is super impressive! I laughed my head off at his response about spelling "won't". This is one of those stories you will remember forever.