Reading, and weeping

Many years ago, I went through a well-known Jewish rite of passage: my first anxiety attack.

I was two months shy of my sixth birthday, a few weeks away from the start of first grade. The object of my anguished obsession? An all-powerful but elusive form of magic called reading. I understood the concept of it. I understood the importance of it. I liked reading when it was done to me—I just didn't know how to do it to myself. And I was terrified I never would.

My mother, perhaps hoping to quiet her own silent fears, decided to schedule a meeting with my soon-to-be first grade teacher. My memory of that August 1975 get-together is vivid: Mrs. Johnson—an ebullient twenty-something woman who had only recently become Mrs. Johnson—perches gently on one of those kid-size plastic chairs, takes my hand, looks me in the eye, and as angelic waves of white light bounce off her radiant reddish hair, she promises me that by the end of first grade, I will indeed be reading. She says she will work with me every day, and that on one of those days a switch will just turn on. It will all come into focus.

And it did—just like she promised. By the end of first grade, I wasn’t sure which I loved more: reading or Mrs. Johnson. Years later, when I made my living as a copy editor—holding forth on the difference between its and it’s, proudly touting the correct spelling of ophthalmologist, curling up with my Chicago Manual of Style at night—I looked back on my first anxiety attack and laughed. My greatest fear had become my greatest strength.

And then years after that, when my own daughter was diagnosed as dyslexic, I laughed again, but in a different way. My greatest strength had become my Achilles heel.

When the interim learning specialist first called us in at the end of kindergarten to discuss some test results, Amy and I were a bit blindsided. Now, of course, I can look back and see the signs that marked my daughter as different from her peers—in the same way that my mother, when I first came out to her, went back and looked, as if for the first time, at that class picture in which the other girls sat in their neatly pressed dresses while I sat in my Timberlands and jeans, a New York Knicks jersey layered over my long-sleeve denim shirt. 

"She's just a late bloomer," I said. "I didn't learn to read until the middle of first grade. I'm sure it will be like that for her too." The learning specialist—who unbeknownst to us was something of a maverick at our daughter's progressive school, insisting on testing kindergartners who showed no signs of reading, much to the chagrin of the teachers, who didn't believe in labels—looked me in the eye, with a certainty not unlike Mrs. Johnson's, and said, "Listen, my son is dyslexic. I know the signs. The light switch is not going to just turn on." 

I don't really remember the rest of what she said. I just remember an entirely new vocabulary being thrown at me—Slingerland, Lindamood-Bell, decoding, auditory processing, phonemic awareness. She talked about our daughter needing scaffolding—and all I could imagine was our sweet, tiny six-year-old encased in metal. 

She talked with a deep sense of urgency—as if her life, our lives, our daughter's life depended on what she was saying. I learned later that her own son had endured years of torment in school before being diagnosed. She wanted to ensure that no child on her watch had to suffer the same way. "Trust me, I am not being alarmist," she said. "I am doing you a favor flagging it this early."

She was right, of course. But all she got from me in that moment was disbelief and resentment, a grudging agreement to "look into it." I left all the arrangements—the further testing, the tutoring—to Amy to figure out. I still believed that my daughter was just like me, simply a late bloomer. I still believed that she would soon find comfort in books as I had—even though she regarded trips to the library as one might approach a haunted house, the overeager ogre-like librarians coming at her with aggressive questions about what she liked to read. "Please don't make me go back there," she said, crying, after one such trip to our local branch. My heart broke. For both of us.

As she progressed through first grade, not only did the switch not turn on, a light that had been glowing inside her all throughout preschool slowly started to fade. She couldn't sleep. She dreaded going to school, dreaded sitting on the classroom couch in her reading group of one, dreaded the spelling test every Friday that sent her off into the weekend stripped of what little self-confidence she had managed to muster throughout the week. Her wonderful progressive school—with its kind students and gentle teachers—was slowly destroying her.

It was looking like she'd be held back, though no one was at all sure that simply repeating the same material would make any difference the next year. In desperation, we sent her to summer school that July. The summer program was at a place called Charles Armstrong School, a haven designed for bright children with dyslexia, located 30 miles from our house. As we dropped her off on Day 1, we fully expected her to arrive home in tears. Instead, she returned a few hours later with a bounce in her step we hadn't seen in two years.

By Day 3, she was saying she finally understood what school was supposed to be like. She begged us to let her go there in the fall. At first, we wrote off the idea as impossible. She was already enrolled in her old school. This new school was an hour's drive in morning traffic. And sending her there meant finally acknowledging the truth—that she wasn't just a late bloomer but an entirely different species of flower. It meant giving up our fantasies about who she was, our predetermined dreams of who she might become, and plunging into the deep, dark abyss of an unfamiliar present and an uncharted future.

Amy made it happen. (She carried so much of the weight in those days.) She just decided, and I simply found the courage to follow her lead. 

The first years were not easy. Her second grade teacher still has a note from a particularly grim day in which our daughter asked her, "Do dyslexic people ever learn to read?" Remediation is as hard as it sounds, and as boring. Drill after drill to make you painfully aware of those phonemes. But for the first time, she was surrounded by students who were all like her. Her special school made her feel normal.

The light switch flickered and flickered and flickered for years—until it finally turned on in fifth grade. By then, she was reading tentatively. By seventh grade, she was reading voraciously. Dyslexia doesn't go away, but it does loosen its grip, change its shape. Years of listening to audiobooks had given her an enormous vocabulary, which she used strategically to make up for her still-shaky decoding—in much the same way that I type masterfully with two fingers. And while certain neural pathways may not light up as quickly for her, she has forged other paths absent in other brains—sees patterns others miss, puts together pieces others don't think to combine. She's become a top student, and a gifted writer. None of it comes easy. None of it ever will.

And in a few days, she will graduate from eighth grade at Armstrong—leaving much of the scaffolding behind to test herself in the high intensity of a high school filled with students whose switches turned on early and easily. In a few days, she will take the stage to address her class with a graduation speech in which she talks about her fears—and why she's not so afraid of them anymore. And I know that as she stands up there reading that speech, I will be weeping—at the thought of how far she's come, at the thought of the uncharted future I'm not so afraid of anymore.