On the morning of my sons’ 10th birthday I stood in the kitchen singing “Happy Birthday” to him in hushed tones, a plate of stacked pancakes with a single candle in my hands. We’re both early risers and I love sharing these stolen moments with him while my husband and daughter are still sleeping. But this was not just an ordinary day. This was a momentous day! The day we first met ten years ago.
“Make a wish,” I whispered.
As he blew out the sparkling candle, tears ran down his cheeks and into the corners of his mouth as he tried to smile.
“I wished that I could read,” he sputtered.
I held him close and told him that everything would be O.K., that he would learn to read and that I would help him.
Reading has been a long and painful struggle for Jamie, one filled with shame, apprehension and confusion. This day, his 10th birthday, had been a self-imposed deadline for him. Surely, he would know how to read fluently by the age of ten.
By the time his birthday rolled around, Jamie could make out lots of individual words in both English and French and recognize and spell the names of all the countries, cities, oceans, territories, cultures and peoples which are part and parcel of his passion for Geography. But picking up a book and delving in was still a source of great frustration. “Why does “ea” make one sound in “bear” and another in “hear’? And why are certain letters silent when they should have something to say? “
We are a bilingual family which means we speak, read, listen to music, watch movies and generally experience life in both English and French. Sometimes a single sentence is a patchwork of several languages in our home. We understand each other perfectly. But reading fluently in either language has proved difficult for Jamie, made all the more frustrating by the fact that his nine-year old sister (also a “late” reader) learned to read fluently in french in a matter of weeks.
Jamie’s battle has been a bumpy path of ups and downs, fits and spurts, with long plateaus of disinterest. As soon as he would make progress and feel good about himself, well-intentioned adults would quiz him in not-so-subtle ways. “Hey, buddy, I forgot my reading glasses, can you make this out for me?” Or, “So what’s on the menu Jamie?”
And then there were the not-so-well-intentioned children who would taunt him because he couldn’t read easily. A sensitive child who is also a perfectionist, if he had any doubt in his mind, he wouldn’t take the risk. This fear of being wrong was deeply seeded by his early experiences of being drilled repeatedly in school.
And then there was my own contribution as a parent, as a mom who is still groping with her own insecurities and wounds about being “wrong” and therefore judged. The mom who once cared way too much about what other people thought. The mom who felt embarrassed that her son couldn’t read. The mom who pushed a little too hard and then retreated.
I finally understood on that morning that my son needed my help, not my absence (which I had equated with showing him trust). What he needed was my support, not in the form of phonic worksheets or sporadic prodding. I realized that while he genuinely wanted to learn to read fluently, there was a healing process that needed to take place.
A gift. It was my son’s birthday and my husband and I had bought him a gift which he would open and certainly appreciate. But I wanted to give him something lasting. Rather than suggesting my son read a menu, a sign, a subtitle, a label, a book, I would write something for him.
I began leaving small notes next to his pillow, noiselessly lifting his mosquito net before the sun rose, so that when he woke up it was there.
I did this with no expectations. It’s now a ritual, something I do with a cup of coffee every morning for my son and now my daughter. It felt so good to see how a small note could make them so happy that I do it for my husband sometimes too. And as odd as it sounds, I occasionally leave a note for myself.
So I don’t forget.
My son is now reading, not perfectly, but confidently, despite the stumbles. He reads my notes every day and is now taking “Harriet the Spy” word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page.
I’d love to hear how you’ve helped your life learners overcome obstacles.