One of the requirements for my masters degree was an internship. My advisor knew I was on my way to becoming an educational therapist. There was no such designation, no program at the time (that came several years later) but I let her know I was very clear that I was one. Although I had enjoyed teaching, I kept seeing smart kids slide through the cracks. The word “dyslexia” was still fairly new, and I was reading everything I could get my hands on, learning more and more about this mysterious process called learning. And so she assigned me to a new pilot program at Pasadena City College where I could work one-on-one with individuals.
I showed up for work, and the head of the department greeted me and then wished me good luck. There was no curricula, no syllabus. I was on my own. But I wasn’t concerned. This being out on the skinny branches treading water in new territory was familiar to me. I was good at doing that (even though I’m lousy at creating metaphors).
My first client was a man in his fifties. He told me he had a successful business, was a freelance big rig trucker. And he was illiterate, had never learned how to read. But now he had children and he didn’t want them to know, so he had signed himself up to the program.
“How have you managed?” I asked.
His wife ran the office. When he was given a contract, he always took it home and his wife read it to him. When he drove into a new city, he picked up a hitchhiker and told him he’d buy lunch or dinner if the hiker would navigate for him. “Just read all the signs.” No one, other than his wife, knew he couldn’t read. I was impressed. This was one smart fellow.
I warned him we’d be doing things that were very child-like and I didn’t want him to feel insulted. He laughed and said I should “bring it on.”
It didn’t take long. He never got truly proficient, but was good enough to get by. “Besides,” he said. “I’m not going to be reading my wife’s novels. The sports page will be good enough for me.” And all the while he was learning, I was too. I had to give up some judgments and beliefs I had about smart people and being literate.
My next client was a young man of nineteen. Tall and handsome, he’d been offered a number of football scholarships at the Big Ten Universities, but his mother had told him he couldn’t accept any until he learned to read. Here was one of the kids I was so concerned about—one who had slipped through the cracks. I told him we were in this together and asked if he was willing to work with me. He desperately wanted to play football and told me he was willing to try anything. I asked him to read and he broke out in a sweat. I let him suffer for only a few minutes. Something was terribly wrong and I had to get to the bottom of it. I gathered a stack of flash cards of 3-letter words and sat across from him. I explained what I was going to do and he nodded to go ahead. I held the cards at my eye level so I could watch his eyes. I raised the first card (pop). His eyes rolled up to the right, he looked at the “o”, then the first “p”, then the second “p.” Finally he said,” …p…ah…p…pop.” I tried several more cards and each time, he rolled his eyes.
I told him what I’d observed. “No I don’t,” he said.
“Oh, but you do. You’re just not conscious of it. Now, I’m going to show you more cards and I want you to notice what you do with your eyes. It might take a while, don’t worry, we’ve plenty of time.”
After the sixth card he stopped. “I do! Roll my eyes. Why do I do that?”
I told him that I suspected he’d done it when he first started learning to read and it had looked like it worked. And so he repeated doing it and soon it was a well-traveled neural pathway. I said we were going to try to make some new neural pathways—ones that were more efficient. Was he willing to try? He was. I warned him that it would not be a quick fix. I explained that I’d show him cards and he was to try not to roll his eyes. Again, I warned that it might take a while before he was conscious of what he was doing or could control it, but we had time. When I held up the seventh card, he read it without rolling his eyes and his whole body shuddered. He leaped up from his chair. “What was that!”
I didn’t have a clue. I had him read more cards and he read them quickly. I was stunned. From that day on, he began to read and weekly his grade levels rose. It was like watching a kid on Christmas morning. He was thrilled. “I always thought I was smart,” he told me. “I just couldn’t figure out the reading business and that made me feel stupid.”
But now he could read. The last time I saw him, he was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure he went on to make his name at the game he so loved.
There were other clients, just as mysterious and interesting. And each one was handled in a new way. My time working in that program was fruitful and I continued learning more about this business of learning. Can’t say I’ve mastered it, but I had a glorious time helping people learn. Eventually I bought my learning center (Educational Resources). Helping people learn is a most satisfying experience.
I think of all the teachers I had in my school years. I know I owe them a big THANK YOU. Thanks for putting up with me, along with the bureaucracy, endless reports, kids acting out, demanding parents, long hours, and lack of supplies. I am truly grateful. And my hat is off to those who are still engaged in the process of teaching. Keep hanging in there!