• Jennifer Widemire Smith

The Journey of Learning Part One

Updated: Aug 25, 2019

Dyslexia Does Not Limit Ability

On Landon's first field trip day In kindergarten Mrs C told the class "Get out your notebooks. Write a short story about what you think you'll see at the zoo today."

Noise and commotion filled the room. Landon blocked it all out and began writing. It was busy work to keep the kids and parents occupied while the teachers loaded the paper bag lunches into the buses for our field trip. Landon was penning nonsensical words. So I asked him to tell me what he was writing.

"I see a tiger at the zoo The tiger looks at the humans. He roars at them. The people say hi back."

I fell in love with his story and choice of words. But when I looked at his paper I saw none of those words, not even the "a." I thought it was strange but also thought he was still so little and it was only the end of second quarter of kindergarten. Plenty of time to learn. No big deal.

At the zoo, animals were brought out for the classes to see, name, and pet. The zoo keeper asked, "Who can tell me what this animal is?" The crowd of 5 and 6 years olds screamed, "Bobcat!"

Landon whispered, "No, that's a linx."

The zoo keeper said, "No you silly gooses, this is a linx!"

I stared at my son. "How on earth did you know that?" I asked in awe.

Landon grinned. "The ears Mom."

In the background I heard an echo of the zoo keeper's exact same explanation. A linx has black tip ears.

"Ok who taught you that Kid?"

"Wild Krats" he shrugged.

"That show where the Krat brothers play honey I shrunk the kids and pretend to be animals?"

"Yeah. I think." he looked quizzically at me, "What's a shrunk kid?" ugh I feel old...We had a lovely day where my son continued to impress me with his knowledge of animals that I had no idea he'd amassed.

At the end of third quarter Mrs C asked for a conference. "Let me begin by telling you that your son is so smart. When I ask him to write a story about a dog, he writes, 'The dog and cat are friends. The cat and dog had no names because they had no humans to take care of them. They had no place to live until one day they found an abandoned house. They made it their home. But then a wolf came and tried to eat all their food and take their house. They fought back. And stood up to the bullying wolf and the wolf was never heard from again.' Most 5 years olds write, 'The dog and cat are friends. They play together.' Your kid creates character, plot, conflict, and resolution. But he hasn't learned his sight words, he hasn't learned his letters, I can't even get him to sing the ABC song. He is struggling tremendously and I'd like your permission to have him tested to see if there are any reasons for the gaps."

I shook my head not understanding, "If he doesn't know his letters or words how is he writing this well?"

She showed me his work. It was all jumbled letters and nonsense to me. Just like it was the day of the zoo trip. No improvement. Then she showed me other kids work. It had tremendously less letters on the page but, unlike my son's, it had actual words. The difference glaring me in the face.

"When I ask him what he writes about this is what he tells me." And she proceeded to show me work where she'd wrote out the story for him underneath his version of letters and "words."

"Ok I sighed." Everything in me wanting to scream no. "Let's get him tested." Praying, Please God, don't let me regret agreeing to this. After all, how many facebook stories had I seen about kids getting the short end of the stick with disabilty testing? How many news stories had I read informing me how often the schools get it wrong? The mistreatment of special needs students? I didn't sleep at all that night.

I had no way of knowing it then, but she was looking out for our son and putting us directly on the path that would lead to dyslexia. A path she herself has walked with one of her own.

At the time Josh and I thought Landon just needed more practice with sight words. We needed to drill the flash cards every morning, noon, and night. He needed more motivation to inspire him to learn his letters. He needed to try harder and he needed more time. The testing came back and we entered into the land of Individual Education Planning. The pressure came off slightly.

The summer came and went and we practiced and practiced and practiced. We didn't get anywhere. Landon entered first grade and still couldn't tell you his ABC's. Upon seeing his first set of grades we decided he needed more reprimanding discipline since the motivation wasn't working. Again operating in our own understanding and making assumptions...

“Sorry, Landon, no Xbox, no iPads, no screen time until you make all A’s and B’s at school kiddo.” He cried and begged us not to do that to him but his grades were flunking and we had to do something, right? I mean that’s what parents are suppose to do, isn’t it? They make you learn that grades are important. That they’re everything when it comes to school. And if you can’t make an A or B you’re lazy, unmotivated, or undisciplined. You'll never get into the right colleges, universities. You'll never get that coveted degree that will make your life easier...right?

Half way through the year we learned Landon had dyslexia.

We learned he was the opposite of lazy and perhaps the hardest working, most motivated student in the classroom, we learned dyslexics use 5 times the amount of energy to do any learning task. This phenomenon of the dyslexic brain makes kids seem lazy because they are exhausted all the time at school. It's not from lack of sleep it's from trying their best.

We learned that making an A or B should not ever be the goal of school for our son. Not anymore. The most important goal was that he learn to read. More importantly than that, that he develop a LOVE of reading. A love of learning. These things cannot be forced or spanked into compliance. They can only be encouraged and nurtured by loving kindness and grace (< unearned favor).

Xbox was released, in small doses. He turned to me and said, “But Mom I didn’t make an A yet. You said I couldn’t play minecraft again until I earned an A.”

“Yes I did kiddo but I was wrong to do that to you.”

Tears filled his eyes. “You just don’t know how hard I tried Mom. I don’t think I will ever make an A. It’s impossible.” We cried together. Then we played together. I had put so much pressure on him that I had taught him he was failing. Something his teachers had never done to him. Parent guilt reared up. I had not known it at the time but with every test he took he'd taken it to his teacher and asked, "Is it an A? My mom says I have to make an A to play again."

Mrs W would shake her head. "No baby, I'm sorry. It's not an A." For it was a 48, 26, 32, 56, 41…his shoulders would cave in and he'd sit down at his table and cry.

His teacher called me into conference. She kindly told me Landon needed more help than she could provide in her room each day and that he needed the assistance of the experts at a very specific place. That afternoon we signed up for Read Write Learning Center (For the full story read my Well Damn post).

Grades stopped being the goal and every time we made it through another test, another quarter was a victory we celebrated with ice cream shoppe visits.

The ice cream shoppe was where I'd grown up. My grandfather and great grandfather were ice cream men. When my granddad moved to Mobile, he opened up Widemire's Old Dutch Ice Cream Shoppe. I grew up behind the counter, dipping my own cones, learning how to make the perfect sundays, banana splits, and royales, <--not a typo!

The Shoppe was on our way home from school every day and became the natural place to take my children, as it was also, where I'd learned most of my vocabualry after school while doing word searches and crossword puzzles with my Grandfather's "work wife." A woman I affectionately called, Grandma Daisy.

D grades or less were completely ignored. The goal was simply "do your best," the grade was unimportant. He had enough pressure on him from just looking around and seeing how well his friends could read knowing he couldn’t. At the end of the year, with the help of dyslexic tutoring from Read Write, as well as the addition of baseball into our routine. He started making progress.

Enrolling him in a baseball league also had a huge impact. Dyslexics often have a hard time connecting the bat to the ball, because, they connect at the midline---the place in the brain where dyslexia can be most prominent.

When he connected to the ball for the first time during a game his brain made permanent connections. The following week his brain used that special connection and he made his first 100 on a spelling test. (See my post on His Land Has Many Giants to read the full story) We celebrated like you would not believe!

He passed first grade by ONE point. A point that took extraordinary effort by both him, his tutors, his baseball team, and his incredible teacher Mrs W---who never once faltered to tell my son he could do it. She being a dyslexic herself knew he could with the right methods.

We entered second grade. At the beginning Landon did not want me to talk about his differences with his teacher. He was embarrassed by his struggles and was refusing to self advocate. All things we began to work on. While also battling new struggles: Words were bigger. Words needed to be sounded out constantly. Math problems now came in sentences instead of numbers. The first quarter of second grade finished, Landon said, “That was so very hard, Mom.” We had an amazing teacher again and from the moment we met her we told her all about Landon and what he needed from her to be successful. We even brought in our tutors to give her a quick lesson on Landon’s specific needs and what happens inside his brain everyday. Mrs M was awesome and she immediately began making adjustments in her room for him.

Then one day she called me. “Hey I want to be on the phone with you when you see it."

"See what?"

"I just posted his grades. You need to see them.” She had a sombre tone and my heart sank. While we don't put emphasis on his grades his school does. They require at 70 or higher to stay enrolled.

The screen loaded, I screamed, ”Landon Elliot Smith!" he turned bewildered, "YOU MADE AN A!?!? ON A MAJOR READING TEST???” Mrs M was crying on the phone. I spun my kid around the room and we laughed and danced the whole night long.

At the end of the quarter, Mrs M called again only this time, “I know how hard y’all have struggled. I know how rough this path has been. I wanted to tell you myself. Your son has made A/B honor roll!”

This time I cried. His words, Mom, you just don’t know how hard it is to make an A. I’ll never do it. It’s impossible, ran through my head over and over again. It was impossible, until Read Write stepped into the gap the public school curriculum had created.

Sending him to tutoring since that January has cost Josh and I every dime we had, plus more than a few shiny pennies from both our parents. We had an inkling of just how very hard those A‘s were. We’d carried the weight of all those D’s and F’s for him.

“Landon!! You made A/B Honor Roll!”

He looked up at me and smiled and said words I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “What’s A/B Honor Roll?”

“It means you made all A’s and B’s, you made all A’s and B’s on your reading tests buddy!”

“Yeah. I know I did. But why does that matter?” He asked compeltely confused.

Why does that matter??? I thought. It’s everyth... but it’s not, being able to read is the “everything.” I smiled and nonchalantly shrugged my shoulders and tried to play it cool again, “It just means the school is going to give you a piece of paper, kiddo, for all the hard work you’ve done in learning to read.”

“Oh, cool.” He shrugged.

The part of me that culture has ingrained to believe that grades mean everything felt a bit deflated. The part of me that was learning to redefine success was excited.

Suddenly we were driving down the road and began to hear Landon reading, “AutoooooZZZZZZone,” he giggled. “Does that mean they sell things for cars Mom?”

“Yep! Sure does!” I glanced at Josh and our eyes did that proud parent smile thing.

“Wallllllgreeeeens. Hey that’s the name of the place we always get candy and popcorn for movie nights!” He giggled.

“Sure is kiddo.” Josh reached over and squeezed my hand. “Gov ern ment S. T. St?... Street?”

“You got it!”

“That means we’re close to home!" he laughed. “This is fun! I know what everything says now!” Josh and I reached for tissues together.

During the awards ceremony, his teacher called the children's names to the stage one by one. "Landon Smmmmith" his teacher choked on the word. "For A/B Hon...Honor...Roll." His teacher cried. His first grade teacher stood next to his kindergarden teacher, they clapped and jumped up and down crying. It took three years to reach this goal. It took too many pennies to count. Way too many tears. And a Herculean effort from my little guy who already has to work 5 times as hard as everyone else.

The first thing he did with his award was turn it over so he could read it. He was more excited with his ability to read than his grades, as he should be! Then he crumpled it up along with all the other pages he didn't really care that much about it.

His struggles were not over not even by a long shot. Bigger ones laid on the horizon ahead. However, on that day we basked in the knowledge that dyslexia, when we are taught the way we learn,


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