Jennifer Widemire Smith
The Journey of Learning Part Two: Way of the Warrior Kid
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Third Grade. The dreaded grade of nearly every parent of dyslexic kids. The grade where learning to read ceases and reading to learn begins.
I informed Landon's new teacher Ms G that this year we were going to work on owning the words, "I am dyslexic." We would be working on conquering test anxiety. And we would be learning self advocacy skills. I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to accomplish all this but I knew that was the path I needed to walk my kids down. For once you can identify an obstacle you can conquer it.
A few days later I was volunteering in school. Ms G said, "I want to show you something...She handed me a piece of paper. "I asked Landon if he was sure. He said, 'I know everyone will see it, I know it won't be a secret anymore, and I know I want to share it.'"
The paper read:
Three things I want you to know about me are:
"im write handid.
That middle one...Words choked in my throat. Last year he'd been so ashamed of this. So much so he didn't want me to tell anyone. Way to go kid. Third grade was starting off with a bang.
Nothing about third grade was easy. Not the homework. Not the tests. Definitely not the reading. I knew it wouldn't be. The curriculum isn't designed to test or teach a kid like him and it can lead to test anxiety which begets more anxiety. Third grade might actually be the hardest grade in all of academia.
I told his teacher, "Our mission this year is to teach him how to fight for himself self advocate. To teach him not to be ashamed when he needs help and to ask for it. To show him just how capable he really is. It may take us all year. It might take us longer." And sure enough third grade put this goal through a gauntlet.
I'd write him notes of encouragement on test days in his lunchbox. His wonderful teacher Ms Guy would pep talk him. Together we found all kinds of ways to help him with each obstacle he faced—and he faced many.
Meanwhile my daughter, Lyla, was struggling with a different goal—honor roll.
"Ok, Lyla." I said, "You know I don't care about grades right? Grades do not define our success?"
"I know. But I think I can do it, and I want that piece of paper Mom!" Lyla said.
"Alright, let's do it." I nervously agreed.
Ever since Lyla had started dyslexic specific tutoring in first grade, she'd been at the same reading grade—79. She only needed to move the needle by one point. One measly point!
The first quarter ended. Landon failed to meet his AR Goals. Failed to meet Honor roll. He was just barely above surviving. Lyla handed me a sealed envelope, "Mom I think I did it this time! I have a good feeling! I've worked soooo hard!" I wanted her to be right so much. Grades really weren't my goals but my kids had other ideas and there was no talking them out of it. I opened the envelope. My heart sank. "79."
She looked at the ground, swung her leg and stayed stoic. "Maybe next time."
I began to brainstorm. Homework, honor roll, and accelerated reading were drowning us. Every night was a battleground for getting homework done. And I was missing my kids. Missing our family time.
During my research for my novel, A Time To Serve, I'd come across a great deal of information on dealing with big obstacles and facing fears. But there was one corner of the SEAL community I had not tapped into yet...Jocko Willink's
My kids were a little young. The book was for 5th graders and up. But I didn't care. I need to teach them how to fail, how to keep on trying, and how to have a good attitude while doing it. And that's one area the SEALs are really good at.
Never ring the bell. No matter how much you want to. How hard it gets. Never quit.
I downloaded the audible version Way of the Warrior Kid, From Whimpy to Warrior the Navy SEAL Way. I waited in line at carpool.
The kids loaded up. I could see it on their faces. It had been a rough day. I pressed play. Landon went first, "A book!?! NO! I just want to be quiet. I DON'T WANT TO READ A BOOK WITH MY EARS!"
Lyla's voice was milder, "Can we just listen to music instead, please?"
"Ya'll can do whatever you like in the back seat, I'm going to listen to the book. I'm the mom. I'm the driver. I get to choose. If you don't want to listen you can day dream."
I dare you to daydream with this one kids...
Marc took the stage, "The last day of fifth grade was awful!"
Landon perked up, he had at least one thing in common with the main character already.
"I couldn't do a pull-up, I got made fun of. I can't swim. And I can't memorize my times tables!" Marc continued.
Boy Landon could relate. Times tables were wiping the floor with him too. I looked in my rear view mirror. Landon was hooked. Lyla was staring out the window. We made our way home through the heavy traffic. Several chapters in I pulled into our driveway. I shut the car off and Lyla immediately yelled, "NO! Can we stay in the car and listen longer?"
We stayed in the car.
"Mom what does Uncle Jake look like? Is he a real SEAL? Or is this book pretend?"
"He's was a real SEAL." I pulled up a picture of Jocko Willink.
"MOM HE'S HUGE!" Landon exclaimed.
I chuckled. "Yep. He is."
We continued listening to the book in the mornings and afternoons. The kids always sad to hit pause.
Marc started learning his times tables and so did Landon. Marc was learning to swim and conquering fears and so were we. I had been issued a fear challenge by Ret Navy SEAL Thom Shea, one that involved swimming in murky water (read the story here). Don't you just love it when real life lines up with fiction? The kids had to face giving presentations and public speaking.
The book came to an end with Marc learning how to stand up to bullies and then turn bullies into friends. I wasn't aware of it until the end of the year but Lyla had taken every single one of Uncle Jake's words to heart. Her teacher told me the story on her last day of class, "I didn't have to step into many arguments this year because I had your daughter in my class." I gave her a quizzical look. "Lyla was always so in-tune with all the kids. If a kid was being picked on for anything, your daughter would intervene, she'd tell the kid doing the picking to walk away, then she'd hug the kid who was upset and they'd work out whatever it was together. No one picked on a kid if Lyla was around. She just wouldn't have any of it, and she made everyone want to be her friend."
Well dang girl!
As we wrapped up Book One, Ms G called, "I keep hearing about this warrior kid book. I looked it up. It's an AR Book. Landon could take the test on it. It would really help him work towards his AR Goal. He's way behind. But he says, this book isn't for school. It's just for fun."
I asked him if he wanted to try to take the test. He shook his head no vigorously. "It's fifth grade Mom. It's hard."
"Harder than Marc learning to do 100 pull ups?"
"Do you think Uncle Jake would say it was ok to not try?"
He thought about that one. "There are big words in the book that will surely be on the test Mom."
"Yeah, but there's a vocabulary sheet we can study. Come on what's the worst that happens? You make a bad grade? So what? It's not like you got a mom and dad who punish you for such things."
"Ok. But you're coming into school with me when I take it. And if I bomb I'm not doing this again!"
"Mom?" Lyla asked, "Can I take the test too?"
"Sure if you want to."
We listened to the book again. We studied words like Jiujitsu. Then it was Test Day. I'd called ahead and made sure to schedule an observation day with the teachers so that I could watch, as is my right as a parent.
The test was a real struggle for Landon. When he answered the last question he closed his eyes as the page takes a moment to load the results. "I don't think I did very well on this one Mom."
"No faith?" He kept his eyes closed until I gasped. Then he peaked through his fingers.
"I made a 90! OOOOH! MOM! I MADE AN A!!!" He jumped up and put his arms around my neck. "Mom I did it!"
His teacher checked her computer. "Hey Landon? You just reached your AR reading Goal. And you're the first student to do so for the quarter! YOU WON THE RACE TO THE FINISH LINE!"
"What?!?!" He looked over at his friend, who was reading Harry Potter Book 6. "I beat everyone?" He was shocked. His friend looked up shocked too. Landon is almost always the last one to finish. I left him smiling like a cheshire cat.
Then I went to his sister's room. She was already on her computer ready to go. She made a 100. "Ooh your brother is gonna be upset you beat him!" I laughed. She smirked, "I won't be." Yes, I have a competitive daughter.
Later that afternoon the kids climbed into the car, "BOOK! BOOK! BOOK! You got it right? Book TWO?"
I pressed play, "Of course I did!" I sat back in my seat and realized I was at MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. They'd never been this excited to read anything before. They'd been excited to be able to read but they'd never quite found that moment of pure joy at entering into the world of imagination. Reading was so hard for them it had always been a chore. And that had always been the higher goal. The goal above all grades, all tests, above everything they had to accomplish at school my one mission was simple and not easy: Help my kids fall in love with reading.
In Book One Uncle Jake had taught "Discipline Equals Freedom." In Book Two Uncle Jake was teaching, "Win or Learn."
Don't you just love that? Not Win or Lose. Win or LEARN! Failure is the best teacher. It's hard to get through failure's class but when you do, nothing can ever stop you. Book two was on learning not to procrastinate, on learning to take care of our gear so that our gear takes care of us.
Landon continued to take AR tests and with the help of Book Two by the end of the quarter he'd made 200% of his AR Goals. Lyla likewise. But when the quarter rounded into Honor Roll Award Season she came to me again with a sealed envelope. I didn't want to open it. "It's ok if I didn't make it I'm learning, right Mom?" Oh gosh I so didn't want to do this...
"Right!" I opened it and my eyes filled with tears and I had to take a moment to collect myself.
"You did it! You made Honor Roll!"
After the ceremony I caught her staring at the reading trophy her friend had won, "Next quarter Mom? I want the trophy."
I gulped. "Ok." I had no idea how to help her pull that off. But I was going to let her try and if she failed, she'd learn for next time. Warriors are warriors because they keep moving the goal post back further.
But man did she give it her best shot and then shrugged her shoulders and said, "Next year!"
Thom Shea had challenged Josh and I to do 21 day challenges with his Unbreakable Group. We turned it into a family thing. The kids had to make their bed, spend 30 minutes listening to a book each day, and do physical exercises every day for 21 days straight. Landon did push-ups, sit-ups and squats, Lyla worked on ballet and decided to use her dad's perfect push-ups (created by SEALs) to help her hold her arms above her head longer. And she did 200 calf raises each day, she was 7 mind you. I caught her doing one armed push ups too. She's kinda serious about ballet. They both reached their goals again.
I wanted to reward them. So I took the Warrior Kid book out and I said, "Let's write the code on the wall." The kids beamed up at me. "You're giving us permission to draw on the walls?"
"I am. With Sharpies." I replied. They went to town! "We are so very proud of you both!" Josh and I handed them their own Warrior Kid Badges to be sewn on their backpacks. "And we think Uncle Jake would be too. Well done my Loves!"
The school year drew to a close, we said goodbyes to amazing teachers especially Ms Guy who'd seen Landon through the hardest grade by far. Over the summer, Uncle Jake wrote another book which I bought and tucked away ready for Day 1 Fourth and Third (again).
My alarm went off, I opened my eyes and Lyla was standing over me, fully dressed and holding her new hair bow I'd made her for school (it wasn't creepy at all, I say with an epic eye roll).
"I need help with my hair Mom!"
"You're up early. And dressed. Holy cow child, how long have you been awake?" I asked.
She gave me a very snarky look and said, "Rule Number One of the Warrior Kid Code Mom: The Warrior Kid wakes up early." I'll confess I'm still trying to learn this one myself!
In the car I pulled out Book Three. It wasn't available on audible this time so Daddy drove, Mommy read. Marc was learning about jealousy and how to push himself with running.
Week three of fourth grade rolled around and I got a call from the school. Landon had a tummy ache. I knew it was just another panic attack we dealt with them in second and third grade, but the nurse wanted me to take him home so I did.
In the car Landon and I talked, "This is what happens when you get nervous. First you get cold and start to shake, then your body makes a hormone called cortisol to help you run away or stay and fight and when you don't do anything with that hormone it dumps into your stomach. But your tummy hates it and wants to throw it up. Especially if you eat anything while it's happening. If you're going to learn to conquer it, we need to find a way to teach your mind that tests are not that big a deal by doing harder things than the tests.
The easiest way to do that is by pushing our bodies hard. Just like Mr. Shea has been teaching Mommy and Daddy to do. Remember when we went on the 24 hour walk challenge? THAT was SUPER hard and you know what? Nothing that I've had to do since that walk has even come close to that level of hard. Even though some things I've done have made me nervous."
Landon looked out the window. "How is that going to help? Are you saying I have to go do a walk like that?"
"When you're older, yes, but for now you need to learn to conquer the voice inside you that says you can't do something or something is too hard, or not today. You need to train your mind that hard things are possible and with that knowledge you can change your definition of what is hard or scary."
"That sounds good and all but can we just wait until I settle into fourth grade more? That way I don't have to worry so much about everything being so…"
"THAT'S THE VOICE!" I shouted.
He practically jumped out of his skin at the interruption.
"That's the voice you have to conquer. The one that tells you everything has to be perfect before you act. We have to start today because it wants you to start later. You have to learn to tell it what to do and not let your feelings rule your choices."
He was quiet and thoughtful. "Could we maybe run? Could you push me the way Uncle Jake pushes Marc in Book Three? Would that work?"
"Can we start today?"
"Go change your clothes and I'll meet you outside."
I took him for his first run around the block. We stopped for water after we completed a lap (it was 93 degrees outside). He said, "that was good mom but I want to stop now."
"You may take a small break and drink some water" he did. "Now we're going again."
He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "You asked me to push you like Uncle Jake pushes Marc, did you not?" He nodded. "We're going to run again because you are not nearly out of breath enough and because that voice of yours told you to stop. Didn't it?" He nodded again looking at me like I had super powers.
"Bust em" I used Uncle Jake's word for go.
Landon took off. This time when we came back to the house he collapsed on the ground. He'd pushed hard and I made him stand back up and raise his hands above his head. I also taught him the box breathing technique (another little thing I'd picked up along the way for A Time to Serve).
He walked inside and went straight to the shower. My husband Josh was working from home. When we walked in he just grinned, "Only you would pick our kid up from school for a tummy ache and take him for a run in 93 degree heat." I shrugged and smiled "Nah, Uncle Jake would have too." We were both so damn proud of him neither of us could stop smiling, neither could Landon.
Josh did the math, "He ran 8/10's of a mile for his first run. Not bad."
We picked his sister up from school. She listened to his adventure that day, "I want to run too!"
The next day we went for a run as a family, only this time we increased it to 1.2 miles.
The following day the kids got cocky. "I want to run 2 miles!" they both said. Josh and I looked at each other oh this is gonna be rough. But we knew they needed the lesson.
We could not talk them out of it. "OK." we started out for our run, At 1.5 miles both kids were reaching a stopping point. "You said you wanted to run 2. You set the goal. You're going to honor your word to yourselves. Dig deep and lets get this thing done." We split the run with walks and picked short distances. "When we get to that car we're going to run to that fire hydrant." etc. When we were done they both tried to collapse on the porch."Nope stand up, hands up above your head." When they could talk again they said, "We did it! But maybe tomorrow let's just stick with 1 mile for awhile and get really good at that."
Josh and I chuckled. "That sounds like a good plan!"
The next day I got another call. Landon was back in the nurses station ready to throw up again.
"Mom! I thought you said running was going to help this!?"
"It will kiddo but it's going to take some time. It's going to take getting to the point you don't want to do it anymore and learning to do it anyways."
I put some essential oils on him and he grimaced. "I hate the way this smells."
"Yeah I know." I watched it mingle with the anxiety the way essential oils do (I used vetiver and lavender) suddenly he smiled and I knew they were working. "Lets take a walk."
We found his classroom empty. Everyone was at PE so we sat on the carpet. "What happened today?"
"I had to take a test I didn't know anything about. I thought I was going to make a zero. Then I felt like I couldn't breathe and then I wanted to throw up."
I listened and thought about how to proceed, "I trust Uncle Jake. I trust Mr Shea. They've both taught me a lot about conquering the voices inside my head that make me believe something is scary and so I know, the only way to get through this kind of thing is to change your mindset. Also, we need to give all that cortisol in your tummy somewhere to go. Stand up. Give me 10 burpees."
"BURPEES!?" He shouted."Here!?"
"Burpees. Right here. Right now." Reluctantly he started, "Back straight. You're not an earth worm." he giggled and got to ten after doing about 15 incorrect. Now that you're finally doing them right, "Do another five."
"Ugh!" he got to five and was just starting to sound winded.
"Mom this is starting to hurt my arms."
"GOOD! Do one more." he jumped up. I smiled, "Do another." His jumps were getting smaller. This time I made him hold the plank. His muscles starting shaking, "Was the test harder to do than holding this plank?" I wasn't making light of how much he was struggling just making him learn to make comparisons of something that is physically hard against something that is mentally hard.
"Yes." His answer wasn't quite what I'd expected. I was going to have to hit the anxiety a bit harder.
"Jump up do another." I said.
He did. This time thinking about the test made his tummy start to hurt again so I let him sit down for a break. "Mom can we please just go home and do this there? My friends will be back soon."
"I'm afraid not kid." He closed his eyes. Time to strip the anxiety of its power, "What did you think was going to happen today when you were scared during your test?"
"I thought I was going to make a zero." He said panting.
"What did you think would happen if you made a zero?"
He shrugged, "I don't know. Something bad." he grimaced and grabbed his tummy.
"Has anything bad ever happened the whole time you've been at school even when you were making bad grades?"
He thought about that for a minute. "When I was in first grade I made really bad grades. And I really hated it."
"You did make really bad grades, like 12 and 32! That's just as bad as zero. Were you punished for it?"
"Did your teachers yell at you?"
"Did we take you to Read Write and did they help you so that you could stop making such bad grades?"
"Did a zombie come through the window and eat you because of a bad grade?"
"NO!" he giggled.
"The worst thing that happens if you make a zero is your teacher calls me and says, 'something went wrong teaching Landon this new thing. I'm sending home some extra study guides I need your help.' Then we all work on it together at home and school. You re-take the test and you move on. Easy Peasy."
"Are you sure that's all that will happen?"
"I still want to go home."
"Going home for this is the same thing as quitting. Are you asking me to let you quit?"
Landon recoiled. Quit is a really bad four letter word at our house now.
"I don't want to quit but I really don't want to stay Mom. I'm not ready for that test and if I stay I'm going to have to take it."
"Is there any chance that a small voice inside your head is speaking something different right now…" I lowered the sound of my voice, "one that's maybe whispering to you?"
"How do you know it's whispering?" His eyes sparkled. It was like I was letting him in on a secret.
"What's it telling you to do?" I asked softly.
He looked down, "I'm scared to tell you." I waited silently. Silence is an underrated strategy. He rolled his eyes and admitted, "It's telling me I need to stay and work through this. And that if I do it will all be ok."
"That's the voice you need to listen too. Each time you do, that voice is going to get stronger and that's the voice that can tell the other voice that keeps shouting for you to quit, to SHUT UP! But you got to listen to it even when what it says to do is kind of scary or hard. What's Rule Number Two of the Warrior Kid Code?"
He wasn't quite expecting that one. "Hmm. I don't remember." I pulled up the poster designed by "THE" Echo Charles.
Landon read it:
"The Warrior Kid studies to learn and gain knowledge and asks questions if he doesn’t understand."
I could tell the inner workings of his brain were spinning.
His teacher walked in and smiled at us, "What's the verdict?"
He whispered to me, "I am the Warrior Kid."
"I'm staying!" He said to his teacher, "But Mrs N. I need your help." The two of them talked about the test and hatched a plan. I left him at school standing a whole lot straighter than when I'd found him.
After pickup, we came home, made our Warrior Kid Molk protein shakes, waited for the sun to go down just a bit then we all went for a run because Rule Number Three: The Warrior Kid trains hard, exercises and eats right to be strong and fast and healthy.