“The Queen was…” my 5-year-old daughter paused in her reading to peer at the unfamiliar word with narrowed eyes, “…jealous of Snow White,” she finished. She is, and always has been, a fast and fantastic reader who more or less picked letters and words out of her environment from the moment she could talk. In my first-time parent state of utter naïve ignorance, I thought, hey, this is easy!
Except, it is only ever easy until it isn’t.
We have always known that our older son is a little different. He is quiet and more aloof than his peers, preferring to stand apart and observe and often choosing the company of adults rather than the antics of other children. He is social and makes friends easily enough, but has always been more of a contemplator than a participant. He has odd interests, too, always wanting to be near machinery, unable to keep his hands off it or stop thinking about it until he has worked it out and had a go. When he was 4, he led a small expedition (of other 4-year-olds) to a waterfall in the forest because he wanted to see which species of crab lived there, and when he was 6 he secretly saved his lunch money until he had enough to buy a cast net, which he then spent long, silent, focused hours learning to use.
Since his sister had had no difficulty in learning to read and since he was clearly a bright, attentive, thoughtful child, I didn’t really bother teaching him the alphabet at an early age. He would, I was sure, just pick it up as well.
Except that he didn’t.
In the beginning, I thought what every other parent in this situation must want to think, namely, we have gone over this again and again and he still doesn’t see that c-a-t is cat…how is this possible?
When I asked him questions like that (can’t you see that this is a ‘c’?), he would just look at me and I could see this little kernel of deep fear forming in his eyes, as if he knew something terrible that I didn’t, that our mutual conception of the world was riddled with gaps. For he could not see whatever it was that I was seeing. It was as if we were looking to cross a bridge, only mine was a short and secure span over a burbling brook, while his was a rickety rope strung over a gorge filled with seething demons. C-a-t is cat, right? No, not when it isn’t.
My son has dyslexia. When he started learning them, letters would just not stick; b’s were not only d’s, they were also p’s and q’s, while t, f and x tumbled and danced into one another, as did u, v, y, w, m, and n. And once we had managed to learn most of the letters, there came the words, which were worse because English, out of the many languages he is expected to be both fluent and literate in – Bahasa, English, and the local tribal language – is just so daft with its spelling. Hearing him sounding out a-n-d even after two years of reading practice was painful.
It took effort. Lots of patient, always patient, effort. Every day, the two of us took to our reading sofa for some private time, time when we could go over the words again and again, ever so slowly making our way up to the next reading stage, always a big day that, developing our stamina, learning when to take a break and when to push through because we were going to do this.