Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dyslexia Doesn't Mean You Are Dumb

Connor has dyslexia. 

He's asked me to write about it for the past year. I have tried. Nothing sounded right. Every word that I typed felt forced and either super perky or full of dismay (depending on my mood or the horrors of that day's homework drills). He is the one who suggested that I just start with the basics. Smart kid. 

So, again, Connor has dyslexia.

Dyslexia (and the other language processing disorders like it) isn't terminal (we get that there are kids dealing with all kinds of scary stuff out there, today in our family this is our scary stuff). Dyslexia is chronic. You can't make it go away. It is a beast that Connor and between 10-20% of all people wrestle with daily and always will. I describe dyslexia as a misfire between what the eye sees and the brain processes regarding language. He interprets the letters on the page differently than I do. In order to read and comprehend the written word, Connor has learned skills to decode and rebuild each word so that his brain will recognize its sound and meaning. 

Yeah, I'm exhausted just describing it. Imagine how busy his brain is to process everything that takes place during a typical day at school and keep pace with his peers.

Connor and his Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Lisa Kurlenda
Connor has been working incredibly hard for several years (we discovered this in Kindergarten thanks to his amazing teacher) to catch up to his peers and gain confidence with his reading and comprehension skills. This has involved tutoring and extra lessons to practice decoding skills, in addition to a review of each day's lessons at home in order to gain confidence with the content. He is still nervous about reading out loud in class but his confidence has skyrocketed this year and he is working hard to overcome what he calls "chicken legs."

We are quick to applaud him for his innate creativity, something that continues to astound us. Connor is a three dimensional thinker and doesn't hesitate to create something purposeful from duct tape and fishing line combined with whatever he finds around the house (sometimes to my dismay!). Over the years since his diagnosis we've learned that these traits are often found in people with dyslexia. He loves to learn about people with dyslexia who've done amazing things, like Albert Einstein and Steven Spielberg. 

In spite of dyslexia, Connor is a storyteller. I love the way he infuses facts with humor and goofy side comments. He is most successful when he can share his thoughts verbally. But, teachers can't grade everything on verbal testimony. In his 5th grade reality he needs to master the written word. So he musters through, often reciting the first draft of his reports (while flipping cartwheels and practicing hip hop dance moves) while I type his every word. This process allows his real voice to shine through in his writing, something that is quickly stifled when he gets overwhelmed with the tedium of decoding words in order to commit them to paper. 

Connor and his 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Tanya Kooistra

This weekend we were traveling to visit family for Thanksgiving. On our two-hour-drive Connor was pounding away on his Google Chrome Book in the backseat. When Rick and I asked him what was going on, he shared that he had a great idea for a story that he just had to get out. Holy hotcakes! No words can effectively express our giddiness and pride. Get it out, Connor, get it out!

He typed and typed and read us segments over and over on that trip. His story was funny. It was interesting. It was scary. It involved dialogue. It was a masterpiece when he read it out loud. It also was a hot mess of misspelled words and dangling sentences when he proudly unveiled the written document to his grandma that night...crap, we hadn't looked over the writing before he showed it off! 

Like I said, dyslexia is a chronic condition. And our lives are not a Lifetime movie with a miracle ending. Just because he's excited about the content doesn't mean that he will magically have the ability to transfer ideas from his brain to paper or the computer screen without needing some extra work to polish it up. Like most parents, we are just thrilled to see him showing so much enthusiasm for something that we know is challenging. 

To learn more, click on these fast facts about dyslexia from the Dyslexia Center of Utah. 

And, here are some fast facts from Connor about dyslexia:
  • Dyslexia doesn't mean you are dumb.
  • You can't catch dyslexia from another person.
  • You can still read, it just takes longer and you have to work a little to understand everything.
  • Never tease someone who is struggling to read out loud. That is just mean.
  • Sometimes having dyslexia makes you feel alone. Nobody wants to tell their friends about it.
Thanks, kiddo, for encouraging me to share some of your story. Because of you, other people with dyslexia will know that they are not alone. 

Connor and his 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Melissa Swider
PS -- Giant thanks to the amazing professionals who've walked this road with Connor, Rick, and I over the years. We don't know where we'd be with the fantastic tutors and team at SLD Read. Every day I say a special prayer of thanks for the teachers who've lit the way for him and believed in Connor. What a terrific team at his school, especially Mrs. Melissa Swider, who has always found the perfect way to help leap a previously insurmountable barrier. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cigars and Phone Calls

The other day I was trying to explain to Connor why the smell of cigars always makes me smile. He couldn't understand it. He's been a rapt student of the "Smoking is Dangerous" school of thought (I'm not complaining about that, to be clear...) and thinks that cigars smell a bit like poop. For me, the stuffy and somewhat acrid smell of a cigar, with its lingering aroma that is equal parts pungent and earthy, is a clear reminder of my Dad. Not that my Dad could be described in that way...of course!

John Joseph Fitzgerald Sr. loved his stogies. They were as much a part of his description as his black curly hair or his teasing sense of humor. One of my nieces recently commented that when she thinks of Grandpa Fitz she pictures him with a cigar in hand, that was just who he was.

Dad (far left) holding his ever present cigar in 1956 with his three siblings and father. L-R back John, Donald, Edward; front Michael and Mary Fitzgerald Reed

The cigar smoking man was the Brother, Dad and Grandpa we knew at home. That was his relaxed and carefree self. Sure, he and I had several snotty rows about the stinky habit in my outspoken teens when I hated smelling like his ashtray at school. But, today I can better appreciate his need for some sort of respite and relaxation, even though it left a bitter after taste for his darling children!

As intimately as I connect the memory of my Father with his cigars, those who worked with him over the years rarely glimpsed that man. Even in the era when people smoked in their offices, my Dad never did. He never lit up in restaurants or bars. Somehow that would ruin the nuance of his stealth mode of relaxation -- and trust me, as a man raising nine independent-minded children, he needed every ounce of carefully crafted moments of relaxation!

Dad's favorite place to relax and escape reality, his little green cottage in Mecosta County!

Now, the man that my Father's coworkers and staff saw each day was a bit of a rainmaker when it came to pulling people in to support his mission. I remember his long-time secretary commenting at my Dad's retirement that every day he would arrive at work early and pick up the phone...calling any number of people and leaving messages about what he needed. Then it began, the litany of return calls pouring in for hours after. Dad wielded his sense of humor and supportive nature like a fishing net, casting wide with a skill honed over many years and reeling in with just the right mixture of patience and urgency. People responded when he called.

Every time I get a waft of cigar smoke (a rarity to be sure these days) or reach out into the world of my connections and make an appeal for anything...a charity, a work project, a networking opportunity, anything...I think of him and I smile. Dad, you are missed. Unlike the slowly dissipating scent of your beloved cigars, the lessons you taught are firmly rooted and live on today in your children and grandchildren.

While I have no desire to smoke a stogie in your honor (trust me, my older brothers and husband handle that task with pleasure often enough!), I promise to network with your passion and good nature. Just the way you modeled for me. This I will pass on to my son and assure that he knows who my mentor was.

PS -- In honor of the upcoming annual celebration of your Irish heritage, Slainte, Dad! I can picture you now with a pint and a cigar and smile on your face. But, not a stitch of green apparel to be seen. As you often said, "I've got Irish blood, who cares what color clothes I wear?" Perfect Irish logic, if I've ever heard it!