This boy will soon celebrate 13 years of being alive. And we will celebrate because when he was a toddler and a preschooler, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep him alive for 13 years.
He was such a curious boy, always climbing and investigating and touching and tasting and experimenting. And I was a little distracted some of the time, what with carrying and birthing and nurturing and keeping alive his little brothers – 3 of them before he was 4 1/2. For a few years, that Curiosity killed the cat saying played on repeat in my brain, a taunting refrain. Especially when Caleb got really quiet. Because with kids, quiet equals trouble.
As a toddler, he figured out how to climb out of cribs and unfasten himself from car seats or high chairs. He could open that child-proof door handle thingy faster than I could! As a preschooler, he enjoyed sneaking into the kitchen and mixing together different foods to see what happened. Cracking eggs seemed to be his favorite. Experimenting with tubes of food coloring ran a close second. He devised elaborate string or yarn booby traps all over the house. And he became obsessed with creating a Duplo block boat that would float, so he was often overflowing the bathroom sink during his trial and error sessions. I suspect Caleb sneaked out of his bed and watched segments of Will It Float on David Letterman because he was often tossing items into the sink or bathtub or toilet to check their floatability — paperback novels, toy cars, toothbrushes, hairbrushes.
Clearly this genius child had the mind of an engineer or scientist! At least, that’s how I consoled myself when his shenanigans threatened his life and my sanity — when he drank some medicine or stuck his finger in an outlet or climbed onto the top of the fridge or climbed onto the top of his crib and free-fell off (again and again and again).
When it came time to learn his ABCs, Caleb the genius wasn’t all that interested. His big sisters and I sang the ABC song to him. We did alphabet puzzles and games and coloring sheets. We watched videos. I pointed out letters and sounds in signs and books. Caleb could not have cared less about learning his letters. Nobody in the history of the world has cared about anything less than Caleb cared about the alphabet. He had some powdered drink mix to snort and a bookshelf to scale. Letters schmetters. Whatev.
Perhaps he will be motivated to learn at least the letters in his name. Every kid loves his own name. I was a teacher. I would teach this kid to write his name. In big block letters, I wrote C A L E B then I wrote it again over and over in dotted-line letters for him to trace. He half-heartedly traced a letter or two before covering the page in elaborate drawings. He would draw detailed pictures of a house with an underground tunnel connecting it to a neighboring house or of fire-breathing dragons chasing a blue-jean-wearing boy. When he would bring the pictures to show me, he would tell me these incredible stories depicted by his illustrations. But absolutely none of his pictures had an artist’s signature in the bottom corner because this boy had zero interest in learning to write his own name. No matter how many times I wrote his name in dotted-lined letters.
Then one day months later, he ran into the room where I was drying my hair. He tossed a Sunday School paper in front of me. In every bit of white space on that paper was scrawled C A L E B. “Who wrote this?” I shut off the hair dryer. “I did, Momma!” He beamed. “How did you know? Who helped you?” “Uhhh, you did. Lots of weeks ago. You showed me.” Duh. Of course I had. But he hadn’t practiced. He barely seemed to pay attention. But there it was in front of me — C A L E B. C A L E B. C A L E B. All over the page. Every letter perfectly formed in little boy manuscript.
He learned his ABCs the same way. All that time of not caring, then one day – BAM! he knew them all. Counting to 20, days of the week, months of the year, short vowels, long vowels — Caleb learned all of it in the same maddening way. Weeks and months of disinterest and none of it sinking in, then BOOM! perfect mastery.
I homeschooled him in kindergarten and the first half of first grade. Because I knew his style, I didn’t push him to master reading and gain fluency. I figured I’d just consistently and repetitively teach him and read with him, then when it clicked he could move straight from those teensy Bob Books to Robinson Crusoe or something. And that plan may have worked if we hadn’t enrolled him in a small Christian school.
Four days into the second semester of first grade, Caleb’s first four days of traditional school in a classroom setting, a teacher told me Caleb was super sweet and a joy to teach, “but he’s really so far behind the other children in reading. We may want to move him back to kindergarten.” From that moment on, the phrases “you’re behind the others . . . you need to catch up” became the refrain of Caleb’s school day. His self-confidence balloon burst. Deflated and defeated, he began to say, “I can’t read. . . . I’m behind everyone else. . . . I’m just not made for school.” My momma heart ached. And the momma bear in me rose up. My husband and I went to the school to tutor him during reading class, and I practiced sight word lists and phonics with him at home. I countered every “I’m behind everyone else” and “I can’t read.” with “You are becoming a good reader.” Over and over and over, I repeated this truth to him, “You are becoming a good reader.” And I prayed for peace as we waited and worked during the Becoming.
By the end of second grade, all of Caleb’s self-confidence was gone, replaced by a vicious anxiety. He cried easily, picked at his skin until it bled, hoarded food, had trouble sleeping and regularly complained that everyone was mean to him and nobody liked him. He often declared he would quit school and travel the world. Using an array of tests and assessments and some hours of observation, an educational psychologist evaluated Caleb and presented us with a 12-page booklet of results and recommendations. As it turned out, I had been right — my little boy was practically a genius, but the chasm between his IQ and his academic achievement in language skills was vast.
Between my ears and my brain something magical happens to break down a word into individual sounds. This helps me spell words, and it helps me read new words. Sound it out. That’s what teachers had told me when I was little, and it’s what Caleb’s teachers and I had been encouraging him to do. Except that magical thing wasn’t happening between Caleb’s ears and his brain. He could break words into syllables, but that’s it. He wasn’t hearing individual sounds within a word. Sound it out meant nothing to him. Nothing except frustration and piled on anxiety. So we had to change the way we were teaching Caleb to read. The Sound it out way would not work.
The school was not willing to accommodate a different learning style. I highlighted a few ideas in the educational psychologist’s booklet of recommendations that could be implemented at school and asked during one of our many conferences if they would consider making those few adjustments. None were implemented. Their solution was that Caleb should repeat second grade, even though he was mastering the math and social studies and science. But teaching him the same material a second time using the same technique that didn’t work with his brain did not seem like a logical solution to me. That would be like repeating the English sentence slowly and more loudly to a person who doesn’t understand a word of English. What’s that Albert Einstein quote? — “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So we made plans to homeschool Caleb for third grade. I researched various learning styles. I read about learning differences and disabilities. I bought a book written by a man who had overcome his dyslexia to become a professor and author. After reading it cover to cover, I showed Caleb — “Look! Some day, you will be able not only to READ a book like this, you will be able to WRITE a book like this if you want! If this man could do it, so can you!” My teacher-friends shared creative teaching ideas with me. Friends and family members who parent children with learning differences brainstormed ideas with me and pointed me to excellent resources. After reading about and researching strengths-based education, I evaluated Caleb’s strengths and learning styles and developed a plan to teach specifically to his strengths.
I got this vision in my head. I believe God placed it there. I saw Caleb standing in a cap and gown, graduating from college, telling everyone, “All my teachers told me I was behind and couldn’t read. I was ready to quit. But my mom believed in me. She told me I was becoming a good reader. She gave me time to become a good reader in my own way. She believed in me when nobody at school did.” That vision motivated me to become Caleb’s biggest cheerleader. That vision fueled hope within me. We would overcome this little speed bump.
That next school year, Caleb and I worked hard. He did jumping jacks while spelling words and reciting phoneme sounds. We tossed a ball back and forth while breaking words into syllables and sounds. He formed words out of clay, then built pictures of the words with the clay. He formed letters and words with beans or beads. He spelled words out with letter tiles. He hopped across the room while drilling sight word flashcards. Out on the basketball court, we wrote words in sidewalk chalk. He began to read articles and books about things that really interested him — hammerhead sharks, creepy bugs, magic tricks. He discovered the genius that is spell-check and proclaimed it to be his life-long friend! We learned some basic spelling rules, like “every syllable must have a vowel,” then checked every written word against that rule until it became second-nature. Over and over, I told Caleb, “You are becoming a good reader now.”
And he was becoming a good reader. Each week, we saw more evidence of the Becoming. As his strengths were acknowledged and his reading skills blossomed, his anxiety began to shrink. We replaced lying thoughts, “I can’t read. . . . I’m not a good student. . . . Everyone is mean to me. . . . I am not as good as other people.” with truthful thoughts, “I can read. . . . I can do hard things. . . Everyone has challenges. . . . Sometimes people are mean, but sometimes they are kind. . . .”
Education isn’t a competition. There is time for everyone to learn his own way. That year of homeschooling removed Caleb from the perception of a learning race, where children can be behind other children.
That same year, Caleb and I discovered parkour. Have you seen this? YouTube it. In parkour, people run up ramps and jump over railings and leap from building to building. They run up the sides of buildings and then do backflips. If there is an obstacle on a sidewalk or trail, these guys will jump on it or over it or use it to launch a flip of some sort. Caleb became obsessed with parkour, and every trip to the playground or park involved parkour practice. And -LIGHTBULB! – I realized that education can’t be a race because some people approach it like a marathon, straight ahead, steady paces, arms pumping at their side; but others approach it like parkour, leaping rocks, running up handrails, jumping from one platform to the next. And you just cannot compare marathon running with parkour. It’s apples and oranges, people.
Once we tapped into Caleb’s strengths and rebuilt his confidence, reading began to click with him. He asked for a big book of magic tricks for his birthday in the spring of third grade. The day after his birthday, he was performing magic tricks for us. He had read and understood the step-by-step instructions all on his own. He also asked for a biography of Ronald Reagan. Within a week, we were hearing all sorts of details about President Reagan’s life. Caleb was becoming a great reader.
At the beginning of this school year, Caleb’s middle school English teacher told me Caleb is always reading a book as soon as he finishes his work. “Has he always been an avid reader?” She wondered.
No, but he has always been becoming one. Even when it seemed everyone else was saying otherwise.