I wasn’t taught phonics when learning to read. As a result, I had a hard time in fourth grade when school changed from learning to read to reading to learn. My grades plummeted. Added to that, I was a Baby Boomer. Typical class size was 37 pupils. Repeating a grade was out of the question. So I was pushed along, learning as best I could.
Enter Senator Lyndon Bains Johnson and his Great Cities program. It provided funds to improve reading levels in metropolitan areas. (At that time, we lived in the city of Milwaukee.) A tiny bit of that money went to pay the second grade teacher at my school to come in early to teach me (a seventh grader!) phonics. By the time the school year was over, I’d become an excellent reader.
My teachers told my parents I shoul take college prep courses in high school. I was thrilled and worried. I told my parents I knew how tight money was and it was okay if I had to take secretarial training and get a job in stead of going to college. My dad said, “You take the college prep classes and get the grades. I’ll get the money.”
I did. And he did. I graduated with a liberal arts degree from Wayne State University with a second major in education. My first job included teaching a tenth grade class in what was then called “remedial reading.” About that time, my father, who had to quit school at a very young age, was offered a job as a State Mediator. Govenor William Milliken was astonished to learn my father had not gone to high school. He liked my father’s work in labor relations and said he would hold the job while my father got his GED.
For weeks, I sat at the kitchen table in my parents’ house and tutored him in phonics and five other subjects. Then he took the GED exam. He called me when the envelope with the results arrived. He wanted me to come over to be there when he opened it. Inside was his GED! That was, and still is, one of the proudest moments of my life. My dad thanked me for my help. I thanked him for my education, which prepared me to help him. Driving home, I also silently thanked the second grade teacher and LBJ.
The latter was a bit tough because then President Johnson was Comander-in-Chief of the armed services. In effect, he had been the one who sent Dave to Vietnam, where he was at the time.
Flash forward almost fifty years. Our grandson Calum had a very hard time in kindergarten. He used to hide under his desk to avoid being called on in class. With the expert guidence of Dr. Zwi Steindler, in Irvine, Katie and Joe had Calum tested and qualified for an Individual Educational Plan and put him on ridalin. (Which I highly recomend after proper tests.) Calum’s doctor, classroom teachers, and his resource teachers were all doing an outstanding job. He had the proverbial village on his side.
But it wasn’t enough. He was falling further and further behind. I began going to his house after school for extra lessons three or four times a week. I created lots of fun games to keep him interested and spent a lot of time making sure understood he was a smart boy who just happened to have a different way of learning. Before long, Katie, Joe, Dave, and Molly, the nanny, became part of Calum’s village, too. Now he’s reading chapter books at (4th) grade level. Yeah!
A couple of weeks ago, we had this conversation:
Calum: I didn’t get an award at school today.
Me: I’m so sorry, Calum. But we’ve talked about this before, right?
Me: At the beginning of this year, you couldn’t read a chapter book. Now you’re on number 30! You just have to give yourself an award.
He nodded again.
Me: I know it’s not as good as getting one in front of the whole school. I hate to say it, Calum, but you might never get an award at school. You mustn’t let that discourage you. I admire how patiently and how hard and how long you’ve worked.
I gave him a hug. I wanted to beat the crap out of a system that didn’t reward kids like him.
But he grinned: I guess it’s just you and me, Grandma, until I go to college.
I had to blink away tears. In all these years of one hard fought for gain after another, the fact that Calum sees himself as college material is the greatest victory.
I’m grateful for the famous and not so famous who helped me overcome my learning difficulties. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to pay it forward. One last thought: Someone helped you learn; someone needs help learning. I’m just sayin’