Becoming an English major felt predetermined, and my graduate studies followed suit. Every job I’ve held relied on my reading aptitude. Over and over, I chose situations that let me capitalize on my love for reading. While I can’t possibly have understood any of “Little Women” at age 5, by 30 I could critically dismantle the densest texts with finely-honed analytical skill.
As a result, I was a terrible snob. I judged people by what they read, how they read, and how they wrote. I found educated adults who couldn’t spell or punctuate puzzling and annoying. Why didn’t they try harder? As a teacher, I hope I was compassionate toward the students who struggled, but I certainly favored the natural readers, the ones who took to literature like ducks to water. I didn’t fully understand that the students who needed me most were the terrible spellers, the sullen non-readers, the mute kids who never raised an eager hand all year.
My teaching career ended when my life as a mother began, and I shifted that same enthusiasm for words onto my children. I have always loved reading aloud—adored it as fervently as I detest being read to myself (too slow). I never needed to be reminded to read aloud to my daughters, and I still do as often as possible. My husband and I recall with a glow the moments when our daughters began to repeat back to us the ends of those rhyming lines from the first simple board books we owned. In those early years, I was so sure literacy was going to be cakewalk, a joy, an uncomplicated pleasure to share with my children.
All my assumptions came screeching to a halt when my eldest child began second grade. Through kindergarten and first grade, she was slow at learning to read, and her teachers raised concerns, but only mild ones. She would almost certainly catch up, we were reassured. It might be a tracking issue. Someone in the class had to be the last to learn to read.
But then she didn’t.
I will forever be grateful to her second grade teacher who sat us down early in the school year and gave us the plain talk we needed: we had to figure out what was wrong, and soon. We found her an extra-curricular tutor right away and soon added a second weekly appointment. We took her to the appointments and paid the rapidly mounting fees while wondering, what next?
A few months in, our tutor gently spoke the word no one had yet said aloud to us: dyslexia. I can still see my husband’s face after that phone call. He was puzzled and thought he’d misheard or misunderstood. But an evaluation eventually confirmed what we’d all been tiptoeing around for months: she was dyslexic, and not just a touch.
Her diagnosis set us on a stricter, harsher path: twice-weekly tutoring sessions supplemented with daily practice at home, come hell or high water, on top of school homework. We followed the tutor’s advice and gave our daughter only one day off all year, on her birthday. There were tears and there was yelling, and in private my husband and I tore our hair, fretted and agonized. But it worked. By the end of fourth grade she was reading well enough that our backup plan—a school specializing in dyslexia—became unnecessary. We knew we weren’t out of the woods, but at least now we could see which woods were ahead.
Two years on, a mainstream school has so far been the right choice. It still takes her a long time to read and she makes all kinds of mistakes; her spelling is crazy and she sometimes can’t write simple words she’s read and written scores of times. She suffered a little when a well-meaning teacher set up a reading competition: her teammates, unsurprisingly, chided her for reading too few pages, reading too slowly. But there have been fine surprises as well: her memory is excellent and she absorbs material fast; her grades are strong; she delights in analytical discussions of books and stories. She is excelling in, of all things, Mandarin—and this after we wondered whether we would need to pursue a second-language waiver. Pro tip: non-phonetic languages can be great for dyslexics.
But the best surprise happened this summer.
Of all the advice and feedback we received over the past five years, one unfortunate sentence has stuck in my head. A learning specialist, very early in the process, said to us: “Well, you know she’ll never be a reader.” The tone conveyed certainty that while our daughter might one day read proficiently enough to get by, she would never like it. She would certainly never love it. She would definitely never be, as I was and am and always will be, a reader.
I long ago accepted that what pleases me may not please my daughters, what drives me will be quite different from what drives them, and I truly believe the greatest gift I can give is to love them no matter how different or incomprehensible to me they may become. Yet thanks to some mysterious process I can only accept with gratitude and wonder, my dyslexic daughter is now, without a doubt, a reader.
Seven weeks into summer break, she’d churned through six books, exclaiming with delight, “I’ve read twice as many books as I read all of last year!” And far more important, she’s loved them all, from Roald Dahl’s memoir “Boy” to Jonathan Auxier’s fantasy novels to a Judy Blume novel I’d never even heard of.
In fact, looking at that list now, I realize I have read not one of those books myself, which somehow makes the transformation all the more magical. No longer merely diligent, she has discovered that reading can bring the deepest pleasure. She is a reader, and best of all, she has made reading her own.
Zanthe Taylor is a mother, reader and lapsed dramaturg who writes about parenting and food.
You might also be interested in: