Being dyslexic is no joke. It is bad enough in childhood, when the children who just can't seem to read so often have to endure undeserved punishment from adults, teasing and rejection from friends, report cards bristling with accusatory Fs, and generally lacerated egos.

Things don't improve much in adulthood. To an adult, dyslexia may mean going out to a restaurant and having to wait until his dinner partner orders so he can casually duplicate the order, only to get stuck with Fettucini Alfredo when he hates pasta. It often means a lifetime of pretending and covering up, of hiding one's lack of reading ability from employers, friends, and family.

Most teachers of learning-disabled students know all this, but I didn't know any of it on my first day of teaching, years ago. In the middle of the year, I suddenly inherited a self-contained class of seven dyslexic boys, too old for, but technically in, seventh grade. As I reached for some material the previous teacher had left me, I began to find out about lacerated egos in a hurry.

"Aw gee, do we have to read that stuff?" asked a lanky fourteen year old.

"Why no, Tommy. You don't have to read anything you don't like. What's the matter with this stuff?" I asked, somewhat surprised.

"You know what it says in there?" he said, looking at it with distaste. "It says, 'This---is---a---horse!'" and he strung out the words with disgust.

I looked at the seven pairs of eyes staring at me from around the table. Two of the boys had already spent a year in reform school when they were ten. Another had severe emotional problems as a result of hydrocephalus. Two pairs of eyes belonged to the haunted faces of children who hadn't "measured up" to educated parents' expectations. Three of these "seventh graders" were already taller than I was.

"This---is---a---horse"?

No.

"Well, I don't plan to bore you all to death, and I don't plan to bore myself to death, either, so I guess we'll throw this out and get something better," I said cheerfully. A sigh of relief went around the table.

Two days later I got my second lesson in lacerated egos during math class. In those days we operated sitting around a table in the corner of the school library, since we didn't have a room of our own. I had distributed Cuisenaire rods to everybody, and each student had taken a piece of yellow paper from the pile in the center of the table to do his calculations. Hearing the door of the library open, I glanced around and saw a ninth grade English class piling in. When I turned back, there were seven innocent faces looking at me over a lumpy pile of yellow papers that covered the table. Nary a Cuisenaire rod was visible. For the next twenty minutes, until the English class left, we sat around the lumpy pile of yellow papers and blandly discussed the latest ball scores, the possibility of snow, and the international situation. Finally the last of the ninth graders left. The yellow papers were returned neatly to the center of the table, the rods magically reappeared, and math class went on without a word from me.

Dismayed at the thought of having to give up Cuisenaire rods, too, I pointed out to the boys that the rods are not toys at all, but math tools, and that some very good schools use them all the way up to algebra. Patiently, Tommy explained:

"Yeah, we know that, and you know that, but the other kids don't."

So I gave up Cuisenaire rods with a sigh until we could have private quarters and started looking for more suitable reading material. All the phonics programs were for first and second graders, filled with stories about animals and mommies and awash with drawings of cute kiddies romping around. Grimly, I settled on the specifications of the material I was going to get.

All material, whether for reading or spelling, had to

1. look adult on quick inspection from a passing pal (this meant no pictures and no print much larger than normal type), and

2. use vocabulary that would not insult a reasonably cool fourteen-year old. (Hubcap is just as simple, phonetically, as kitten. "He flipped his lid" isn't Shakespeare, but it certainly beats, "Oh, see the red wagon.")

Of course I wound up pounding out my own material on the typewriter, and for years I worked from typed cards and piles of loose ditto sheets. Now here it all is, respectably and conveniently organized into workbooks and a book, "Reading from Scratch" that tells all!  It still has no illustrations-and never will. It has an adult vocabulary from the very beginning, and it is my contribution to healing lacerated adolescent egos.

 

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