Somehow, it is April, 2017. That means that I have worked at SLD Read for roughly two years now, in one role or another, and in reading support and remediation for eight years. Most days, I still love what I do. Honestly, I do. But some days, I am wrung out at the mere thought of listening to yet another great kid struggle through the simplest bit of text. And I know that I am not alone. There is no light work to be done anywhere in the non-profit sector. But some days truly are heavier than others. They are, in fact, crushing days. And then there are the other days, the astonishing days. There are the days of absolute wonder.
Aside from what I do every day at work, I am also the parent of a teenager. I don’t have to explain to any parent who has been or is at this stage just how difficult any given day, hour, or minute can be. Teenagers have a dismal reputation that is, for the most part, well earned. They can be unreasonable, ungrateful, and emotional. They are like bombs that will light their own fuses, often as a dare just to see what we will do. That’s kind of their job. It’s the parents’ job to risk life and limb to get close enough to put the damn thing out. My kid, at nearly fifteen, has been particularly flammable lately. And she has been so despite the fact of her relatively privileged, only-child existence. On any given day, she is the absolute measure of my patience. On crushing days, when I’m barely coping, she’s like one more brick on my breaking back. Of course, she is also my complete definition of love.
About a month ago, I welcomed another teenager into my life. This time, it’s a boy. He’s not my boy; he’s a student. He’s a bit younger than my daughter, although he is doing his best to look like a much older kid. It doesn’t work, but then it never does. He looks like all the other poor white boys in his school: dyed hair, skater sweatshirt, gauged ears. He’s probably trying to look like someone that I am not cool enough to be aware of. Still, if you were to happen upon this kid in a group of his friends, nothing would draw your eye specifically to him. He’s just another teenager. He’s unremarkable. He’s also a poor reader, with skills that put him four years behind.
This kid, I’ll call him Jim, came into our first session without any idea what sounds vowels make when you take them out of words. There was virtually no difference between his short a and his short e. He assigned the short u sound to i, and short o had the sound that really belongs to au or aw. “Muddy vowels,” as I call them, are not at all unusual when it comes to struggling readers. They have attempted to self-accommodate by becoming “whole word” readers; they don’t actually know the sounds that individual letters make. Since vowel sounds make all the difference in words (think about cap and cape), we decided to start by fixing Jim’s short vowel sounds.
As a multisensory program, SLD Read engages the whole body in learning. At our second session, I had written the “big five” vowels very large on a whiteboard. I had Jim stand back and “trace” the letters in the air, saying the correct sound for each as he went. He did this three times. He then traced them with a marker, still making their correct sounds. After that, he sat down and traced the vowels on a carpet square with two fingers, and, you guessed it, repeated their sounds. His sounds got better with each repetition. We completed our lesson by teaching Jim to recognize closed syllables. He was tired at the end of the hour, but also visibly pleased with himself. He smiled and wished us a good afternoon. Nice kid.
During our third lesson, we repeated the same vowel exercises. He was on his feet, tracing and saying. Sometime during his second repetition, I started to detect a second voice making the vowel sounds, coming from the office next door. We meet Jim at his school, where his principal is kind enough to reserve us a room. The room next door is often occupied by a kid needing to cool down from an incident that happened in class, as it was on the third day that we met with Jim. Apparently, the kid cooling down on that particular day decided that the best use of his time was to mock Jim through the thin wall that divided the two rooms. Jim heard him. I watched as his face turned a bright shade of red, and I waited for him to either shut down or go off. I knew that he would do one or the other, because I know kids. But he didn’t. Instead, Jim just kept going, tracing his letters and making his sounds, until he was finished with all three repetitions. He didn’t even lower his voice. When he finally sat down, Jim looked completely different to me. He wasn’t just a teenage kid anymore. He was a soldier now, a warrior. Jim was a kid who knew that he was different and behind and wanted more than anything to work hard for someone who knew how to teach him. He wanted that more than what most teenagers want more than anything else in this world: the fear and respect of his peers.
There are too few days of wonder in a working life. I have worked in the field of remediation and training since my daughter was in single digits. She’s a teenager now. She’s a brick on my back when I’m already broken. She’s a self-lighting bomb. She is also a walking wonder; she’s my walking wonder. Jim is not mine in that way. He is an SLD Read student that I will soon turn over to his primary tutor, once that tutor is fully trained. But he is also an object of wonder: a teenager who recognizes the value of literacy and is willing to work and sacrifice for it. I would say that my hat is off to him, but it’s more than that. Much more. Jim’s dogged determination that day resuscitated some part of me that I wasn’t even aware was gasping just to breathe. It’s a debt that I plan to repay by doing whatever I have to do to help him learn to read.
There are currently around twenty students on SLD Read’s waiting list in Grand Rapids. The majority of them happen to be older kids. They are not young and cute. They can be opinionated, loud-mouthed, and disrespectful. They can be bricks and bombs. They can also be objects of wonder. When I transitioned into my position at SLD, my stated goal was to provide services to older kids in need. Jim is one such kid. There are some twenty more waiting. If you have a bachelor’s degree and an affinity for language, consider training with us and joining our team. No, not every day in this work is a day of wonder. Not every kid is Jim. But every kid, every kid, deserves the chance to learn to read.