I grew up in rural Arkansas surrounded by nature in the Ouachita Mountains. It was beautiful, but it was also poor. Both of my parents worked to keep us afloat. My father worked as a carpenter by day. He was gone before we got up for school and returned in the evening in time for dinner. Many nights, he would leave again to install floor covering as a secondary job and I wouldn’t see him again until the next day. That being said, he still managed to read to my brothers and me as often as he could. I remember him reading the entire Little House series to us as well as a book entitled The Two Little Savages (the problematic nature of the title didn’t occur to me until I considered buying a copy of this book for my own children). In addition to reading, my father would do small projects with us. He was a master of improvised toys. We made stilts, kites, dancing buttons and something he called “fly-flys” (hand carved, wooden propellers glued to a dowel. When you rolled the dowel between your hands, it would fly to the ceiling). He taught us wood craft and survival. He taught us the value of curiosity and the limitless possibility of “messing around.” While my dad’s schedule didn’t allow him to attend a lot of parent-teacher conferences, he stressed the importance of education. If I’m being honest, he helped us understand the inevitability of learning. Everything you do is a learning experience, but not every learning experience is equal of value.
These days, it’s my job to do the teaching. I have two sons, Jacob and Geoff. I could gush about how amazing they are, but what I’d really like to share about is being involved in their education.
Both of my boys are gifted with quick wits and have a natural curiosity that makes them natural learners. However, they have also been saddled with unique burdens. Both of my boys have been diagnosed with ADHD. My eldest also has Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. My youngest has Dyslexia.
The statistics on learning disabilities and school dropout rates boldly illustrate a strong correlation between the two. It should come as no surprise that people whose brains work in different ways than the norm, people who can’t learn in the same way as their classmates, people who need more help, find school to be frustrating at best. At worst it can crush their natural inquisitiveness and self-esteem. I speak from experience. In having the boys diagnosed, I learned a lot about myself. All growing up, I struggled in school. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I received a hefty dose of constructive criticism, a thousand versions of “You’re so bright. If you would just apply yourself . . .” What no one knew was that I was also struggling with my own learning disability. My boys came by it fairly.
I managed to graduate high school and even completed two college degrees, but my self-esteem took a beating and I still struggle with self doubt and imposter syndrome. Were it not for the positive influence of my parents–my dad especially–my life would have taken a far different course. The mission I have taken upon myself is to shield my boys from the psychological damage I suffered, to get them through school with their heads held high.
When the guys were really young, my wife was the primary wage earner and I was the primary caretaker. I was working on my Master’s degree in Library Science but we still spent a lot of time doing fun learning, the kind of stuff dad did with me except more urban. We lived in cities (St. Louis, Richmond, Louisville) and that environment made for different experiences and fun adventures. For example, in St. Louis at the time, there was a five stop free ride zone on the MetroLink during lunch hour. For a couple of toddlers, it might as well be an amusement ride. We would ride the train back and forth between Union Station and the Eads Bridge. We went to the (all free!) zoo, park, and several libraries. And we read. Books, books, books. We read board books and picture books and chapter books. We read about hobbits and dragons and castles. We read about hidden worlds and ancient civilizations and dinosaurs. We read about plants and animals. We read about history and geography. We read funny books and serious books. After we moved to Virginia, I finished my degree and got a full time job at the Chesterfield County Public Library. We enrolled the boys in day care.
This was a change, but not a huge one. Their daycare had a pretty good blend of fun and education. I dropped them off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon. I made a point to know their teachers, their classmates, and the staff. This rapport made it very easy to keep up with them even when I was not around them all day. I missed them but life goes on.
In the fall of ‘08 Jacob entered kindergarten. During a parent/teacher conference, his teacher mentioned she was beginning to suspect Jacob might have some sort of learning disability. She pointed out that he was obviously bright and gregarious but he was also lagging behind his peers on some tasks. She said it wasn’t having much of an impact yet, but she noticed that he noticed. She stated, as kindly as possible, that she feared it would undermine his self-confidence and she advised us to have him screened.
“He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”
― Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
Later that fall my wife, who worked for Circuit City corporate offices, was let go. It was part of a cost saving measure to keep the company afloat (this failed and the company collapsed entirely the following January). This was the beginning of a tough couple of years for the world and our family. My wife was out of work for seven months. We spent our entire savings and dipped deep into our retirement. When she did find work, it was so far away that I was forced to leave my job. We moved. We gave up our house. We started accepting food from a local charity. We eventually filed for bankruptcy. The upside, shocking as it might be, was that I was able to spend a lot more time with the boys.
My dad helped me see this silver lining when he came to visit us once. I was complaining about our sorry financial state and that I had been unable to find a job in our new city. He told me to cherish this time. I thought he was nuts. He said that he missed most of my growing up because, as poor as my little family was at that moment, we had a place to live and food to eat. My wife’s new job came with insurance. We were doing okay. He was still teaching me things.
When the dust settled, we were able to get Jacob properly screened. By this time he was in second grade. After a lengthy conversation about processing speeds, age appropriate development, standard deviations and the like, the psychologist told us that Jacob had Attention Deficit Disorder. She said that, because of his intelligence, he was able to compensate better than most, but she warned us he would most likely need intervention and assistance in the future. The greatest thing she gave us, however, was a set of tools to work with Jacob’s (and later Geoffrey’s) teachers. She gave us language and tips to help us win over Jacob’s teachers and reduce the potential resentment that could arise from our strong involvement and advocacy in his education.
We eventually moved to Springfield to be closer to family where Jacob received his second diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, adding additional challenges to an already challenging school career. Geoff officially started school the following fall and, as you might expect, at a parent/teacher conference one of his teachers pointed out that he was falling behind in reading. This led to Geoff’s diagnoses of dyslexia and ADHD.
That was eight years ago. We have been to a lot of meetings, talked to a lot of teachers and administrators, asked for accommodations, and insisted our boys be treated as complex whole persons. I wish I could tell you how everything worked out, but the work is still in progress. What I can tell you is that being kinda nosey, bugging my kids about their school activities, homework and the like, being an active and engaged father interested in learning together, has created a ton of trust.
The lessons from my father about the importance and fun of learning have been the foundation from which I have been able to build a strong relationship with my sons, supporting them in their own learning, and in life. It has permeated every aspect of our relationship and we are stronger for it.
Shannon Wortham is dad to two sons and a librarian for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.