This book is about my son and myself.
It is about a learning disabled father erasing a lifetime of shame and humiliation, by teaching his learning disabled son to read.
It is about a learning disabled child, healing his father's wounds.
It is about vilification, vindication, and redemption.
It is about love.
I taught my son Joshua to read. On my part, it was a staggering commitment in scope and effort. On Joshua's part it was much more. This is our story.
Like my son Joshua I was perfectly happy until the age of five. It was then, as my mother has often remarked, that school robbed me of my happiness. My twin afflictions--Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder-were unheard of in those days. I was simply a kid considered "unteachable" by teachers, "unreachable" by child psychologists, and "unbearable" to my own family. My mother's anguished refrain, “I hope you have one just like you and then you will understand," still resonates in my mind. I knew she didn't really mean it. She would not wish a child like me on her worst enemy. But her wish had come true. Joshua was just like me.
I always thought that if I did have a child like myself I would know what to do. I was wrong. Back in the 1950's, millions of children were demeaned, left back, and written off by teachers, psychologists, and school administrators. I was one of those children; the memories of that frustration, heartache and shame have shaped my life. I told myself I would not allow the home I shared with my wife Ellen and two young sons to be overwhelmed by stress, frustration, and despair like the home I knew growing up. I had come a long way from my painful childhood and I assumed society had come a long way too. After all, some of my elementary school teachers had been born in the nineteenth century, and we were now heading into the twenty-first. Moreover, Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning Disabilities had been the subject of many credible medical studies. These studies had shown that up to twenty percent of school-age children exhibit some form of learning disability: a disturbing percentage, but apparently the problem was being aggressively addressed. Educational systems employ legions of specialists to diagnose, monitor, and assist children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning Disabilities. Public awareness was no longer a problem. “Attention Deficit Disorder” had recently graced the cover of Time magazine. Trial lawyers were even using Attention Deficit Disorder as a criminal defense. A child with ADD and Learning Disabilities would be able to get all the help he needed. It's amazing how sure one can be, and how wrong.
Joshua our striking, athletic, popular child, after an auspicious beginning in school became the focal point of family turmoil. His teachers regularly battered us with a litany of "uns": unmanageable, unteachable, and unreachable, and pointed out that, as parents, we were "in denial" "hostile," "negligent. Consultations with numerous experts and specialists forecast dismal if contradicting scenarios. Trying to deal with all of the problems caused a serious rift in my marriage, problems with my other son Aaron and left me questioning my own beliefs. Finally in a last ditch effort to save myself, my family and my son I determined to teach Joshua something that all the experts said he could not do: Read.
I analyzed Joshua's problems, charting the unusual pathways in his brain and created a map to guide me. I analyzed each strength and weakness and sought answers by drawing on my medical training as well as knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of dealing with my own disabilities. It became an extraordinary journey of the both the heart and the mind. During our educational safari we would prevail over bad teachers, callous school administrators, the local Board Of Education, and an array of incompetent professionals, specialists, and charlatans. We fought the good fight, standing shoulder to shoulder, and we triumphed. I taught Joshua to read by creating radical methods to address his needs and out of which came a method from which others may now benefit. I also learned something from a little boy about forgiveness, love and acceptance.
It is mostly over now. The excitement of the educational safari has been replaced by Joshua's insatiable quest for knowledge. He is motivated to, and capable of, learning by himself.
Joshua is 11 years old. Any thought of him being unable to read now seems absurd. He reads milk cartons and cereal boxes by the dozen, the sports section of the New York Times, young reader books on history, and adult science fiction at an astonishing rate.
Naturally we understand that Joshua is different. He will always be different because of how he understands the world and how the world understands him. I cannot help studying Joshua as he interacts with the world. I watch him get confused, often without seeking clarification. He has resigned himself to the fact that he will simply not understand certain things. No one else notices, but it worries me, and it is painful to watch. Yet certain episodes in Joshua's short life have given me pause. Is it possible that the dis in disability may actually disguise the a in ability?