When he was four years old he could whistle Beethoven Concerti, but when someone asked him the question, “What’s one plus one?” he replied, “Give me a hint”. Because of that and other anomalies we saw in his life, my husband and I took our son Michael to be tested. And tested he was! He was seen by a pediatric neurologist, a psychologist, a social worker, a learning specialist, and an occupational therapist. At a meeting held as a group, they gave us their joint conclusions: “This is a Mozart, an Einstein but it is all locked up with multiple learning disabilities. He probably won’t be able to attend regular school, learn to read or learn to write.”
What was a mother to do? Well, this mother went home and cried for two days and then changed her life. Up until that time in my life I was a researcher for a nuclear engineering company. I figured if I could research enriched uranium, I could do the same for learning disabilities. I read everything I could get my hands on, took classes, and experimented in tutoring my son.
By trial and error, I found that he needed several senses piqued at the same time for info to “stick”. That is, he always understood concepts the first time they were explained, but procedures and memorization needed multi-sensory practice to be able to be reliably applied more than once. So, when he was just in first grade (and lasting all through grade school) Michael and I started a regimen of “home re-schooling”. That is, by using his homework as a guideline, I re-taught Michael information he had “learned” in school each day – using slowed down, multi-sensory practice. In later school years with more sophisticated content, our home “re-schooling” morphed into a “modified Socratic method of study”. I would read the same material Michael did, and he and I would discuss it and place it in come sort of context that made sense for Michael. Then he would memorize the info by the two of us using a question and answer methodology – with as many repeats as necessary for each idea or fact.
I’d like to say those evenings were lovingly life-affirming times for both of us; but I can’t tell a lie. Yes, some nights were fun (baking for fractions, building for measurement, reading Shakespeare out loud, etc.); but frankly, most nights were struggles and fights. There were three things that saved both Michael and me: (1) in middle school came the end of those impossible for Michael weekly spelling tests (I could have watered a greenhouse with all the tears - Michael’s and mine - shed in frustration with those weekly grade school tests!); (2) a totally accepting grandmom who lived in walking distance and whose home served as the “safety valve” and a refuge destination (individually) for both daughter and grandson; and (3) signs of success that increased as Michael got older. Success really does breed more success. As Michael began to see some positive outcomes in school, he was more willing to work for more positive outcomes (although school never became the place for him to shine).
I knew Michael had “made it” one day in his freshman year of high school. He and I had studied several nights for a grammar test in his English class, and he really had mastered all those parts of speech. However, when he received his test paper in class, the instructions were too complex for him to follow. He took his test paper up to the teacher’s desk and asked her if he could take the test after lunch. When she asked why, he told her that he had studied and practiced this grammar for several nights and understood the info but could not match his knowledge to the needs of this test. He said he was going to call his mother at lunch and ask his mother for a strategy for taking this test! The teacher sent him to a phone to call his mother right then! I told him to forget the instructions and simply mark each word in each sentence as to the correct part of speech. Michael got a B on that test instead of the F he would have gotten if he had tried to do a test he did not understand. I knew right then he could make it in life… he was strong enough inside to admit when he needed help and advocate for it himself AND he had learned the best lesson of all – when life doesn’t fit you, find a way around it! He is now an adult with a flourishing career that matches his strengths rather than taxes his difficulties.
And me? Well my work with Michael led me to a new career as a “lemonade maker”. As a master tutor for the Kingsbury Center (non-profit working for and with students with all types of learning disabilities) I help kids with lots of lemons (learning differences negatively affecting their lives) turn their burdensome sour fruit into sweet success at a personal level. Thank you, Michael, for all you taught me.