I remember distinctly my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Phillips, standing over me saying “Are you reading?” I was reading, of course. Things are fuzzy now but I know the book involved some kind of abbreviated fairy tale with a well and wishes. Then we had the principal, Mr. Henderson come down and I read a few books to him. Then I was cutting out circles, and spelling and suddenly my parents made the decision to move me from kindergarten to grade 1 with Mrs. Halliday just two weeks into September. I was overjoyed, of course, because my best friend Marni was in the grade 1 class. Yet I can also remember the feeling of being on the fringe of normal for the first, but not last, time in my life. I can remember looking back at the kindergarten kids watching them watching me and then finding a spot in the grade 1 room. That was 1977 and it was a crazy year. Not only did I skip kindergarten, but later that year I got mononucleosis, followed by tonsilitis and a tonsilectomy (when they still did that) and I missed a ton of school. The decision to move me ahead a full year also meant that I was always trying to catch up on math, and I was permanently outside of social circles.
Now at first glance that might not all seem to have to do with my ability to read at an early age, but the same event impacted my life 30 years later when my own son, Max, began to read before he could even walk. We would travel around our little town and he would say ‘open’ ‘closed’ ‘exit’ ‘stop’ and I assumed, that he was like me. What I didn’t know is that Max has an attachment to letters called hyperlexia and it is just one of many indicators that lead us to just recently discover that he is on the autism spectrum. In our home school board, I registered Max in the French Immersion programme thinking he was gifted in his ability to comprehend language. After just 7 months in the program I agreed with his teacher that he was actually regressing in his academic abilities and moved him to the regular English program. The very next year, Max entered kindergarten, and had the same teacher Mrs. Halliday, that I had in 1977. I had the opportunity to ask her if she remembered me and the decision to skip me ahead. She remembered me very well and said that she always wondered how I was for the rest of her career. Unfortunately we were now out of the attendance zone for that school, so we needed to move.
Two years ago in grade 1, we started to realize the severity of Max’s quirks when his teacher couldn’t get him to express his comprehension of stories they were reading. He could read them out loud, even spell many of the words on his own, but he couldn’t express his ideas. Max, a kid with hyperlexia and son of a librarian, came home in June and said “I hate reading!” After cleaning up my broken heart, I vowed to make reading happen in our home anyway I could, but always in a way that didn’t pressure Max.
Tonight at my department head’s meeting we discussed the failures of last year and the commonalities of these struggling students. I suggested that maybe the same students who are disinclined to engage in their studies are the same ones who are failing the literacy test. Like them, reading is such an emotional journey. I think sometimes we forget how reading can be a huge part of our identities.