Homework for Mom

Max started grade 7 yesterday and he came home with a sealed envelope for me.  In it was a piece of paper with just one sentence on it:

Homework Assignment #1

In a million words or less, tell me about your child.

…and I knew it was going to be a good year.

Max will be 12 in a month and his feet are already bigger than mine.  His most identifying trait is his face full of freckles.  He and I have daily discussions about the invention that he’s going to make to save humanity. I’d be happy if he would just invent an app that would identify plants, but he always puts this grand pressure on himself. Every one of his passions involves science…plants, animals (he calls himself the animal whisperer), how the world is made…this summer’s favourite book was all about phobias. This is why we have daily conflict during the school year about catching up in math…because I’d like him to pursue whatever path he wants.  He doesn’t see the correlation yet between doing work today and how it will affect his choices later…but who does at age 11?  Still at the end of the day, he does seem totally worn out and I hate to see him cry. Last night he even offered to learn about Canadian history 3 times a week through Kayak magazine rather than math  So we’ll put math studying on the back burner for a couple more weeks.

Max swims once a week and is good enough now that I feel that I can watch from the side sometimes.  He loves the water, and sand and snow…anything tactile.  He loves building and has a table dedicated to Lego.  He has inventions in tape and paper and cardboard all over the house, so much so that we painted his room into a science lab last summer.  Of course one of his favourite games is Minecraft and I catch him watching Minecraft parodies on YouTube all the time.  He loves to laugh and has a great sense of humour.  He loves laughing so much that he can get stuck on a joke for days repeating it over and over to himself and then having this huge fake laugh-track laugh.

He has both an eidetic memory and also can’t remember where he put his shoes 30 seconds after taking them off.  He forgets to eat, forgets to drink, and forgets to sleep so routine is a big part of our life during the school year.  During the summertime, I invite him to cook for himself and he has a toaster oven that he uses almost exclusively for his various kitchen creations usually involving toasted cheese.  He only goes to bed because he’d rather not be lonely staying up by himself.  We had a good time on the weekend because at an old cottage we visited, they had a stack of retro comic books.  We really enjoyed looking at the old ads for 1990s video games.  He said to me the other day that he wishes that he had the technology from the 80s, like me,  because it was so simple…he likes the dials and tubes and buttons.

He gets attached to the dialogue of movies, tv shows and the stories that he reads.  There seems to be an uncertain veil between how those worlds are separated from ours, in Max’s mind, as he will often bring things that I haven’t read or seen into our conversations assuming that I’ll enjoy hearing about them just as much.  In fact, part of Max’s diagnosis is called hyperlexia, an attachment to letters.  In fact, I swear that he was reading before he could walk…that would place reading somewhere between 12 and 17 months of age…and those first words were the things we could read along the street on our way to the post office…”Open” “Closed” “Stop” “Canada Post”.  He tricked us all into thinking that language was a gift so I first enrolled him in French Immersion at the JK entry point in our board.  With a first year teacher and my inexperience as a parent, we didn’t realize that his language was regressing until January of that year and quickly moved him to the mainstream program.  The trick about Max is that although he can pronounce words easily and memorize their spelling, he takes longer to comprehend their meaning and even longer to communicate his understanding of what he reads.

It will be quite an adventure seeing what the year brings as the scope of what he’s learning broadens.  I’m looking forward to hearing about new friends as his school is a hub for the neighbouring communities for grades 7 and 8, so his peer group has just tripled.  Max has no trouble making friends but prefers to play alone mostly and can become really worn out in social situations. I’m hoping to engage him in a monthly teen group at Kerry’s Place in Guelph this year, where he has enjoyed a one week camp each summer. Still, it’s good for him because if he’s going to solve humanity’s problems with one invention, he needs to get to know humans.



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.