Sunday, August 27, 2017

Remembering a dyslexic classmate, 30 years later

I remember this kid from my fourth grade class. Jack was his name, I think, or at least, that's what I'll call him here. He seemed bigger than the rest of us, maybe he had been held back already. It was widely known that he was a trouble maker. Didn't try. Didn't care. The teachers regarded him with unmasked frustration and hostility, and their assessment of him was not lost on the rest of us. I mean, how stupid were you, if you had made it all the way to the fourth grade (perhaps having even repeated a grade or two along the way) and you still couldn't read?

I also remember that Jack was good at fixing things. Taking them apart and putting them back together again. Ballpoint pens in particular. Fourth grade was a seminal year for this, because the great privilege of being a fourth grader was that you sometimes got to write with a pen instead of a pencil. But with this privilege also came the frustration of pens that would every so often stop working, and you'd circle and circle on the page, waiting for the ink to come out, but it never did. Jack could fix your pen for you. He did this for me one time, as I had been seated next to him in art or music class. I'd regarded him somewhat suspiciously, and with a bit of fear. He was supposed to be a bad seed, the kind of kid you didn't talk to, a bully.

But as he sat next to me and dismantled my pen, he hummed a bit. And I realized, I couldn't think of one single instance when he had actually caused trouble or done something wrong. All I could think of was teachers yelling at him or punishing him for things that wouldn't have even caused so much as a raised eyebrow if some other student had done it. All I could think of was how, whenever he was called upon to read a passage out loud in class, he would stumble over the words, getting many of them wrong. And the rest of the class would snicker, at best, or laugh outright in his face.

He wasn't the bully. He was bullied.

He was dyslexic.

With a smile, Jack handed me back my pen, and it worked just fine. I wondered why everyone thought he was such a bad kid. I wondered how you could be in the fourth grade and still not be able to read.

That was almost thirty years ago. And the truth is, precious little has changed for dyslexic kids. My son would be Jack if I had listened to the piece-of-shit teachers who told me what a challenge he was, how he needs to try harder, how all we can do is wait and see. My son would be Jack if I had been gaslit by the piece-of-shit principal and school reading specialists and counselors who told me I was being unfair and unreasonable, who have cornered me and ripped me to shreds, who have done everything in their power to get me to shut the fuck up about dyslexia. My son would be Jack if I allowed myself to be intimidated by these overgrown middle school mean girls, by family members who deride me for being too "negative." My son would be Jack if I were anything other than stubborn as fuck. He would be Jack if I hadn't found Ms. V, if we hadn't had the means to pay thousands of dollars (with no end in sight) on dyslexia tutoring.

I thought about Jack the other day, and I wondered what ever happened to him. I'm not sure if I remember him being part of my class beyond grade school. I hoped to god he didn't blow his brains out or overdose, having spent his whole life believing he wasn't worth a damn. I hoped instead he invented something amazing, became a CEO or a stop motion film maker, or a software engineer.

I hope that my son makes it through, but unlike neurotypical children, who have every opportunity handed to them without question, Will has no such assurance. For dyslexic kids now, thirty years ago, sixty years ago, it's still the same: the very people whose job it is to help you succeed in life only sabotage you every step of the way.

Thanks for reading.

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