Mysteries of childhood—avid reader, cannot read

Tom Swift, Laura Ingalls and Friends

Here I am, back on blog, a worried mother twisting her memory to remember what happened when in her young son’s life.  Where does the trail begin, if I want to understand what he is struggling with now?  Words are his best friends, the stories he has listened to avidly since he was an infant and toddler curved into my arm, his attention longer than mine.  Fatigue weighted my eyelids, while he wanted more, more.  It is the same now, in his sixth year, though the books have changed.  Little House on the Prairie and all its companion volumes finished over a year ago.  Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, various Roald Dahl and book after book of Tom Swift, a series of adventures and escapades penned in the 1920s, that he consumes with intense avidity with his father.  He cannot get enough.  He listens; and then he talks, a wordsmith who at times sounds like he is prepping for the SATs.  He consumes vocabulary, from conversation or from books, like food; unexpected words sprinkled in, almost always correctly employed, sometimes in creative and novel ways, still accurate but pleasantly unexpected.  An overly warm room is a smelting plant.  A portcullis pops up in a super-hero adventure, blocking someone’s way.

Vision Therapy: eyes, arms, & mouth

And yet to watch his eyes trained on a word another child of five might decode, is to see a child allergic to letters, his brain visibly uncomfortable, his gaze straining away.  Perhaps there is some improvement here; perhaps an extra year will bump him over to the other side, the land of readers, a pleasure I cannot imagine life without.

Though school curriculums in New York City, and elsewhere, have pushed reading a year or even two earlier, children’s brains have not changed.  Some can read at three, for others the mysterious world of letter-to-word-to-sentence does not come into focus until age six, or even seven.  Years afterwards, none of us knows the difference.  I don’t remember reading until first grade, when I would have been six.  No one made special efforts outside of school to compel me to master the phonics and their emergence into full stories.  My husband learned at age three or four.  Now we both consume, interpret, and take pleasure from books.

Will it be different for my son?  I cannot imagine him unable to sustain his deep love of stories and written information on his own.  It is impossible.  But his path may be more difficult, his need for help more complicated.

In June, I returned with renewed hunger to stories, to the written word.  In desperation, I carved out a half-hour, less, eagerly immersing myself, like the need for sleep after a succession of sleepless nights.  For most of May, I coasted through this word drought.  We moved apartments at the beginning of the month.  I found myself blasted by memory: I had forgotten how arduous this process is.  Four people’s possessions, un-impacted from corners and closets, like clowns emerging from their tiny car, grinning faces, bobbing hats, foot after foot.  How did it all fit in?  And then the process of making the puzzle anew, jettisoning baby clothes, maternity shirts and expandable-waist pants, nursing bras, displaced papers, and dusty magazines along the way.

Books should have appeared in that list too, our bookshelves bloated, doubled up in places, but I have not gotten there yet.  My squirrely nature, as my husband says, gets in the way.  Now we see this in our son, his urge to keep this and that, the accumulation sometimes startling: bits of ribbon; rock after rock, some colored, blue and green and red, some lingering in their natural grey-brown state; little Lego structures, grown static in their last state of construction; paper towel rolls, crayoned and binder-clipped; old party hats, some now serving as dumb-waiters when given the opportunity, the elastic jiggling the inverted cone up-and-down, and yet not breaking.  There is a whole system, a world in place here, much of it opaque to me.  He has a name for this collection of plastic bins (optimistically supplied by me) and discarded gift bags: Lego policeStories burgeon out from these discordant things and the role they play in his head.

Aleksandar Hemon has a wonderful way of describing this need to verbalize stories and use new language, likely innate, in his recent piece, “The Aquarium: A child’s isolating illness,” in the New Yorker (see “Thoughts on reading, breathing, writing and grief“).  The essay is devastating in its eloquent treatment of tragedy (the cancer of his nine-month-old, Isabel), but here Hemon writes about his older daughter, three-year-old Ella:

“The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match.  She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses.  Ella now knew the word “California,” for instance, but she had no experience that was in any way related to it; nor could she conceptualize it in its abstract aspect—in its California-ness.  Hence, her imaginary brother had to be deployed to the sunny state, which allowed Ella to talk at length as if she knew California.  The words demanded the story.”

But now I fear my words have run away from me.  In my zealous need to describe, to impart the vastness of Lego police’s role, the range of its imaginative and physical array, I have made it sound larger and more dramatic, overwhelming in its physicality.  For now, Lego police is confined—housed—on less than two shelves in the boys’ shared room, evicted from the living room after our move.  This is what boys do, I tell myself; they collect, they secret things away, old rocks in their pockets, crumpled wrappers.  My memory relies on remnants of children’s stories from my own childhood, on tales I remember from my step-father of his unfettered summers as a youth: boys in the fields, their imaginations roaming the grass, hiding among trees, a boys’ world like nothing since.  And then I remember, too, my mud-pies and sticks and little notebooks; but memory and imagination eventually fall short.  And I worry again, turning over the details like tarot cards.

Eye on the ball (Foot on the ball)

My son is lively, engaging, friendly, eager to play with other children, despite the bookish loves I have described.  He wants to dig in the dirt; he wants to dive into experiences with his friends.  He is social and well-adjusted.  He loves to run, even if his gait remains unsynchronized, arms and legs working against each other, not yet harmonized like his younger brother’s.  He has lost his allergy to balls; he eagerly anticipates his next soccer class; he notes when another child is less coordinated than he.  But his skill with puzzles still lags behind his peers; he still sucks his thumb, and his need for physical contact, pressure against his skin, is heightened.  His world has less gravity than ours—this is how I have come to think of it when I need to explain the discrepancy between what he gets (what we get) and what he needs: more hugs, the pressure of a wall, the sofa, a heavy blanket, a person.  He is affectionate.  When he is talking he seems mature, older than his five years; when he is not, he seems younger.

Try to paint a picture of the whole child, and you can’t.

My son receives “services,” Department of Education parlance for the Occupational Therapy (OT) and Physical Therapy (PT) the city funds for him several times a week at school, addressing his fine- and gross-motor delays.  He can write all of the capital letters, most of the lower case, but his grip is still weak and inefficient, his strokes often the wrong way around.  His letters jump in size, the lines unable to contain them.  But he can sound out a sentence when he really wants to write it.  He is making progress.  He is not making progress fast enough.

His fingers are clumsy.  I see this, when he holds a plate.  I have to remind him how to carry it, thumbs on top, keep it steady; while his three-year-old brother just seems to know.  Amazing how many things are encoded in our brains and bodies, unwrapped and revealed at the right developmental stage.  I have only recognized this as we came to note our younger son attempting things more masterfully than our older.  His grip on a crayon before age-two: one body knew what to do, the other did not.  Why should such a small sentence press this pain into my chest?  How difficult it is to watch your child, and even while taking the correct steps remain so helpless.  Correct!  The word is deceitfully precise; what is correct shifts and changes, alongside what we understand, or sometimes ahead of what we know, or behind.  Comprehension is slow, imperfect, too often temporary.  My son is “normal.”  I am lucky, so lucky, to have two such healthy, loving and loveable boys.  What is normal?

King Tut...Can Go

After my father died, I had to learn how to talk about suicide.  It sometimes felt like I had to learn how to talk; I had a new language, new reactions, new realities to understand.  I gradually found that being open about my father, how he had died, was helpful.  It helped me to feel less alone with the experience, and it helped me in understanding it. Sometimes there was discomfort or incomprehension in people’s reactions.  But gradually, I learned that people around me struggled with tough things too, depression, suicide, grief, experiences similar to, or different from, mine; and even if they hadn’t, that didn’t mean they couldn’t.

What I am trying to piece together now, with my son’s abilities and his difficulties, is easier, I think, the scale smaller.  But I recognize the confusion in myself and in others who know him, and see again that there are mysteries I need to grapple with, and mysteries to which I will never have the answer.  Did that airplane flight matter?  Was the birth too slow?  Are we formed from birth?  When do we change?  When he started to ask for hugs—hug me, hug me—out of proportion to the affection he already received, was that the first sign that something was different?  Does that mean something was wrong?  Why? It’s a question we have to ask.  The importance of it is clear: think of Aleksandar Hemon’s daughter Ella employing new language, trying to make sense out of words and experiences that can’t yet make sense; or watch a toddler take in the world—demanding reasons for the ways in which it is ordered, and the chaos that seems without reason.  How many answers we have!  And so many we don’t know, or have to make up along the way.

  ~  ~  ~

~  A recent article in The Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” by Lori Gottlieb, argues (quite convincingly) that parental trends have veered too far towards over-attending to our children.  The piece makes for an interesting, thought-provoking read.  ~

About Kara Krauze Kara Krauze is a writer, consultant, and educator. Kara has worked in publishing, financial services, the mental health field, and community organizing. Her essays have been published in Quarterly West, Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Highbrow Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. from Vassar College in International Studies and a M.A. in Literary Cultures from New York University. She has participated in workshops in New York City, Prague, and France, studied in Moscow and lived in London. Her writing, including a memoir and novels, engages with the subjects of war, loss, and memory. She grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York City. Kara founded Voices From War, offering writing workshops for veterans, in 2013.
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