My Father’s Irony

Irony strikes my funny bone in the most unusual ways, and always leaves me wiping tears from my eyes.  O’Henry, Ogden Nash, Dr. Seuss and lesser known authors of short stories and poems inspired happy dreams and a smile or two.  In a world filled with terrorism, conspiracy theories, racism and re-occurring violence, I wish there were more writers who would bring such joy into their writings.  Instead I find comfort in the simple irony found in the words of my students, friends, family and myself.

The other day my Littlest asked me on facebook  if I knew any thing about teaching kids to read.  After drying my tears and telling my husband to go back to his nightly coma which my laughing had penetrated, I managed to respond – although I must admit – it was a trifle sarcastic.  I think I said something to the effect of, “WHO DO YOU THINK TAUGHT YOU AND YOUR SIBLINGS TO READ?”  Ugh!

The true irony is that I never meant to be a teacher…it was not my plan.  It was my first clue that God has a sense of humor and loves irony as well as I do. He must have had to wipe His eyes a few times as He followed my progress in life.  When I was little, I danced everywhere, watched every musical that was shown on our one-channel, black and white, 25 inch tv set, and until I was ten, it was my goal.  I could sing; I could dance, and Broadway was the goal.  I had the family talent and a stage presence gleaned from my parents, so in my mind I was set for life.

That summer, though, I bought my first bike with my own money.  Cent by cent, I raised the amount needed by selling TV Guides from door-to-door.  $69.75 .  Blue Schwinn.  Silver fenders.  Three Speed.  I loved it, and it crashed my first dream.  Well, technically, I did…when I wore flip-flops, and the left one got caught in the front tire.  Besides tearing off a toenail, digging a huge chunk out of my ankle, my left knee swelled up to the size of my bicycle seat and was never the same again.  Dancing lessons were discontinued on doctor’s orders since there was no such thing as sports medicine in those days.  Dream deferred.

A variety of dreams followed, but slowly a pattern emerged.  Teaching little kids to twirl a baton, working in a library, helping my peers with research, and volunteering to work with mentally challenged students my first year in college (which is true irony since I almost drowned when I was 7 and hate the water), but these accumulating experiences were building my base knowledge.  When my father died my second year of college, I applied for a government loan that could be repaid by teaching in low-income areas.  Die cast.

But in reality, after 30+ years of teaching, what do I know about teaching someone to read?  How do you get that child, or adult for that matter, to connect tiny shapes to abstract emotions, ideas and thoughts?   I can turn to any research journal in language arts and find the latest buzz words and suggestions to help students read more efficiently, more competently, more diligently, more wisely.  But so far, no matter how many studies have been done or how many brain analyses are completed, there is no hard fast, sure way to teach a person to read.  There are tired and true ways that are fairly successful with most students, but you are never sure which student will have problems or never figure it out.

Tom walked into my ABE/GED class 20 years ago.  He was not my typical ABE/GED student.  Most of my students just wanted a GED diploma so they could complete probation or get a job.  Tom was different.  In a small town, you tend to know most people, and I knew Tom.  I had grown up with his children.  My children played with his grandchildren, as he had become a distant relative by marriage.  I watched him pace the library hallway for a while before he finally walked through the classroom door.

I like to think my classrooms are comfortable places, but Tom was never comfortable, and he didn’t want a GED or a job.  He had been a factory worker and farmer all his life.  His kids had grown up – some to college – some to raise a family of their own.  But what Tom wanted now was to learn to read.  He knew his alphabet and how to sign his name, but he had brought a book with him that he wanted to learn to read.  It was a picture book that his mother had given him as a child.  Since I was homeschooling my children  at that time, I felt the tears stinging the back of my eyelids.  How many books did my children have?  How many books could they already read?

Every Tuesday night for a year, while the others worked out of their GED/ABE workbooks and asked questions periodically, Tom and I bent over the words in his book.  Internet was still a dream in someone else’s eyes, but I researched everything I could find on teaching adults to read via inter-library loans and microfiche readings.  Week after week, we went over the basic words, wrote them out, and tried different colors.  We used many books, but we always came back to his book at the end of the session.  Page by page.  Successes were few and far between.  But as we started to laugh and talk, a connection built between us…a bridge.  We shared stories, and I learned a lot about life from this wise man…and he learned to read his book.  It was never smooth and perfect, but Tom read with understanding, a sense of accomplishment, and lots of smiles and pats on the back from his younger, fellow classmates.  He had been their inspiration more than I had ever been.

Tom never came back after he read that book from start to finish, but his smile said it all as he walked out the door.    I missed him and didn’t remain in that position too much longer.  Did he become a reader?  I don’t know.  I don’t think it matters, and when I went to his funeral a few years back,  my prayers  thanked him for the gift he had given me that year we worked together.

I think it comes down to connections.  Developing a connection with your students and allowing them to find a connection between those symbols opens a new pathway in everyone’s brain…mine included.  (Yeah, God, I get it…a little) God works that way in our lives as well.  He builds a connection and then allows us to figure out how all those abstract feelings, emotions and ideas fit together within our lives.  It is ironic how life turns around in a period of 60 years, and it still makes me laugh at myself.   My dad  had a saying that I think he paraphrased from  Socrates , “The more I learn, the more I learn how much I need to know.”  Build a connection, throw in some laughter, and maybe – just maybe – a connection will be built that helps someone read.

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