Waiting to Exhale was such an inspiring book. In fact, just its title inspires me the most. Have you ever caught yourself "waiting to exhale"?
I have spent so much of my life holding my breath. Raising my children has certainly been one of those situations. For me, every decision in parenting had to be thoroughly researched and then deliberated and discussed. And once the decision was made, I found myself holding my breath, worrying about how it would turn out.
One of the most deliberated decisions I made for my kids was the education decision—whether to homeschool or not, and how to homeschool. It wasn't a decision made once and then laid to rest, either. It was a decision deliberated daily for years. How much should I push them, how much should I let them be, what should I teach them and how and when? I tried many different approaches from often widely opposing viewpoints. And as I swung madly about, my kids just seemed to go about their business, unaware of the conundrums I faced.
When my first child was a baby, a friend was very excited about a method of teaching your baby to read that was popular at the time. We decided to try with our babies, envisioning our babies reading very young and growing up very smart and well educated. Neither of our babies took to the program well, even though we tried it with them again and again. My son, Chris, refused to read at two years, then at three years. I gradually tried more traditional ways of teaching him letters and sounds. Surely he would read by five years of age. But not Chris. Maybe by the time he was six years old, or by seven? But Chris refused to be forced or cajoled into reading. By now his friends were learning to read in school, but Chris still couldn't read. He struggled to decipher simple words and he hated trying to read because it was so frustrating.
I was holding my breath the whole time. I was battling tremendous self-doubt. I must be an awful mother. Some folks advised me to take Chris to specialists, test his hearing, eyesight, cognitive abilities, look into reading labs for him. Deep in my soul, those didn't feel right and I never took Chris to any of those things.
And then the miracle happened. Right about his ninth birthday, reading clicked in his mind and he just began reading. Within a month he was reading easily at his grade level. Within a year he had read every book on airplanes at the public library. The librarian, who thought he was a wonderful and precocious child because he read so much, gave him a special "adult" library card, so he could begin checking out adult books about airplanes.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The muscles in my stomach could finally relax. I could let my shoulders drop and I could unfurrow my brow. One of my kids, at long last, was reading.
But there were two more kids behind Chris. Renee and Liam, twins, are two years younger than Chris. Already they were seven years old. I had been trying to teach them to read alongside of Chris, to learn letter names and sounds, string the sounds together, hurry up and read! But like Chris, they refused to read as babies. They refused to read at two years, three years, even at five, six and seven years of age. There were times when I believed none of my kids would ever read. And of course it would be all my fault.
For a while I assured myself that Chris was unusual, and that my younger kids would read early or at least at a "normal" age. And I consoled myself with the fact that their dad and uncle had both been later readers. But my sister and I had both taken to reading young. Therefore it must be something on the troublesome Y gene. Perhaps my sons would learn to read late, like their male relatives. But my daughter would learn to read at a normal age, like my sister and me, surely.
But Renee had a mind of her own. Boy, truer words have never been spoken. People will attest to Renee having a mind of her own. And she would learn to read when she was darn good and ready. As the years went by, and she didn't read, I assured myself she would be like Chris after all and learn to read at her ninth birthday. But her ninth birthday came and went and still she didn't read. How could anyone learn to read even later than nine years old, I screamed inside my head. On the outside I smiled patiently.
Within the next year she slowly began reading. It wasn't the amazing overnight reading leap that Chris had taken. But by her tenth birthday she was reading quite happily, although a little behind her grade level. By her eleventh birthday, she was reading quite well at her grade level.
I breathed a half-hearted small sigh of relief. Thank goodness she was finally reading. But my attention was stolen by her twin brother, Liam. Liam was a beautiful little child with light blond curly hair and a mischievous smile. He was as smart as could be, but wouldn't learn to read, no matter how much he struggled, not at nine years, not at ten years, not at eleven years of age.
People came out of the woodwork with ideas on what to do. I could have spent a million dollars on specialists to find out how to teach Liam how to read and to learn why he wasn't reading yet. But it just didn't feel right, so I never took him either.
Instead I leaned heavily on the words of John Holt. He said that many kids, especially boys, when left to their own learning pace, would not read until eleven to fifteen years of age. This idea was hard for me to believe before this, but now I embraced it. But even then, I still didn't believe that anyone who couldn't read by the age of fifteen was of normal intelligence.
I bet Liam would read by age twelve then. He was a smart kid. He would get it soon. But he wasn't reading at his twelfth birthday. Not at his fourteenth birthday, not even at his fifteenth birthday. At that point I even gave up on John Holt's philosophy too.
I tried to let Liam learn at his own pace and not worry (although my stomach was clenched while I held my breath, hunched my shoulders and furrowed my brow). I turned my attention to my youngest child, Julie, who was four years younger Maybe she would learn to read early, I hoped vaguely. But she didn't. Maybe she would read at six or seven years old and I should be on the lookout for clues to teach her letters, sounds, something. There were no signs, and the years went by. Maybe she would be like Chris and miraculously read at age nine. Age nine came and went. Then surely she would be like her sister, and gradually pick it up between the ages of nine and ten. Her tenth birthday came and went and still no reading. She struggled with very simple words. It was as though there just wasn't a place in her brain that could master the reading process. Not yet.
Her older sister tried to help her learn to read. Her friends' mothers tried to teach her to read. All were loving and patient and, sadly, unsuccessful.
Julie's twelfth birthday came. She could read a little, but only with great difficulty and frustration. Liam's sixteenth birthday came the next month. He could read a little too, haltingly, and with great effort. What to do? I just doggedly held on to the belief that they would read someday. I didn't consider specialists or therapies. I just waited, trying to ignore the worried voices in my head.
Then something happened. I have no idea what. They both just started reading. Maybe it was the incentive of online chatting. Maybe it was long boring days at home. Maybe it was just the right time, and the parts of their brains that can process the written word had a growth spurt. It doesn't matter.
Liam is sixteen and a half now. Six months ago, he was unsure about taking a driver's ed class for fear his reading level might cause him to lag far behind the class, or for fear of the embarrassment it might cause him. And how could he take notes? Would it be too much?
Today he is reading adult level books out of his father's paperback collection. He loves war stores based on real battles and other kinds of adventure books. Julie is devouring Harry Potter books and Goosebumps. They are both reading about a book a week.
At long last all my kids are reading. I can stop holding my breath. I can breathe deeply and can actually dare to use both my lungs. It has been many years of waiting to exhale. The wonderful world of books has opened to them.
A book a week! Do you know what that means? They always have their noses in books! I take a deep breath and as I exhale, I holler, "Liam, Julie, put those books down! Pay attention to me when I'm talking to you. Stop reading for five minutes and get in there and help with dinner! Have you done your chores today or have you just sat there on the couch reading all day long?" They look at me, annoyed, and come dragging into the kitchen. I look into their eyes and remember the years of waiting. I breathe a silent prayer of thanks for my kids and for the patience it took for me to wait until they read. The excitement of their reading returns to me.
"Hey, so what book are you reading now, honey?"
[This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Enchanted Families,
a local publication in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
NOTE from Sandra Dodd, January 2009: Liam is in his mid-20's and has been in the U.S. Marine Corps for a couple of years. He was at the community college when Kirby was, and they had a class together. Liam got three awards for being a good student. It was his first time in school. Liam's dad had been a marine and it's what he wanted to do.