Every weekday Jim and I do something that makes our 11 year old daughter Phoebe weary. We take her to school. She returns from the NATO base in Naples to our downtown apartment and does her homework. It’s so much faster these days and she even has time for fun – crafts, music, television, playing with the guinea pigs. But three years ago the homework lasted hours if I didn’t intervene. At bedtime, white and exhausted, she would drop onto the pillow, too stressed to sleep. Phoebe is dyslexic.
She learned her letters at a Montessori nursery school in Dublin. Phoebe and her friend Thomas formed letters with glue and sand. In the playground, he pretended the ‘bad boys’ were chasing Phoebe onto the climbing frame so that he could come to the rescue. She was scared but she loved the game because she liked being rescued from the bad boys. In the classroom, nobody rescued her from the tyranny of letters.
When Phoebe was four we moved to London. I couldn’t understand why she could read a word after an epic struggle to spell it out, but instantly consigned it to oblivion. Her spoken vocabulary was vast; she was an intelligent little girl who struggled to read. Meanwhile she learned, effortlessly, soaringly, to read music and play the violin. Teachers dismissed my concerns, telling me she would make the quantum leap any time now. She had a rich social life, artistic stimulation, access to music, sports, swimming and lots of learning by ear, but she was limited by her inability to transcribe opinions and communicate her own knowledge. When at age eight she was assessed by an educational psychologist and declared dyslexic, I wept. Now, perhaps, we could help.
What did we try? Discussions with the teachers (well-meaning but bound by the needs of the class majority), individual education plans (inexpertly applied), fish oil supplements, $5,000 of hand-eye coordination programmes (ouch!), a weekly specialist tutor (brilliant, inspiring and pragmatic) and, reluctantly, a change of school (twice). Impossible to say what helped. Meanwhile we emphasised the positive – art, ballet, music, costumes for local fancy dress competitions, theatre and concert outings and plenty of time with friends.
We moved to Naples. The Montessori school on base is flexible enough for Phoebe. She has learned some maths, history, social science and geography, to play the flute, made friends and had her Pompeii article published in a children’s archaeology magazine in England.
There will be tough times ahead, wherever we live. Jim and I are ready to fight on her behalf, knowing that she is in good company with other smart dyslexics who have achieved. I believe in our daughter’s moral sense, her self-assurance, her hilarious take on life, her talents – and above in all her fine mind which may not fit the constraints of a conventional educational system but which has infinite potential.
And you have to wrest the novels from her hands because now she loves to read.
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