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The Late-Blooming Flower: On Long Plateaus and Sudden Leaps

Karen Rile

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Published: November 14, 2013 at 7:04 PM [UTC]


The Late-Blooming Flower
Early on in my parenting days, I began to rub up against problems in the education system. My oldest daughter, who attended a Montessori preschool, learned to read early. By seven she had devoured works like Little Women and The Color Purple (it was on the shelf; I didn’t give it to her), and, oddly, all of the novels of Barbara Kingsolver. Personally, I thought it was fine that she liked books, so I was taken aback when her first-grade teacher chastised me for “letting her read too much on subjects that were too old for her.” Apparently, it’s as troublesome to be ahead of the curve than behind. With a houseful of kids, including a newborn, I didn’t have enough time or eyes in my head to keep her away from our groaning bookshelves, so the oldest was left to her own quirky devices.

My next two kids also learned to read in Montessori preschool. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, because if things are going pretty well you tend to pay attention to other stuff: like violin practicing and anxiety over global warming. Yeah, I knew parents whose children were having trouble learning how to read. “Cassandra has been diagnosed with dyslexia,” a friend whispered one afternoon in the park. “We’re going to have to send her to a special school…” I felt for my friend, genuinely, the way I felt bad for people whose troubles I hoped never to experience. She was in a foreign land; that was never going to be my country.

Then came my youngest, born just two years and two weeks after the penultimate. For her first few years, she was a presence on the sidelines of her sisters’ various pre-established activities. I guess you could say she benefited from pleasantly benign neglect in a household cluttered with hundreds of children’s books and magazines, including a stack of Cricket Magazines dating from my own childhood. But time passed and she could not read. I didn’t know why. Don’t all children automatically read by six?

“She needs an evaluation,” said her teacher, and not for the first time. My husband and I looked at each other. Not for the first time, the teacher handed us a scrap of paper with the phone numbers of some experts. By seven, our daughter still couldn’t read, but, as always, we read to her. She loved The Children’s Shakespeare, and when we took her to see a production of King Lear she sat in rapt attention, throwing her hands over her eyes seconds before the blinding of Gloucester—because she knew well to anticipate the scene.

Couldn’t write; couldn’t read, despite her intense interest in books. We couldn’t read to her all the time, so she watched a lot of videos, Charlotte’s Web and Shakespeare. At her request, I enrolled her in an acting class at a local theater company. A few weeks before the end of the class, she told me that she wanted to dictate a play for me to type out. I did, and read it back to her repeatedly, line by line, implementing her revisions and corrections. She took copies of the printed-out play to her class to be performed by the students. Later the teacher told me that he and his actor-friends had taken the script home and done a read-through that weekend, for fun, at a dinner party.

I found her a private reading tutor who taught her the rules of English phonics. After much tedious practice, she mastered those rules. But she read without fluency, syllable by syllable, sounding it aloud, tiny drops of sweat forming on her forehead.

The evaluator, a professor in the pediatric neurology department of a famous university, told us that our daughter had been compensating for her disability by dint of intelligence and desire and should be enrolled in a special private school for children with learning disabilities. Along the road, there would be more testing. This was a watershed moment for us because, by coincidence, our daughter’s school only went up to second grade. By coincidence, also, the beloved reading tutor had just been hired for a full-time job and needed to quit freelancing. The special private school cost over twenty thousand dollars a year. And we knew that if we sent her to a regular school as an eight-year-old nonreader she would be pigeonholed. We needed to make an education decision fast.

Sometimes no decision is the decision. Our youngest daughter did not return to any school in September. We began a course of what some would call “radical unschooling,” which in our case was more like old-woman-who-lived-in-a-shoe/deer-in-the-headlights-style paralysis. Our would-be third-grader spent her days drawing, listening to classical music, playing in the woods, and lying on her bed puzzling her way through a three-foot stack of Spider magazines. Once a day I tormented her by making her practice her violin. And then in June, shortly after her ninth birthday, the fifth Harry Potter book, Order of the Phoenix was released for publication in the US. A week before the release, she quietly gathered her sisters’ fat copies of the first four books, barricaded herself in her room, and read them all, barely surfacing for meals over the course of six days. By day seven she was ready for Order of the Phoenix.

That was a quantum leap. From non-reader to fluent reader in a week is a shock to the system. She was one child in May; a different child in June. I realized that if we’d sent her to the special school, she’d probably have begun reading around the same time, and we’d have congratulated ourselves for listening to the evaluator and twenty thousand dollars well-spent.  Or if her tutor had not quit, we’d have congratulated ourselves for sticking with the program. Turns out, our daughter was on her own trajectory, regardless of our background machinations. In September she reintegrated into a new school at grade level, placed into the highest so-called reading group, and was noted by her new teachers as having a knack for literary analysis.

Whereas her sisters have consistently eked out incremental but rewarding progress for their sustained efforts, our youngest daughter’s geometry of learning has been defined by flat lines followed by sudden, breathtaking progress. Those quantum leaps have been unpredictable and seem outside of anyone’s control. Her musical progression (which I will describe in a later column) was similar: long periods of head-butting frustration, followed by a dramatic, transcendent level shift.

By sixteen, she was certain she wanted to be an actor. She had experience with stage, film, and video, so we had no reason to doubt that her destiny was to be a performer, a vessel for another person’s words. She bought and borrowed hundreds of stage plays, which she devoured out of interest, and to inform her audition monologues. Then late one night in the spring of tenth grade she came to me with a printed-out manuscript for a one-act play. I don’t know how she did it, the magic of teaching herself to write a coherent, compelling drama, but here was another level shift.

Three years later, after half a dozen staged productions of her works by both professional and conservatory-level actors, her first fully staged New York production premiered this week at Fordham University Lincoln Center, a terrific, highly competitive undergraduate theater program where she is majoring in playwriting and acting.

One might say that nine is perilously old for a first-time reader; but nineteen is young for a playwright. In our thinking about how human beings learn, we tend to assume that progress is sequential, and accumulative. In my own life, I’ve found it generally true that proficiency is the incremental product of mindful practice. And yet, not everyone comes to mastery through a discernible timetable. It’s a humbling lesson that, as teacher and parent, I learn again, and again.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 14, 2013 at 9:08 PM
Wow, what an amazing story! So enjoyed reading it.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 14, 2013 at 9:48 PM
I propose yet another toast to JK Rowland....Those books definitely helped my kids along!
Posted on November 15, 2013 at 12:29 AM
We have one son who didn't read until he was nearly 13 and is still not a fluent reader (nearly 17), but he's never been in school, never pressured. So he loves books.

His brother can't physically write well, has been diagnosed with dysgraphia--not the real problem, but we have to call it something to get funding for an occupational therapist who is thankfully a very creative problem solver. But when he dictates (using voice-activated software)his writing is amazing, including grammar, transitions, etc. And we never taught him any of that.

Neither of these guys has ever been in school. I simply continued to believe that they would figure it out. The experts call that "compensating." I call it creative thinking and moving at their own pace.

Really enjoyed this post - very validating.

From marjory lange
Posted on November 15, 2013 at 6:15 AM
Your blog, Karen, highlights beautifully what is wrong with an educational system geared to 'average.' For many/most it's endurable and reasonably useful, but for those who are exceptional at any point along the spectrum, it's potentially disatrous.

How fortunate your daughter has been. (All of them, I suppose, but I have sympathy for this one who hears her own drummer so strongly.)

From David Sanderson
Posted on November 15, 2013 at 2:47 PM
An extraordinary story; and a trajectory that surely could never have been predicted. And your own persistence and patience certainly made a significant difference. And perhaps the most important factor was your willingness to opt out of the cookie cutter educational machine, which your daughter arguably could not have survived intact. Some cynicism here - it is only in the last few years that I have developed perspective enough to realize how much I disliked public school, only took me 60 years or so to figure it out.
Posted on November 16, 2013 at 4:08 AM
wow ..this amazing story really complements the swahili proverb that"pole pole ndio mwendo "( slowly is the way to go). amazing
Posted on November 16, 2013 at 2:14 PM
Thank you so much for your thoughts here. I especially love "In our thinking about how human beings learn, we tend to assume that progress is sequential, and accumulative. In my own life, I’ve found it generally true that proficiency is the incremental product of mindful practice."
From Karen Rile
Posted on November 18, 2013 at 10:26 AM
Dear (that sounds odd!) Thanks for your comment. By coincidence I am attempting to learn Swahili right now, so "pole pole ndio mwendo" is a phrase I really take to heart!

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