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Holes in Their Soles, but They Can Read

by Joan T. Esposito

This article is being written for teachers in order to emphasize how important you are for our children who have learning disabilities. The future lives of these children are literally in your hands.

There will never be an easy time for me to relate this story to you, so I will try my best to do it now as my last President's message. In February of this year I was called back to my home town Liverpool, England, for my older brother's funeral. Jerry's funeral was one of the most painful experiences of my life.

Jerry and I came from a family of six children. Out of all my brothers and sisters, Jerry and I were the most severely affected by our learning disabilities. The difference between Jerry and me was that I eventually found out, at age forty-four, why I could not spell or read. Jerry never did. Over the years when I would visit Liverpool I would try to casually and gently talk to him about his dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, but I was unsuccessful in helping him to understand his disabilities. He would change the subject or deny there was any real problem. He did not want to be different from his male friends, like his mates at the local pub, his loyal fishing partner Alphie or his friend who owned a farm where my brother spent many happy days. I understood and had empathy for his unwillingness to acknowledge and face his fears about being different from others.

Jerry was not unlike many of my older male clients that I assist at the Dyslexia Awareness and Resource Center in Santa Barbara. Many of these clients will take several months or years to come back for their next appointment because they try to deny that anything is "wrong" with them. However, my brother was not as fortunate as my clients, who have a place to go where they can receive support and guidance, free of charge, for as long as they need until they come out of their denial stage. Sadly, for Jerry and me, we were only able to spend a few days with each other every two years. I did not have that luxury of time to help him overcome his fears.

It was not surprising that my brother refused to see the truth about his disabilities. They had been associated with such painful memories. My brother stuttered as a child. He was teased regularly and he failed miserably in school. He would run away from school and home. One time he ran away from home for three weeks. He hid in a bombed out church across the road from our flat. He would catch pigeons and sell them to the Chinese restaurants so he could buy food for himself.

One of Jerry's only comforts was the time he spent with animals. Some of my fondest memories with Jerry involved us playing with animals. One time he brought home a monkey which we both loved. Several times the monkey got loose and did some damage to our flat. My father made Jerry take the monkey back to the pet shop and sell it. Jerry spent days peeking through the window of that pet shop looking at his beloved monkey. Neighbors told my father where Jerry was spending his days. Finally my father took the bus into town to the pet shop and brought Jerry home, without the monkey.

Jerry adored animals! His life revolved around them. After all, animals did not tease him when he stuttered and they did not care if he could not spell or if he did crazy things resulting from his attention deficit disorder. Animals love unconditionally and this is exactly what Jerry needed in his life. If there was a sick animal in our neighborhood, children would look for Jerry to make it better. Jerry somehow had that gift.

Jerry had a reputation for mixing up days and being late. When I first brought my husband, Les, home to Liverpool, Jerry was to pick us up at the airport. I had written him with the date we were to arrive. As a result of my own problems with dyslexia, I reversed the numbers and told him we would be in the day before we were due to arrive, I telephoned my girl friend and had her meet with Jerry and tell him about my mistake. He said he understood but he still showed up at the airport the day before we arrived. He had to go back to the airport the next day to pick us up. He was so apologetic for what he called his "stupid mistake". His family teased him about it for the rest of our holiday. Jerry had spent his entire life being teased. It was painful to watch him try so hard to please others and do things right and then be later criticized for his behavior.

At the age of eighteen, Jerry met his wife. They married in their twenties and had five children. As the children grew older, they also teased him which only made Jerry retreat further into himself. He increasingly turned to his animals for support. Jerry spent years breeding prize racing pigeons which he would race from France to England. His pigeons won many prizes for him. Some of his happiest days were spent on his friend's farm in Wales, where he would tinker with the broken farm equipment, enjoy the animals and go fishing.

I am very fond of Jerry's wife and children. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, his family, like Jerry, did not understand why he did some of the things he did. I tried to explain to his family that Jerry had learning disabilities, but it was too late for them to understand. They had become a dysfunctional family many years earlier. They could not get over their anger at him for being so distant.

At the age of sixty three Jerry's wife left him and filed for a divorce. She could no longer put up with his isolating himself from the family, his stubbornness, forgetfulness, procrastination and his occasional temper outbursts. The year that led up to the final divorce was a living nightmare for Jerry. He loved his wife and could not understand why she left him. He truly could not understand it!

Jerry was like a naive child. He would take the letters from her lawyer to my brother or my sister or my niece and ask them to read them to him because he did not understand what the lawyer was saying. Jerry could read on a fifth grade level. His spelling was poor and he had no knowledge of grammar. Jerry's wife had always taken care of the bills and filled out any forms. He was now alone and he did not know how to function. During this time Jerry would call me on the telephone and cry--I had never heard my brother cry before. I felt so helpless hearing him in so much pain. He was too far away and too old for me to try and get him out of his denial. It was too late to tell him how his undiagnosed learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder had destroyed him and his relationship with his wife and family.

The combination of losing his wife, the humiliation of having to ask family members and friends to read the letters and the pressure to face "his secret" was too much for my brother. A few days after he was served with his final divorce papers, my brother Jerry died of a heart attack.

I only spent six days in Liverpool. The funeral was excruciating. The day after the funeral I did not want to see any family members, so I arranged to visit a school that was located about three miles from my brother' 5 home. The school, Knowsley Support Center, is operated by the local public school district for children with learning disabilities. The school is located in a section of Liverpool where there is a lot of poverty. Many parents are on welfare and the schools do not have a lot of money. Some of the children attending the school had cardboard placed in the bottom of their shoes because of holes in their soles.

The Knowsley Support Center offers their students several different programs based on the severity of their reading disability. All the students are given intensive day long reading, writing, spelling, cursive handwriting and math lessons. The teachers also work on the students' self esteem. The head teacher believes that next to reading and spelling problems, self esteem is a student's biggest hurdle.

The Headmaster and head teacher invited me to spend the whole day at the school. It was the only time in my entire life when I wanted to stay in a school forever. All of the staff at the school were exceptionally sensitive. By the way the children behaved, it was obvious they felt secure and loved. After having lunch with the students, I was invited to sit with a local policeman in the auditorium as the Headmaster gave the students awards. One student received an award for keeping close behind his peers as they ran around the field. He was a little heavy and clumsy. As he ran past the policeman and me, looking at us with a big smile, he stumbled over another student's feet. He kept on smiling as he picked himself up and ran to receive his award. Another boy, who stuttered and wore glasses, reminded me of Jerry. As the students received their awards, I could not help but think of Jerry... If only he could have had the opportunity to be educated in this kind of environment that would have been supportive of his learning style.

At the end of the day I also had the chance to observe twenty regular education teachers from various local schools come for a training on how to teach learning disabled students in mainstream classes. The Knowsley Support Center uses the Hickey Reading Method which was developed in England. This method is based on an American methodology which was created to improve reading, spelling and cursive handwriting. Several years ago teachers from England came to the United States to study Alphabetic Phonics, a multisensory teaching approach based on the Orton-Gillingham method. The Orton-Gillingham method was specifically designed to teach students who have dyslexia. This methodology was published in 1935 and has been used in private schools across the United States for over 45 years. The Knowsley Support Center is an innovative school that can well be used as a model for public schools in the United States.

I left the school that day feeling sad for my brother's lost lifetime. Jerry would have made a fine veterinarian. Yet I found myself feeling happy knowing that at least these children were being given the opportunity and the choice to break the cycle of poverty. Many of these students may have holes in their soles but they will be able to read and grow up with an education and the skills to access the job market which will pay them a salary so they can afford to buy new shoes for their children.

Originally published in The GRAM, the newsletter of LDA-CA, The Learning Disabilities Association of California

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