At the start of this year, I started home schooling my little lad.
I had always thought home schooling was for people who like wearing Medieval clothes and re-enacting the Battle of Hastings in French at weekends, or who have been preparing their child, since before birth, to do a maths degree at Harvard aged nine. On a scholarship.
Then my little lad started having panic attacks, insomnia and vomiting through anxiety. He kept me awake literally all night crying. I realised there can be other reasons for home schooling, too.
My son has dysgraphia. This is related to dyslexia, from which almost everyone in my family suffers. Eksept mie. Dyslexia means problems with reading, and dysgraphia means problems with writing. Having been my older sister’s homework checker throughout my childhood, and adoring all her creative spellings, the mere mention of these problems gets me in a sillie mude! I still remember a fascinating and brilliant essay she wrote all about Tropickle Rane Forrests.
But let me be serious for a moment. If I can.
There’s a part of your brain that recognises symbols, and knows that the shapes “A-P-P-L-E” represent a certain sound. There’s a separate part of your brain, which knows that sound means a crunchy green or red fruit. When you read, a neural motorway connects them so they can work together. When you read aloud, another couple of roads connect each of these centres to a third part of your brain, which commands the movements of your mouth, tongue and vocal chords.
When you write, a fourth centre is involved, controlling the fine movements of the hand, and another set of neural motorways is needed to connect it to the network.
In people with dyslexia or dysgraphia, one or all of these neural motorways is reduced to a single lane, or closed off completely. This gives them weird, trippy effects. Some of them see the letters walking around the page like ants. Some people with dyslexia can only read if they say the words aloud or mouth them quietly – they’re taking the long way around two roads, as the direct route is closed off for them. Different roads are shut off in different people.
I remember my mother once reading a newspaper article out loud to me.
“What did that say?” she asked at the end.
“But you just read it yourself,” I pointed out.
“I know, but I wasn’t listening,” she answered.
Dysgraphia isn’t just messy writing or bad spelling. It’s a serious impediment to the process of transforming intelligent thoughts into symbols on paper. Telling a child with dysgraphia that his writing looks terrible, and making him do it again, is as cruel as telling a child with a limp to go back to the door and walk into the classroom again, and this time stop doing that stupid walk. For my son, filling one page with writing takes such intense effort that he usually breaks down in tears from sheer exhaustion.
Yet my son’s former class teacher thinks dysgraphia means “stupid and spoilt.” She spent three years telling him off for writing messily, skipping letters, and not being able to keep up with her three-page-long dictations of drivel about the melancholy colours of autumn, or Piero the Lonely Clown.
After an intensive campaign of criticism and being made to feel inadequate at school, my little lad’s self esteem had plummeted to the point where he was plagued with doubt about whether 2 plus 2 really does equal 4. Literally. He went into a mental paralysis.
At my son’s school you cannot have a private meeting with the teacher. You have to barge into the class and talk in front of all the children.
“Who does he think he is, expecting to be treated differently from the rest of the class,” the teacher said to me. “Is he autistic? He needs more discipline.”
“What I need is a teacher who can explain Steven Hawking’s theory of the Big Bang,” interjected Kiddo in English, “Instead of having a nervous breakdown when I write outside the margins.”
His teacher did not react as she does not understand English.
“This report from the Italian state health service says Kiddo has an I.Q. of 140 and the vocabulary of a 17-year-old,” I told her, handing over a dossier covered in the official rubber stamps Italians adore so much. “It lists the ways he needs help in class. Basically, photocopies and worksheets instead of dictations and copying off the board.” The document actually specified which Italian law obliges her to do as they say.
“But he needs to learn how to write properly,” she insisted.
“No I don’t,” piped up the little lad. “The only people who do handwriting at work nowaday’s are greengrocer’s. Everyone else use’s computer’s.”
Nine months of begging for a few simple provisions for my son achieved nothing. I realised I was going to have to do it myself.
To my surprise, it’s a lot of fun. We’ve been doing Egyptians, and we just mummified my lad’s toy crocodile using toilet paper and some of my pendants as religious amulets. We wrote a few hieroglyphic messages of protection and good luck on the side of the sarcophagus (Oh alright, it was a cardboard box). We made Hubby join us in tearing at our hair and wailing disconsolately for the “opening of the mouth” ceremony.
Actually we led Daddy off the hair-tearing, as his already modest crop of hair falls out all by itself these days.
I saw a massive poster in Palermo last week, advertising an operation that involves transplanting the hairiest part of your chest up onto your bald pate so that – hey presto! – you look young again and can pull a suspiciously fake-blonde woman with double-D breasts. This type of chest-dependent surgical rejuvenation seems tailor-made for the Italian market, and may explain why I have seen so many wannabe playboys lately with hair that evoked windswept pubis.
But I digress.
The best thing about about home schooling my son is that he is happy and relaxed again, and his intellectual curiosity has returned.
Next week, I am going to teach my son about a little boy who had similar challenges to him. He hated school and its rote learning. He learned to speak late, just like my little lad. He often ignored his teachers when they asked him questions. Many people thought his social ineptitude meant he was autistic. His parents were cousins and, worried about his genetics, they took his to the doctor to be tested for mental retardation.
That boy’s name was Albert Einstein.