To understand how Hindman Settlement School’s dyslexia program was an answer to our prayers, journey with me back to the year 2000 for a typical afternoon of reviewing spelling words with our son, Robert Melton.
“The first word is ‘duck’,” I said as I uneasily glanced at the weekly list of 20 second grade spelling words.
“k… u… c… d?” Robert said hesitatingly.
“D…D… Duck,” I said, scarcely hiding my exasperation. “Pay attention, Robert!”
“I’m trying Mom,” he growled. “Duck… K… U… Oh I don’t know!” He slammed his open hands on the table.
“Robert,” I sighed, with my last ounce of patience, “Just listen… D…Uh…CK…”
He jammed the point of his pencil into the table, splintering the entire pencil. “I just can’t do it!” he screamed.
“Fine.” I barely managed to choke out the word as I got up and left the dining room table, my eyes filling with hot tears.
This scene is indelibly etched in my brain. Why this day, I don’t know. It was much like every other afternoon when Robert was in second grade and we devoted hour after hour to trying to master the week’s spelling words. Perhaps I remember this day because it was the day I wrote the note to his teacher explaining that I was no longer going to help Robert with his spelling words because the ordeal was tearing our family apart! I wasn’t being overly dramatic. Day after day, the results—or lack thereof—from this fruitless process literally put our whole family on edge!
Robert was very bright. Everyone seemed to recognize that. So was he just not trying? Was he just trying to make me mad? After hours of testing and evaluation, the school system’s report to me was brief and unhelpful: “Robert has a very high IQ. The highest we’ve seen in this kind of testing. We think he is just anxious.” Well, he wasn’t the only one who was anxious!
Fast forward three years. We had moved from Massachusetts to southeastern Kentucky to be closer to my husband’s family. Robert was now in fifth grade. I was sitting across a desk from a woman at Hindman Settlement School. She had a folder of test results in front of her as she explained to me that the evaluations clearly showed that Robert had dyslexic tendencies—something I’d long suspected, but could not get anyone to confirm. Feelings of relief and tentative optimism filled the room as the woman explained the summer program and after-school tutoring options available through the Hindman program.
“…he’s been taught the skills and instilled with the self-esteem to thrive with his dyslexia”
Robert eagerly dove into the process or relearning all the letters of the alphabet, how to write them, and the sounds that each letter made—not an easy pill to swallow for an intelligent fifth grader. But after spending six weeks of his summer in Hindman with a group of like-minded kids and warm-hearted tutors, Robert had a new understanding of how and why he learned differently.
So did I. The informational sessions for parents had given my husband and me new insight into how Robert saw the world; and with that new insight came new patience and understanding. One morning at Hindman Settlement School, a speaker stood before a group of parents, holding up a pair of scissors with the points toward the ceiling. “What would you teach your child to call these?” he asked. “Scissors,” the parents murmured. He turned the points of the scissors toward the floor and asked, “Are they still scissors now?” “Yes,” we responded, wondering why he’d ask such a question. “And now?” he said, holding the point of the scissors out to the side. “Are they still scissors?” We all nodded. Then he held up a lowercase “b”… which of course became a “d” when turned around and a “p” when inverted. “So,” he concluded, “we teach our children that scissors are scissors, regardless of how we hold them. But the same is not true for the letter ‘b’? How do we explain that to our children?” He had us there.
I think the biggest “ah-ha moment” occurred when another speaker told our group of parents: “Your children are like an Apple computer and teachers are trying to put an IBM PC disk into them. There’s nothing wrong with the computer and nothing wrong with the disk. They are just not compatible. Your kids need a different kind if disk—a different approach to learning.”
This theme pervades the atmosphere at Hindman Settlement School. Everyone Robert encountered in his three summers at the school and in his years of after-school tutoring in our home county helped to instill in him the belief that being dyslexic—learning “differently”—was far from a bad thing. He came to see that dyslexia means he has to do some things differently and work harder at certain tasks. However, he also came to believe that dyslexia was not something to be ashamed of or hide. He never shied away from telling people he was dyslexic. In fact, he often wears his dyslexia like a badge of honor!
During his senior year in high school, he took five AP (advanced placement, college-level) classes and graduated near the top of his class at North Laurel High School. He was awarded a substantial, merit-based scholarship to attend Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan where he enrolled in a challenging five-year Architectural Engineering Program in which he will earn both a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree upon graduation. In addition,he won an out-of-state scholarship competition to which the university invited only a dozen of the top out-of-state freshman applicants.
When I told Robert I was writing this article, he told me, “Most of my teachers don’t even believe me when I tell them I have an IEP (an individualized education plan) for dyslexia. And one of my teachers was so amazed when she found out that I was dyslexic that she told me I should become a motivational speaker!”
Robert still misreads words and reverses letters. But today he laughs about it. “I’m dyslexic, Mom,” he says with pride, “I’m allowed to read it that way!” And thanks to Hindman Settlement School, he’s been taught the skills and instilled with the self-esteem to thrive with his dyslexia.