Making the Most of God's Gifts – by Caroline Updyke, Short Hills, NJ (as appeared in Guideposts)
Her daughter was brave about her learning disability, braver than her mother.
My phone buzzed as I got out of the car and walked up to my daughter Lauren’s school. I didn’t have to look. I knew it was a reminder that I was due in her classroom in 15 minutes. As if there was any way I could have forgotten what I’d promised to do for her eighth birthday. I’d stayed up all night worrying about it.
That morning at breakfast I’d asked Lauren again, “Are you sure that’s the book you want me to read?” She looked up from her cereal and said, “Yes, Mommy, I’m sure. Mrs. Small said to have you read my favorite book and Thank You, Mr. Falker is my favorite.”
I knew Lauren loved the book. I did too. We’d discovered it a year earlier, not long after she was diagnosed with a language-based learning disorder—a fancy way of saying she’s dyslexic.
Thank You, Mr. Falker is by the children’s book author and illustrator Patricia Polacco. It’s about her own struggles in school. She could draw well but could not read.
She was teased and bullied and felt terrible about herself until fifth grade, when her teacher, Mr. Falker, realized she had a learning disability and taught her to read. The book ends with her running into Mr. Falker years later and telling him she’s now a writer and artist, thanks in large part to how he changed her life.
Lauren started this school year—second grade—not being able to read. At all. That didn’t seem to get in her way. She was full of opinions and not afraid to express them. She told imaginative stories. And like the young Patricia Polacco, she was quite the artist.
Her teachers assured my husband and me that eventually Lauren would learn to read, and we believed them.
But how long would that take and what would she lose in the meantime? What would her classmates say when she couldn’t read aloud the way they could? How could I give my daughter self-confidence when she was failing at the most emphasized skill at school?
I kept asking God to protect Lauren and light her path forward. She’s so smart and creative, I’d pray. I don’t want dyslexia to be the thing that defines her.
I signed in at the office and took my time walking to her classroom, noticing all the homages to the written word in the hallways. Book reports lined the walls and a large yellow bulletin board proclaimed, “Reading Is Fun.”
Was it a good idea to read Lauren’s class a story about a dyslexic girl? Would describing the ways the author had been bullied as a child give my daughter’s classmates permission to torment her? Reading wouldn’t be fun for Lauren if that happened. It would be misery.
Mrs. Small met me at the door and led me to the front of the classroom, where there were two chairs set up side by side. The kids sat on the carpet. I waved to the aide, Mrs. Thompson, who had been such a help to Lauren, and took one of the chairs.
Lauren sat beside me, sporting a paper crown with “BIRTHDAY GIRL” written on it in crayon. The L was pointing in the wrong direction. I opened the book and began to read. The kids sat in a semicircle, eyes pinned on me. I felt Lauren’s little hand drape over my leg.
I came to the part where the girl is bullied by her classmates. Steadying my voice, I read the insults aloud. Inwardly I cringed. “Toad.” “Stupid.” “Dumbbell.” I could hardly imagine what it would be like if her classmates said those cruel things to Lauren. My voice nearly faltered.
Then I got to the paragraph where, thanks to Mr. Falker, the girl discovers that a learning disability is the cause of her challenges.
Lauren raised her hand and said, “Stop.” I glanced at her, puzzled. “Mom, can I say something?”
Oh, no. What is she going to say? Hoping she couldn’t hear my heart hammering, I said, “Sure, sweetie, what do you want to tell the class?”
Lauren looked at her classmates, cleared her throat and said, “I have what she has. I have dyslexia. I am just like Patricia Polacco.” Her eyes scanned the room.
“You know I’m a good artist and that’s probably why my brain is taking longer to read. But I am very smart and I am going to grow up to be a writer. Like Patricia Polacco.” No embarrassment or hesitation in her voice. Just confidence. And pride, even.
Then she turned to me and commanded, “Okay, Mom, continue.”
I did, keeping my eyes glued to the page. Finally I reached the part where the adult Patricia runs into her old teacher and tells him, “Why, Mr. Falker, I make books for children.” I paused and looked up.
The kids sat enraptured. The story had reached them like all good stories should—in the heart. The adults too. Mrs. Small and Mrs. Thompson had tears rolling down their cheeks. Our eyes met. We knew something beautiful had just happened. Something amazing.
I’d asked God to keep dyslexia from defining Lauren. And yet it had. God had used her reading deficit to embolden her, to fuel her dreams and her confidence. She saw her disability as motivation—as a strength—not as a liability. And that was the message for me too.
Lauren is 10 now, in fourth grade. Her classmates have never given much thought to her dyslexia other than to help her when she needs it. Thank You, Mr. Falker remains one of her favorites and these days shares the bookshelf with Harry Potter.
She is still bursting with opinions and is still quite the artist. And yes, she loves to write stories. Her spelling is creative, but that doesn’t stop her from putting all the stories she dreams up down on paper. Her latest is a play about a penguin named Snowy who likes to drink fish tea.
Someday, Lauren hopes to thank Patricia Polacco in person, which she predicts will likely happen at a writers’ conference. That’s because she plans to become a famous author as well as an actor and a singer.
Once I might have doubted this outcome, but now? Now I believe that with the gifts she’s been given, anything is possible.