If You Can Read, Thank a Teacher !
Back when I was a kid in the early 60’s living in suburban New Jersey, nobody knew anything about dyslexia; kids like me were just considered “slow.”
Even in the 5th grade, when I attempted to read even the simplest books, I couldn’t make sense of the words. I’d look at the printed letters on the page and they would literally move around, jumping from one place to another. Sometimes I could get a feeling for what the words meant but my inner comprehension didn’t translate into being able to say the words out loud – I just couldn’t read. To this day, I often write the last letter of a word first or start a sentence in the middle of a page, and my writing is illegible. I even type my shopping lists because I can’t read my own handwriting
Throughout grade school, because of dyslexia, I was barely able to read, write, spell or do arithmetic – in other words, I lacked the basic skills to do just about anything I needed to succeed in school. (Truth be told, even now as I write this blog, I Googled the word “arithmetic” because, well … I don’t have a clue.)
Kids are cruel and they constantly made fun of me. I was called “stupid” more times than I can count. Up until recently, hearing that word made my hackles go up ready for a fight. I remember one incident when a group of “popular girls” forced me play “monkey in the middle” as I desperately tried to capture one of the “stupid kids books” they stole from me. They tossed the book – the embarrassing evidence of my stupidity – back and forth over my head again and again, all the while mocking and taunting, calling me names.
Demeaning slow kids was institutionalized. One year, to divide up the school into class sections, they gathered the entire population into the auditorium. The principal called up each child individually by name and the group had to stand facing the assembly until the last students name was called. When I heard my name called out for the lowest section, my heart sank. Name by name, they called out all of the “slow” kids in my grade, as we were forced to stand facing the entire school. I was mortified; I wished I would vanish into a deep hole in the floor and bury myself.
Before my mom would let me go out to play, she would read to me or sit with me for hours on end holding up “Flash Cards” that look like huge dominos. She’d place them squarely in front of my face repeating the same answers to addition, subtraction and multiplication over and over again – ad nauseam. But no matter how many hundreds of times she went through the pack, flashing the same images, I could not remember the answers. In fact now, 50 years later, I still can’t add and I don’t know my multiplication tables past 5. But, I do remember those Flash Cards with their domino images. When I want to add, I visualize those dots forever imprinted in my brain floating in the air in space – and to arrive at the answer, I count the dots in front of my eyes.
Grouped together with all of “slow” students, mostly the poorer kids including children of color who had no access to private tutors – we were known as the class “retards” or “dummies.” Because of the constant teasing, frustration, feelings of worthlessness and a tumultuous home life, I ended up getting into lots of fights. Even though I had a tutor and my mother tutored me herself almost every day, I just could not seem to make any progress. So, I took my anger out on other kids – I became a bully.
In school I was always put in the “rough” sections filled with other “slow” kids – who were “troublemakers” like me. In 5th grade, a boy named “Guy” sat behind me and instead of listening to the teacher he would relentlessly pull my hair.
One day when my teacher, Mr. Rosamelia, was momentarily out of the classroom, I stood up after a particularly hard yank, and turned around and yelled at my torturer at the top of my lungs. Guy responded by punching me in the gut with all of his might, shoving his fist so hard and so far up into my diaphragm, I doubled over in pain, gasping and wheezing for air. When he saw the result of his punch, knowing I would retaliate in kind, Guy started running. Despite the pain and panic at my inability to breathe, my ferocity took over. Like a Wild Child, I grasped the edges of the two desks standing between us and flung them helter-skelter to opposite sides of the classroom, where they thundered into the walls. The boy ran licitly-split out of the classroom, and I, now at full speed, chased him – bashing, smack dab into the formidable belly of my over 6 foot tall teacher, Mr. Rosamelia.
Of course Mr. Rosamelia, who witnessed only me, long hair flying, ranting and raving – along with the disastrous condition of the classroom – made me stay after school that day. I sat down across from him at his big wooden desk, angry, hurt, facing stacks of the many English books that had accumulated over the years that I had yet, and probably would never, be able to read.
The reading levels in grade school were color coded, so that you had to get through all the colors: Yellow to Green to Blue to Red – to get to Purple, the top book. Of course I was still struggling word by word through Yellow, the bottom book, when almost everyone else in my class was sailing through Purple, reading aloud as if the words automatically streamed from the page into their minds and out of their mouths like an easy-flowing river. I slumped down in my chair as the formidable stacks loomed large, physical proof of my inability to accomplish anything, ever. I felt despondent, clearly I would never be able to make any headway – I was just too “dumb.”
Instead of giving me a lecture about my bad behavior, Mr. Rosamelia stood and solemnly took the purple book off the top of a stack and placed it in the middle of his desk. Then he gathered all of the books and held them with two hands, the Yellow, Green, Blue and Red – a rainbow-color of volumes that represented years and years of barriers, frustration and inadequacy. He held the books aloft in the air over his head, and with one grand dramatic gesture, Mr. Rosamelia threw the books down – crashing – into the metal wastebasket beside his desk!
Then Mr. Rosamelia picked up the Purple book and gestured towards me. As he looked me in the eyes, he said: “Now, you’ve read them all – read this!”
Tears are streaming down my face now over 50 years later as I type these words, because, you know what? As the books came crashing down, the barriers, the pain, the frustration, the self-doubt – my “stupidity” – all of it shattered and crashed with them – and from that day on, like a miracle, I was able to read the Purple book!
Sure, I still had problems, I still struggled, I wasn’t the best in the class, and there were many more hurdles in the years ahead. But somehow, I had faith in myself because my teacher Mr. Rosamelia had faith in me.
Now at age 61, sometimes you’ll find me at the Food Coop looking quizzically at a handwritten shopping list, cursing under my breath for not typing it, wondering what in the world I’m supposed to buy scribbled indecipherably on the little slip of paper. But, when I’m temped to call myself “stupid,” I correct myself, I don’t demean myself any more – the voices of those other kids no longer taunt me – because of Mr. Rosamelia, I cut myself some slack. And hey, thanks to computers and spell check and calculators, as an adult usually I get by just fine.
Mr. Rosamelia, if you are still alive today, this is a Shout Out to you. I honor you and thank you from the bottom of my heart. And if you’ve passed over, and if there really is a heaven, I know you are there Mr. Rosamelia, because that one dramatic gesture of faith way back in 1962 when I was in your 5th grade class
… well Mr. Rosamelia … it changed my life!
Tuesday, May 7th is National Teacher Day, the day and week we honor those who teach and inspire our youth. Would you like to honor a teacher? Read more about National Teacher Day and week at http://www.nea.org/grants/1359.htm