THE BLOG
11/30/2015 04:46 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2016

A for Effort

It's hard to read with tears in your eyes. I thought the number at the top of Charlie's spelling test was a 78 but I wasn't sure because I was crying.

Charlie looked at me with some trepidation. "It's good, right?" He got several papers from his teacher at the end of the day and he didn't take the time to look before shoving them in his folder.

I composed myself and looked again. Fourteen right out of 18 words. 78 percent. "Yeah, buddy," I said. "It's good." I spoke in short sentences to keep my voice from breaking. "You got a 78."

"Oh yeah!" Charlie shouted. "That's right! Uh huh! Uh huh!" The car rocked as he busted happy dance moves in the back while I looked at his paper.

I realize that most of the time a 78 on a spelling test doesn't result in tears of joy and popping and locking in celebration. That's because sometimes the result of an endeavor fails to reflect the effort involved in achieving that result. Sometimes relatively modest results require Herculean efforts. That day Charlie got a 78 on a spelling test. Less than a year before, essentially, he couldn't read. The road to his 78 took tears, frustration, some anger, a huge amount of work, a smart and stubborn kid and teacher who believed in him.

I realize that third graders aren't reading "War and Peace" for the most part, but they could probably read the title. At the beginning of third grade, Charlie wouldn't have been able to read the "War" part. Charlie has a learning disability. Sometimes the words swim on him. He can spell them out loud, but sometimes he can't get them to come out of the end of his pencil. Sometimes the slightest noise or distraction can throw him off task and make concentrating and studying difficult.

My wife and I picked up on Charlie's issues pretty early. Something was wrong. We couldn't put our fingers on it, but he wasn't interested in books with words. At a time when most children are blossoming as the wonders of written language are opened up to them, Charlie backed off. We didn't worry too much, because he could say his ABC's. We were a little concerned when it took a huge effort to learn to write his name and sometimes the letters were jumbled. Administrators pointed out that we weren't professionals and actually implied that our relatively advanced collective education might lead us to have unrealistic expectations.

During the last half of kindergarten, Charlie was diagnosed with ADHD. We breathed a sigh of relief because we thought maybe the problem was solved. He is a bright, engaging, charismatic kid and we were assured that, with the diagnosis and treatment Charlie would catch up. But he didn't.
It didn't get any better. His concentration and focusing skills improved but not his academic performance. Each time we voiced concern we were reassured. Then they just stopped listening. Finally, near the end of first grade, we insisted on having Charlie tested by the school district. The result was that he was deficient in reading and marginal in math. The fact that he couldn't read or add didn't impress school administrators, but test scores from a professional did. The district put together an Individual Education Plan for Charlie. The private school he attended at the time didn't have the resources to serve the IEP and that meant taking him out of school four times a week to the public school nearest our home. We decided that it was more practical to simply move him to our assigned school.

He spent second grade with a teacher who was determined to help him. However, while everybody in his class was doing second grade work, Charlie was doing kindergarten work. He was improving but he was falling farther behind. That trend continued through the beginning of third grade. Charlie was floundering. He could recognize words, but he couldn't read. Recognizing a bridge doesn't make you an architect. He just wasn't getting it.

Charlie developed coping skills. He avoided reading. He is extremely smart. He is smart enough to get other people to do his reading in social situations. The few people who knew about his issues were floored. They would remark about how smart he was. That's the thing. Having a learning disability has little to do with being intelligent. Charlie is very smart, he just has an issue with learning.

We went to the school with our concerns, again. Things boiled over at a meeting with his third grade teacher and administrators. We voiced our concerns again and his teacher suggested that perhaps Charlie just wasn't going to be a good student. She strongly suggested that we lower our expectations for him. We were irritated the first time we heard that. This time we were pissed.

Lower our expectations? Frankly, we owe it to our children to never, ever low ball our expectations for them because a lot of the times they meet them. If our son meets expectations that we have intentionally lowered because we don't believe in him, then we have failed him. By the same token, we have to realize when a full effort has been made and be happy with the results. All we expected was a full effort. Charlie didn't fail to meet those expectations.

We knew we had to do something but we were lost. We took Charlie out of public school again and enrolled him in a local Montessori school. Overall, it was a positive experience for Charlie, but the Montessori Method wasn't structured enough for him. He needed more.

Kate Ortega is a retired special education teacher. While still with the school district, she administered Charlie's initial testing. They hit it off immediately. She got through to Charlie when other teachers couldn't. She talked to him, not at him and he responded. We needed a tutor and she agreed to help.
We decided that, along with tutoring, the IEP resources would be beneficial, so we moved him back to the public school. The results were slow, but measurable. I won't BS you; Charlie's buy in was sporadic. He liked that he was improving, but sessions with "Miss Kate" cut into his TV and Lego time. "Miss Kate" homework was also problematic. It's hard to find time to pester your little brother when you are working on reading skills. I can't adequately explain the magnitude of the fit thrown when my wife told Charlie that Kate sessions would continue through the summer.

Kate was undaunted by Charlie's histrionics. She was immune to Charlie shenanigans. He realized that she believed in him. She was patient and relentless and Charlie loves her. Somewhere along the line he bought in. I think it was somewhere between reading "Jungle Book" and "Rikki Tikki Tavi" that summer. Kate isn't much for lowering expectations either.

We knew fourth grade was going to be a challenge. Things get real in fourth grade. You get real letter grades as opposed to S and H grades. We got off to a bit of a rough start. The grade on the first spelling test was . . .well . . . bad. Charlie was frustrated because he spelled them all correctly before the test. We looked closer at the test. Most of the words he missed involved a dropped silent letter. Charlie's fourth grade teacher told me that is not uncommon when a child is sounding out a word. It wasn't great but it wasn't a disaster.

On the bottom of his first test was a note from his teacher. I had Charlie read it. It said that if his scores didn't improve Charlie would get a 10-word test instead of an 18-word list. "He's going to give me a special test?" he asked. He gave me the note back and turned walked away. He muttered something that sounded like "Oh Hell no" and got out his new spelling list. He didn't look anything like a child who wanted expectations lowered for him.

I wiped my eyes again while I thought about how much work went into this 78. My wife and I have watched our sons take their first steps, score goals and touchdowns and sack quarterbacks. We watched one son graduate from high school, become successful in his career and recently get married. We spend a lot of time being proud of our boys. This spelling test was right up there because I know what its ingredients are. It is made of equal parts hard work, stubborn kid and strong teacher with dashes of frustration, tears and anger.
We pulled out of the parking lot and made the turn towards home. "I missed four words, right Dad?" I nodded at his smiling face in the rear view mirror. He sat back and looked out the window. "I bet I can do better next time."

It got hard to talk again. "I wouldn't be at all surprised, son."

In fact, I expect it.