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Jon: opportunity knocks


It's not often that you get to know your kids' friends--that is, one-on-one, and deeply. But in Jon's case I've had this opportunity. Jon is my oldest son's best friend, and like my own kids, he's dyslexic. Unfortunately, he had no one at home to make learning accessible for him, so he suffered the usual fate: years of being warehoused in special ed classes with mentally challenged kids until, in his freshman year of high school, he got so frustrated he finally dropped out.

Jon is nothing if not determined. Now 21, he'd been working for years at bottom-of-the-barrel jobs when he came to me about a year and a half ago, wondering

if I could teach him to read. He was hoping to get his high school diploma. So of course I said yes; after all, I'd done this before and had some experience--and we set to work. Jon was typical of dyslexics: his father hadn't learned to read until he was in his mid-twenties, and his brother still doesn't read well. Jon was sure at first that he couldn't read at all, but after a preliminary foray through Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad (I've always loved Lobel because he writes wonderful stories using very simple language) we were ready to move on to my standard reading texts: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

Contrary to what you might imagine, Jon has been fascinated with the books, eager to learn how bullets were made, how meat was smoked, how the family survived the various challenges it faced. As a History Channel junkie, he's appreciated the real-life face Laura has put on the period of the building of the transcontinental railroad. For my part, I've had the opportunity to revisit Laura's stories again and understand more about her effective technique as a writer.

At times we stop and talk about something that has come up in the story, or just about things in our lives: dealing with people; work; parenting (Jon has a four-year-old son.) I've really enjoyed the richness of our dialog, and being able to exchange experiences and points of view. It's not an opportunity that usually offers itself to a twenty-something guy and a fifty-something woman.

Jon has a driver's license now; he was able to read the written test himself, which pleased me no end. The license enabled him to get a job as an electrician's apprentice, and now when he comes to see me he tells me about the possibilities for advancement at work and what he's learning. I know he'll go far because he's analytical, a self-starter and a very hard worker.

We're still working on reading. Sometimes the insides of words twist themselves around on him, or 'saw' becomes 'was', or 'no' becomes 'on'. He's learning to recognize the combinations that tend to play tricks on his processing, but he's made a lot of progress and it's very, very cool to sit here and listen to a pretty respectable flow of reading, and to know that words are now something he can work with, not maddening hieroglyphs to be avoided. Few things are as satisfying as seeing someone make genuine progress.

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