In recent years, I have become more aware and sensitive to the meaning of “special child.” One in particular is very close to my heart.
Is it true that there are more kids today with learning disabilities and special needs than “back in the day?” I wonder why. Has our environment so deteriorated that it is poisoning us? Could it be the air, chemicals in our food, the vanishing ozone layer, a hole in the sky?
Today, we have ever-growing resources from where to access information about learning disabilities and mental, developmental or neurological disorders. Thanks to assiduous research, we have schools with tailor-made curricula for these children as well as their parents. But it was not always like this.
In my time way back then, if a child was not doing well in school he was branded lazy, or slow or just dumb. If he had tantrums or mood swings, he was without doubt a spoiled brat and needed a spanking. If he misbehaved in school, he was reprimanded, punished, suspended and eventually expelled.
Children with such a school record were considered bad company and ostracized. As heartless as it may sound, that’s the way it was.
I suppose it was easier to attach labels than to try to understand. We looked to fix blame. “He takes after his parents,” “the fruit does not fall far from the tree” were familiar comments. There was scant, if any, information available to make us think something was not right. How little we knew then.
I think of children from my generation who were pushed away and persecuted because they were different. How terrible it must have been for them and their parents.
This is why I cried when I learned that one of my favorite cousins, once thought incorrigible, was discovered very late in life to be dyslexic.
I want you to meet Joe.
He looked like Robert Mitchum. Does anyone remember that “hunk” from my generation? He always played the tough guy, but was also a great romantic lead. Joe had the same naughty sparkle in his eyes and he, too, walked tall.
His name was Jose Luis Razon. We called him Testes, a nickname his mother gave him. But in America, where he lived most of his life, they called him Joe.
As a young boy, he was always in trouble. He was hyper, distracted and unmotivated. He thought nothing of skipping school just to dream the day away by the breakwaters. His lessons were never ready and he was held back several times and eventually kicked out of school. He was in fistfights. At the bottom of every scuffle, there was Joe, bloody, dirty, but still smiling.
We were together during the war and he told us stories about guerillas, exciting battles and liberation. When it was over, Joe packed his bags and joined the merchant marines. We didn’t hear from him for many years.
One day, my father was docking a huge ship in Manila and heard someone calling out “Tio Ramon!” Looking down from the bridge he saw Joe, swinging on a scaffold, painting the ship. He was happy. This was his world.
I don’t know how much longer he stayed onboard or how far he sailed. But one day, Joe met Marie Barlow on deck. They shared an apple and fell in love. From that moment on, he became a devoted family man. His wife was the love of his life. They had six daughters and one son.
He started as a carpenter and later became a construction superintendent in San Francisco. I remember driving with him in that beautiful city by the bay and he would point to one house and then another, then a building, and would say with a naughty smile: “I built that, and that. Not too bad for a problem child, huh?”
Joe’s world almost crumbled when he lost Marie to cancer. He poured himself into his work and spent every minute he could with his children and grandchildren.
Several years ago, one of Joe’s grandsons was having a bad time in school and was diagnosed with dyslexia. When Joe heard about the symptoms, he said, “Hey, that was me when I was a little boy. I was exactly like that!”
The marks were identical and they concluded that there was every indication that Joe was dyslexic, as well. After all the years of feeling different, of thinking he didn’t measure up, of being left out, Joe finally knew why.
A few days ago, Joe was laid to rest beside his beloved Marie in San Francisco. He died in Honolulu while on one of his visits with his daughters and grandchildren who lived there.
He was healthy and strong all his life. We thought he was indestructible. Even in his 80s, he challenged his grandsons at pushups. But there was a flu bug going around. He caught it, complications set in and one afternoon, he took a nap and woke up in heaven.
The news of his passing brought me deep sorrow. With it came happy memories of time spent together, too short, not ever enough and sadly, never again.
What is dyslexia? One source explains, “It is a language-based learning disability, characterized by a difficulty in reading in people who otherwise possess the intelligence and motivation considered necessary for accurate and fluent reading. In practical terms, dyslexia means we are smart, but we read slowly.”
Dyslexia is common in children, especially boys. There is no cure. It is hereditary. It is not caused by the absence of a desire to learn.
It is important to remember that dyslexia is absolutely NOT related to low intelligence.
Just look at the names found under “famous people with the gift of dyslexia”: John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, actor Tom Cruise, Gen. George Patton, Winston Churchill, Muhammad Ali, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas A. Edison, who at the age of six brought a note home from his teacher saying: “He’s too stupid to learn.” And the list goes on.