My Son, Dyslexia, John Irving, and A Prayer for Owen Meany

My Son, Dyslexia, John Irving, and A Prayer for Owen Meany April 18, 2013

My youngest son has a rare form of dyslexia, fewer than 3% of all dyslexics have this form of  the disorder. He’s working his tail off with a reading specialist twice a week for an hour, on top of daily drills and exercises. All told, I think my wife spends about six hours a week working with him one on one, often in short little bursts that fit the temperament of a first grader – not to mention the countless hours of studying and educating herself, and me, about dyslexia.

The first thing they tell you after they tell you that your child has dyslexia is that this term simply means “trouble reading.” There are tons of different types of dyslexia and studies show that somewhere around 1 out of every 5 kids will struggle with with some form of the disorder. That means in a typical classroom there will be at least three or four children with dyslexia, many of them undiagnosed.

In a text-centric world dyslexia is a major handicap. We have to read and write constantly in our society. Education happens on the page as much as anything.

In my son’s case, whatever the neurological bridge is between phonological symbols and actual use of language has never grown together. There’s a huge gap between the symbols and sounds that he knows really well, and language and meaning which he knows really well in its verbal form. But those two competencies have to come together on the page, there’s a disconnect. He works so hard nearly every single day to throw tiny little ropes from one side of this divide to another. All day long he’s using his strategies to try to get a rope across the divide, hoping it will stick on the other side.

The hope is that after hundreds of hours with reading specialists (cha-ching), and hundreds more on his own, he’ll be able to throw enough little ropes over the chasm, that his mind can start a little make-shift footbridge. Then he can use the footbridge to pull more ropes across until it’s pretty solid. When the footbridge is solid, he’ll have to start pulling cables across – big heavy cables, all by hand. When he’s got enough of those to work with, he’ll have to start to construct the framework for a real bridge, then a foundation for a road, then a road, then hopefully a fully functional highway like most normal readers have always had from the first moments they began to read. In my son’s case, the best case scenario is that after all that work, he will still be looking at time and a half to read what a normal reader can.

The hardest part for me has been watching my son and my wife putting in so much work and effort, giving it so much energy and concentration, but the gap is so wide, it’s just a long way for his little mind to jump. I think I’m kind of angry that he has to struggle like this. I was feeling weird about the anger, it’s not like this is life-threatening. He’s healthy and happy. But, I’m mad about it. I don’t want him to have this struggle anymore.

My favorite fiction author is John Irving, who has dyslexia as well. Irving attended the the prestigious prep school Phillips Exeter Academy because his step-father was a teacher there. Irving says that he worked his tail off in school just to get C’s, and most of is teachers thought he was lazy and stupid. He wrote a few paragraphs about his experience that help me understand the anger I’m feeling:

“I simply accepted the conventional wisdom of the day—I was a struggling student; therefore, I was stupid.

I needed five years to past the three-year foreign language requirement…I passed Latin I with a D, and flunked Latin II; then I switched to Spanish, which I barely survived…

It wasn’t until my younger son, Brendan, was diagnosed as slightly dyslexic that I realized how I had been given the shaft.  His teachers said that Brendan comprehended everything he read, but that he didn’t comprehend a text as quickly as his peers….As a child, Brendan read with his finger following the sentences—as I read, as I still read.  Unless I’ve written it, I read whatever “it” is very slowly—and with my finger.

I wasn’t diagnosed as dyslexic at Exeter; I was seen as just plain stupid.  I failed a spelling test and was put in a remedial spelling class…I wish I’d known, when I was a student at Exeter, that there was a word for what made being a student so hard for me; I wish I could have said to my friends that I was dyslexic.  Instead I kept quiet, or—to my closest friends—I mad bad jokes about how stupid I was.”

My son is diagnosed, we know what word to call it. That’s a blessing. But I know that he’ll have struggles like Irving describes. I don’t ever want my kid to feel that way, but some of it is inevitable. I want him to know how smart he is. I want him to feel confident and to love reading as much as I do. But  no matter what we do, he’s going to feel some of this.

Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is my all-time favorite book. I just finished reading it again, actually I listened to the audio book for the first time. It was interesting listening to it when I’ve read it so many times. My son will probably have to listen to many a book in order to read quickly. It was just this weird confluence of dyslexic themes.

Johnny Wheelwright narrates the story and he has dyslexia. One of the reason’s he is so close to Owen Meany is that Owen is the one person who seems to understand what’s going on with his reading. In part because of Owen’s help Johnny Wheelwright grows up to be an avid reader and even teaches literature at a prep school. I love the idea that this book was written by an author who has dyslexia. I love that I was listening to it, instead of reading it, because this is the experience my son will likely have with a lot of literature. I love the idea that we know what to call it now, and that kids today don’t quite get the shaft like Irving did.

If you’ve never read A Prayer for Owen Meany, stop what you are doing and go buy the book. If fact I think there’s a pdf of the book online, just start reading right now and buy it later. Or better yet, buy the audio book and experience it like a reader with dyslexia might.

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  • Dave Lewis

    I’m very thankful you introduced me to John Irving and specifically Owen Meany so long ago. Our son is named Owen partly because of how much I love that book too. I enjoy reading your posts, it reminds me of our long discussions on the road. You’ve gotten much more edgumacated since then and much older 🙂

  • Tim Suttle

    Dave – hey man! Great to hear from you. Owen!! I want to meet him. I don’t know about edgumacated, but older yes – much older. Hit me up offline – email & let’s catch up. ts

  • Thank you for sharing your story and that of your son. I am encouraged that we need to continue in removing barriers for those with challenges in using standard print. I always share with students that, regardless of whether a problem with print is the result of a visual impairment or dyslexia, reading and comprehending can happen when we unlock the content with the use of more accessible audio formats. Be blessed!

  • Sally Willoughby

    Love your post. I too had reading issues as a child that my parents spent tons of money to try to straighten out. In my case being it was 40 years ago, I feel blessed that my parents cared and my dad had a friend who trained WW2 pilots to fly with vision training. He incorporated these things and we found out one eye saw the left side of the line and the right eye the right and they were not reading together. Training and time I graduated on the honor roll my senior year in HS. ( There is a whole field of Drs who do this testing and training now) I put it this way…I had 20/20 vision but could not read. ANYWAY…Owen Meany is one of my favorite books of all time. I laugh outloud every time I read it. I will listen to it audio now…..

  • Deitra Blackwell

    My son was diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade. We too spent two and a half years in language therapy. Without it, there is no way he would have learned to read. After completing therapy, he was reading at grade level. Throughout school, I was a fairly active advocate for him with his teachers, meeting with them at the beginning of every school year, and whenever he needed an advocate. The goal was to measure his mastery of material, so that if he did not finish a test, for example, to give him more time to finish. By the time he was in high school, I eased off the advocacy; he wanted to manage on his own. He graduated from high school with 30 hours of college credit – AP courses and classes in a program at the local university. His college, Louisiana Tech, accepted all these credits, and he graduated three years later with a 3.4 grade point average. He is currently working for a cell phone repair company and is to start as the manager of his store next month. We also signed him up with Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic for his textbooks and other books. By the time he was in high school, he preferred to read books in the traditional way, without the recordings. My point is that there is a very bright future for your son on the other side of the language therapy. It is important, however, to prepare him to meet the challenges In life that we all face. The world will not care that he had dyslexia, and will not cut him slack for it. He needs you to be in his corner, not to make excuses for him. (I say this because I have seen many parents make excuses for their children and thereby weaken the children.). Best Wishes!

  • Amy

    Loved your article! My son also has Dyslexia and I, like you, hold Irving as my favorite author. It’s been a hard road since my son was diagnosed in second grade, and I learn new things every day. I’m reading an interesting book right now, called The Gift of Dyslexia, check it out! Amy