Tony goes to High School
In High School, Tony made the decision not to rely on help from Special Education teachers and manage on his own. This was partly because the Special Ed room was generally filled with the usual slow learners and was referred to as the “Retard Room.”
He still had his IEP (Individual Education Plan) that teachers were supposed to read… suggesting that Tony should be allowed to take oral tests and be given appropriate help in class. As far as I know, he never took an oral test. He asked one teacher if he could tape record lectures since he couldn’t take notes. She told him no, so he put the recorder in his book bag. Eventually we began making copies of notes from several top students for him to study. At least these students sympathized with his problems.
At home, I still read him all his textbooks. To write papers, he dictated while I typed. He was allowed to take advanced classes in science. Biology as a Freshman, then Chemistry, Physics and finally, as a senior, AP Physics and AP English.
He explained to each of his teachers about being dyslexic and most teachers made some modifications. His Spanish teacher taped the tests. Tony played the questions on one tape recorder and taped his answers on another. I’m sure his test scores weren’t really good enough but, thanks to sympathetic teachers who understood that he knew the material but couldn’t do well on test, all of his grades were fairly good. His chemistry teacher even gave him extra credit for a Science Fair project that won a blue ribbon and special awards at the state fair.
But Tony still couldn’t read. So, for his junior year of High School, he went to Landmark, a boarding school for dyslexic students. He was eager to go, but made very sure first, that he could take physics. He had, even before studying physics, decided to be a physics teacher. They said yes.
But when students arrived, they were all given placement tests. Tony was placed, not in Physics but in Marine Biology. He described it as “walking on the beach and talk about what you see. Tony’s opinion was that it was a class for dummies. I’m sure other disagreed.
Tony explained to his teacher that he really needed to take physics. He was told he couldn’t because he didn’t have a fourth grade reading level. Tony went to the department head, to the dean of students, etc. up to the school president. They all told him the same thing. If you can’t read 4th grade level, you cannot take Physics.
Tony called us and we called the president, reminding him that they had told parents that one of their main goals was teaching students to self-advocate. Tony was self-advocating like no other student in the school, and they weren’t rewarding him for this. I explained that Tony had only gone there with the promise he could take Physics. Finally I said, “We want Tony in that Physics Class. If he fails, that’s fine. But we want him in physics.” They finally put him in physics.
I’m sure the physics teacher was warned that Tony would have a really hard time in the class. By the end of the first class, he could tell Tony knew a lot about physics. Later, when the chose the two best students to take part in a special class for gifted students – a physics class at Harvard University – Tony was one of the two and he loved it. And at the end of the year, he and the other student were recognized as the best physics student. …. and but he was still reading 3rd grade level.
Toward the end of his junior year, the students at Landmark signed up to take the SAT. Since they were all dyslexic, they had three choices.
1. They could have a reader, a person who would read each question and the choices for answers… again and again if needed. Tony would have made excellent scores that way.
2. They could have had a tape of someone reading the questions and answers. That would have helped too.
3. They could do it without help but take all the time they needed. Tony, as independent as ever, chose this way.
At home, maybe for Spring Vacation, he was working on the practice book. After an hour he still hadn’t done the first problem. He finally asked me what a Kizel was… at least that’s how I’d spell what he said. I checked the book. The word was chisel. I would have thought he’d look at ch and think the “ch” sound first, but he apparently had recently seen a word where the ch was pronounced like a k….. The only one I can think of is Bach. How could he take the SAT if he couldn’t read the questions?
He spent three long days taking his SAT, starting after breakfast, and then taking breaks for lunch and dinner. But, to our amazement, his scores were not that bad. They would certainly get him into college.
The next year, back in Rhode Island, Tony took AP Physics. That wasn’t a surprise, but taking AP English was. Tony said he preferred learning literature rather than “just grammar and stuff like that..” And he already had the teacher’s permission. After all, if a student is blind and can’t read at all, he would be permitted to take the advanced classes.
Note: for those not familiar with AP classes. These are Advanced Placement classes. Students taking these classes are able to take a standardized test and get college credit. Tony didn’t take the tests. He knew he would fail. He still was reading at third, or maybe fourth grade level. He couldn’t read any of his books in high school, though he occasionally tried reading the chemistry book. The assignments were very short: sometimes a single page. Also, the words were very long. They didn’t look like other words. He could read “hydrogen” or “combustion” but not the three or four letter words.
And then there was another interesting surprise. Tony took the usual achievement tests. When we saw the results we were amazed. Tony’s score was somewhere near the 75th percentile in reading, well above average. I asked him how he had gotten such a high score. He explained that he didn’t really read any of it. He looked over the multiple choice answers, then looked through the long reading selection until he found something that looked similar and marked it as his answer.
I’m pretty sure nobody taught him this method, but he had a test in front of him that he couldn’t read. He had to do something, and this seemed perfectly logical. What a shame he couldn’t get through college this way.
On the same test, his spelling scores were in the first percentile, meaning that 99% or more of high school seniors could spell better. When faced with four alternate spellings of a word, they all looked equally good to Tony. He simply had to guess. I’d guess that 99.99 of high school seniors could spell better than Tony.
And then College
Many students like Tony would have given up on going to college. Tony was stubborn. He was going to be a physics major and nothing was going to make him give up. He started at Boston University where they had a two-year program for students with learning disabilities. But, at the end of that program students took two regular classes. Tony took Calculus and Physics and failed them both.
He took them again in summer school and failed them both again. He tried a semester at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and failed them again but passed a class in philosophy. I think he must have gotten a lot of credit for class participation.
Finally, he enrolled at Curry College, a small college just outside Boston, that had a four-year support program for students with learning disabilities. It still wasn’t easy but he got a degree in Physics and continued there to get his Master’s degree in eduction and went on to teach high school physics.
Tony Learns to Read
Several years later, I noticed Tony reading a Scientific American magazine. I had no idea that he had learned to read. He explained that, after grad school he had taken a book my brother had given him for Christmas, a book he really wanted to learn. It wasn’t an easy book. He struggled, taking hours to read a single page. Once he finished it, he started over and read it again. He read that book over and over and somehow, he had managed to teach himself to read.