Alphabet Soup

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Last year we had a dream run with Magic’s first school teacher. We watched her blossom under the warmth, care and guidance of someone who knew and delighted in all of the little quirks and special things about who Magic was. She was busting to read and write when she came home, she became more confident and she missed her teacher on the holidays. This was a miracle for us. It was a hectic first year of marriage of which we jumbled our way through, but for Magic, the year was a triumph.

This year Magic has struggled.

While we successfully made changes to create a more balanced and enjoyable life, Magic’s progression with literacy took a nosedive. Apparently it is common for children to regress academically a little after the summer, but she did not pick up. She became resistant to practicing any form of autonomy when it came to reading and writing. I would volunteer to read with the children in her class and was shocked at how ‘far ahead’ many of her classmates were, whilst Magic stagnated. She just would not even try. It was baffling. Her teacher expressed concern, told us to do more at home and said she thought she had learning difficulties, which she wanted her to get her tested for. This sent me into a spin.

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Thanks for the tips, but I’m already an expert.

Firstly, I did the thing that all well meaning, but not necessarily constructive mothers do. I blamed myself. Then, I helpfully heaped an extra measure of guilt and failure on, because I am an English teacher. It often seems that whatever your profession, you will face a personal experience of the area you are supposed to have some expertise in and find yourself floored. I suspect this is life teaching us to be human.

Anyway, this reactive cocktail led to a series of anxious encounters between myself, Magic and her take-home reader. As, naturally, my child’s refusal to read a simple sentence, I can jump, meant that I had failed as a parent and a teacher and my existence was therefore meaningless.

Obviously, I had not read enough to her in the womb or taught her the alphabet as early as I should have. Clearly studying, working and being both Mum and Dad to her for the bulk of her life, along with all of the recent changes had taken their toll. Finally that big night out I had before I knew I was pregnant was coming home to roost. She was doomed and it was because of me…

That emotional chamber within, entitled “Mothering Department” was working around the clock to get this thing nutted out and some of the responses were desperately irrational. You get that.

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Fortunately, I quickly figured out that holding up my child and peering into her like a mirror, then having my ego crushed when I did not see an exact replica of myself at the same age, with all the things that made me feel okay and special (such as praise for my academic ability) was in fact not helpful or realistic and a rather unhealthy manifestation of emotional fusion, I changed tact.

The words of the prophet Kahlil Gibram echoed in my mind;

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Children are wonderful teachers.

Magic is in fact her very own person. Which is to be celebrated. She has her own unique needs and strengths. How could I help her express them?

This became my quest.

I diligently sought the expertise of Dr.Google. I talked – and listened to a lot of people. Teachers, psychologists, welfare coordinators, other mothers old and new, and Magic herself.

Magic did not have a lot to say. Her behavior told the story. She was demonstrating regression in a number of areas. Her sleep was disturbed. She was having nightmares and wanting me like she was an infant again. She was flighty and demanding. Magic was highly anxious. What on earth was going on?

This resistance to reading and writing seemed like the tip of the ice-burg.

Never-the-less, I continued tackling the literacy stuff head-on and it proved to be very pivotal. The key ingredient to my strategy for improving Magic’s reading and writing?

Love.

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Whilst I began unpicking some of Magic’s issues, I found a book by Paul Jennings, a popular children’s author. It was entitled ‘The Reading Bug… and how you can help your child to catch it‘. There were many gems within, but the one that struck home was the idea that reading to or with your child is an act of love.

Without words you are saying, ‘I am not washing the car, reading the paper or watching the news. I am sitting here with you, reading a story about a little dog whose family don’t recognise him when he gets dirty. I am enjoying the fellowship of this magic moment. You are the center of my world…. This act of love forms an association between the child and books. The word book brings pleasure. The feel, look and smell of books is forever linked to the feelings of warmth, security and love. You have started a lifelong love affair between a child and reading.”

Reading needed to be entwined with love and connection – not struggle. We were going up the wrong path by pushing through her reader every night. Jennings says, “Make sure the word book gets as big as an emotional response as birthday“. Heck yes!

It made me reflect on my own childhood (helpfully this time). How did I come to love books?

It was my mum curling up in bed with my sister and I, reading us into another world with her soft and expressive voice. It was visits to the library. It was my Dad’s noisy praise after I read my first novel. It was the joy of reading to my toys. The reward of getting a picture book my friends and I wrote on fairies put in the library. The pride of helping my sister to write her first poem. It was curling up on the holidays in New Zealand with novels, fairy tales and Reader’s Digests from my Grandfather’s bookcase and having the time to devour them. It was the clever poems he sent us for our birthdays and the funny stories he told us, whilst we sat with him on his lazy boy. It was absolutely the emotional connection. Books became a haven.

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Books to me are as nourishing as a warm soup on a winter’s day. So that is what I focused on giving to Magic. A kind of metaphysical alphabet soup.

We skipped her reader for a good month. No use pushing the proverbial up hill. We hit the library once a week and brought home a stack of new books for me to read with her. Her choice. I made colourful special pin up sheets and snap cards of commonly used sight words. I sat with her between my legs, all snuggled up close and we went through them. There was praise and stickers. Every small victory celebrated. I made a travel diary for our trip to Thailand and helped her write her own story. I downloaded the audio version of Andy Griffiths’, The Day My Bum Went Psycho. Knowing it would appeal to Magic’s wicked sense of humour. And when I run out of fresh picture books, I read whatever is on hand. The night before last, it was a travel brochure about Rio De Janeiro.

Progress has seemed slow and, at times painful, however we have noticed a shift. Not only does Magic delight in story time at night, but her confidence with reading independently has gradually improved.

Interestingly this shift has coincided with a change of classroom teacher. As the year progressed, we observed that her previous teacher had a rather ‘chilly nature’ and seemed to have a knack for discipline, but little else. I was so busy blaming myself, that I neglected to question the person she spends the bulk of her productive waking hours with. There is more to say about that, but I’ll keep it simple by saying her new teacher is wonderfully warm and cuddly, approachable, funny and encouraging. Magic bounces out of class again. The classroom is filled with colour and noise and the kids have been told it’s ok to laugh (yes, I know!). Magic has been talking a lot about how much she loves, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which her new teacher is reading to them. She is also sleeping. She can focus more. She is asking to read her reader.

I am convinced her new teacher has added a pile of wholesome metaphysical vegetables to the broth.

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Okay, maybe not the asparagus. He looks a little off colour.

As I am learning, it takes a village to nourish a child’s passion for reading. So, do me a favour, grab the nearest child in your life, snuggle up and enjoy sharing the reading of a story today. It is a gift that will strengthen bonds and help them grow into healthy, imaginative and confident members of society, who know they have a place.

After all, metaphysical alphabet soup is not made up of stock and ABC pasta, it is made of stories… and the A-Z of Tender Loving Care that goes with sharing them.

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