Tony’s Story

Tony’s Early Years: Genius or slow learner?

Tony was born when my husband and I and our daughter were living in the Philippines. I mention this because, when he was slow in learning to speak, many people agreed that it was probably due to being cared for by two wonderful women during the day while I worked.  They spoke the local language and, of course, we spoke English.

Tony loved numbers

When Tony was two and a half, we moved to the Marshall Islands – (in the middle of the Pacific, about half way between Hawaii and Guam). Now he played with children who spoke only Marshallese.  But it was while we lived there that we saw the first sign that Tony was unusually bright. At three, our daughter could count to 20 and soon after that to 100. Tony had a problem after 14. He counted 11,12,13,14,14,14,14, 20.

But one morning, even before he had his eyes open, he asked, “Mommy, what is one hundred plus one hundred?” I was shocked. I had no idea he knew anything about hundreds or about addition. I asked him if he’d been dreaming about numbers. He repeated his question and I answered it. His next questions was : “Does that mean that 200 + 200 = 400? ”  and the conversations about numbers continued.

Months later, he asked a question children often ask: “What is the biggest number?”

Since I’m a math and science teacher, I told the truth. “There isn’t any biggest number.”   “Why not?”  “Because, for any number you can name I can add one and have another number that’s bigger.”  “Why?”  “Because numbers are infinite, they go on and on  forever.”

At this point, most kids would drop the subject. Not Tony. Day after day we had to discuss things like if all the drops of water in the oceans were infinite. No. Were all the stars in the sky infinite? No. Soon he coul tell anyone who would listen which things were or were not infinite.

After preschool in the Marshall Islands, we were back in the US where he went to kindergarten. Another piece of evidence that this boy was different. On his way home from kindergarten, he’d collect little things or pond water so that, when I got home, he was looking through my microscope, studying his new finds.

In elementary school, he seemed to be progressing normally except that he often reversed letters. We met with his teacher and she assured us that this was normal and  Tony was doing well.She told us how the class had been practicing c sounds:  C is for Cat or Cake, and Candy and Tony offered, “C is for Compost Pile.” The other children complained that this wasn’t a real word. Tony explained what a compost pile was, how to make one, and why they were important for the garden.

Another great story from that year: The teacher told the class the reason it was hot in the summer was because we were closer to the sun. Tony raised his hand and politely corrected her. He said that we’re actually closer to the sun during the winter. The warm weather was due to the tilt of the earth. He took a volume of our encyclopedia to school the next day,( afraid that if he went to the school library, he wouldn’t know how to find the information). Thank goodness, the teacher didn’t object to being corrected. How did Tony know this? He said he saw it on TV.

That summer he asked me about a sign that was spelled something like “NKBO…” There was no such sign. He was looking at the McDonald’s sign. N and M look alike. The  C  often sounds like a K. D and B look alike. And he got the letter O correct.

Tony had learned his letters earlier but, with the focus on sounds, he had forgotten them. I asked him to read to me, thinking Hop on Pop would be easy. I was so wrong. Little words that look alike are the hardest for dyslexic children to read. So I asked his school to have him tested. They told us he was a bright child but boys learn more slowly that girls.

We asked them to test him again in third grade when he still couldn’t read. This time they told us his only problem was a pushy mother. One member of the group later spoke to us privately. “Get him tested by a neurologist,” she said. Then you will get the help you need. And don’t let the school tell you they put Tony on a “waiting list.” It is against the law to put a student on a waiting list if they need help.

When the neurologist tested him, he gave Tony a subtraction problem: something like    5004   –  4316
Tony shut his eyes and thought about it and gave him the correct answer. But when asked to do it on paper he sometimes borrowed from the left, sometimes from the  right. He knew his answer was wrong but didn’t know how to make it work.

The conclusion of the testing was that Tony was extremely intelligent but also severely dyslexic. He said Tony might never learn to read or write and that his spelling would be terrible for the rest of his life.

Tony’s Experience in Elementary School

To begin with, Tony was not only in the lowest reading group, he was the only kid in the lowest group who couldn’t read.  Then too, all classes in elementary school are generally based on reading and writing. Tony couldn’t read or write. He understood the material but couldn’t write it on a test. Spelling classes were especially painful. I’d help him practice his words. He could repeat the letters correctly, but when he had to write them on a test, they came out scrambled.  CHAIR  became HCIAR.

He typically missed every word. He was a terribly discouraged and miserable little boy. After first grade, he never had a friend who was in his class. Who’d be a friend to the class dummy? He never said anything about being called a dummy but clearly, he felt like one.  Instead, he had friends in the neighborhood and a good friend from church.

Middle School was a big change

First, we moved from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. Secondly, we chose a town to live in that had a great special education program. Tony’s special ed teacher was fantastic. For every classroom written assignment or test, Tony had permission to leave class to get help. His teacher stopped everything, read him the questions and wrote down his responses. Suddenly Tony could make excellent grades for the first time in his life.

Slowly Tony began to be happier about himself. Instead of hunching his shoulders, apparently trying to be invisible, he began to stand up tall.

His Science Fair Projects were selected to go to the State Science Fair where he did well.

One more story from Middle School. Our daughter was studying at Yale and invited Tony to come visit for a weekend to see what it was in college.  Tony was 12 years old. He wore a Yale sweatshirt as got on the train alone in Rhode Island, a little concerned that he wouldn’t know which was the right stop to get off.

The story Tony told : An unbelievable story

Someone on the train saw his Yale shirt and asked if he was a student at Yale. For some reason, Tony decided to have a little fun. “Yes,” he said, “I’m a graduate student.

“You look awfully young to be a graduate student,” the person said.

“I started college, when I was just twelve,” Tony explained. Actually he was twelve at the time.

The stranger asked what he was studying. Tony explained that he was studying particle physics, and then described his research and the kind of information he had been discovering. He discussed his research and answered questions for over an hour until it was time for him to get off the train.

He told us this story he wasn’t sure this person believed it all, but he thought so. I asked how in the world he knew so much about particle physics. I was certified to teach physics but I could not have done this.

His response: “Oh Mom, you remember that show on Public TV, don’t you? The one about particle physics? It was only a couple months ago.”

I could vaguely remember a show on particle physics but none of the details. Tony couldn’t read or write. He couldn’t remember things he was asked to do. But when he was really excited about something, like a program on particle physics that I had watched and forgotten, Tony had an amazing memory. And that amazing memory was one of the things that helped him get through college.

To read the next  Tony’s story part 2 covers  Tony in high school and college and how Tony learned to read.    Tony’s Story 2

You might also want to read Dyslexia Strategies

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