Georgia Learns How to Read

Learning To Read - photo by Chris MacDonald

So, we’re teaching Georgia to read. Let me put it this way: We are committed to a long-term project to see just how literate we can make this kid. It’s been an enlightening and emotional process, teaching Georgia to read.

Georgia has always loved books. I made sure that she did. From the moment I could get up and buy things for her, I bought books. Board books, bath books, pop-up books, fairytale books, “first” books, Dr. Seuss books, teething books, novellas, anthologies, series. I bought her the Lord of the Rings trilogy when she was about 2. She looked back at me blankly, giggling, and stuck the corner of one of the novels in her mouth. And then she drooled. This I saw, of course, as pleasurable anticipation.

Learning To Read - photo by Chris MacDonald

Books have been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was that kid who found sustenance and a rich imaginative life in the pages of a book. When I remember the thrill of anticipating summertime, it was for the swimming and camping and playing outside. But it was also (admittedly, mostly) for those long summer afternoons up a tree in Muskoka outside my trailer, or inside my tent wearing the flashlight out late at night, reading books.

I was the geeky kid who would take a book into the bath and be still there an hour later, shivering in the cold water with my mom knocking on the door telling me to “get to bed!” I was constantly reading books. In fact, devouring books. I’ve always been able to find companionship in a book. With brothers who were a lot older than me, summertime at our trailer up north meant that often I was on my own. Happily, I took to the well-worn trails around the campground with my badge-covered canvas military bag filled with Tolkien and L.M. Montgomery, rich visions of Frodo and Anne Shirley in my head.

But I don’t remember learning to read. Weird. I don’t remember sounding out letters or reading through first grade readers. I just remember being able to. That’s how natural it felt and still feels, upon reflection. I have memories of sweating over fractions, and loving long division once I figured it out. I even have memories of learning geography and history, but reading? Nope.

Learning to Read

Georgia’s journey to reading (or whatever her version of literacy will be) is on the other hand very real, very memorable and very, well, palpable and constant. It’s been an interesting journey. Here’s a quick synopsis.

First, I was told she’d never learn to communicate meaningfully, read or write. Never. Next, I was told that I shouldn’t waste my time trying to teach her to read or write as she could only learn skills of daily living, if those. Then I was told that, yes, she could learn to read and that phonics would hopefully work. She began to identify letters, sounds, small words. Then, no, I was told phonics probably wasn’t going to work with her and we should instead focus on teaching her sight-reading and identification of common words. Or maybe we should just focus on important words for her survival and well-being (like “Women” on a bathroom door or “Stop” on a big red sign). We now have a wonderful tutor now who has worked with Georgia for a few years and who is making tremendous progress, somewhere in between learning sight words and principles of phonics and just, hey, reading for fun.

Through it all, I’ve read to her. I’ve filled her room with books and happily allowed them to be strewn throughout the house or in the car on a road trip. And Georgia loves books. Not in the way most of us experience that love, but rather in her own unique way.

Learning to Read - PHOTO: CHRIS MacDONALDShe loves to have her books around her. She multitasks with books, playing the drums wearing a bike helmet (but, of course) while her books are arranged around her, on the couch, some open and some closed. (That part, for Georgia, is an exact science: the same pages are open in the same books, more often than not). She reads books on her iPad while listening to the Beatles or Marley – or a medley, with a bit of Wiggles thrown in there. She carries her favourite books around the house from bedside table to couch to basement to backyard swing and back to bed. I still throw a few Curious George books in my bag when we go out for dinner. I’m likely the only person I know with a 13-year-old who is very likely to reach into her purse and fish out a Scholastic book about Dinosaurs! or Firefighters!

I’m learning two things from this journey with Georgia. The first is that I’ve learned how to learn how to read. I’m learning how difficult it is to sound words out or to recognize the differences between “tan” and “cat” and “car.” I’m struggling along with Georgia, with how to best help her, and setting no expectations – except that she doesn’t lose her love of books through the hard work, which is a risk.

The second thing is that I’m learning more about the complex and diverse value of books, about how the mere physical presence of books surrounding us can provide comfort, stability and consistency. How carrying a book in your purse or around the house can make you feel better. I kind of knew that already – those who know me are familiar with my stacks of books in various corners of the house – but it’s different with Georgia. I’m learning about how a closed book placed beside you on a restaurant table can ground you. All this from someone who doesn’t actually read. Yet.

Learning to Read - PHOTO: CHRIS MacDONALD

And then I have this dream. I dream of her reading, of a warm summer day on the beach. We’re sitting together in our little beach tent – and we’re reading. We stop here and there to share a comment or a cheesie. She looks up at me and smiles, putting her bookmark in her book as if it’s the most natural thing in the world and then in true Georgia-style, tosses the book aside casually, gets up and putting her headphones on, gives me two thumbs up, and dances down the beach.

Facebook Parenting

So I’ve been having this thought for a while.

Mothers are, frankly speaking, pretty mean to other mothers. Social networks make it more apparent. It stems from that whole “women are so mean to other women” phenomenon, but this is where it hits hard and hits home: Motherhood.

Yesterday on Facebook (of course) a friend who recently adopted a baby asked for suggestions for fun things to engage a six-month-old. Someone suggested Baby Einstein videos, calling them “moving board books,” and told a cute anecdote about his granddaughter swinging on a baby chair watching them.

I added to his recommendation with my own. The Baby Einstein videos (and the board books and toys) were for me, as a mother, a lifesaver. I’m not shilling for them, nor would I ever claim they’d hold the same value for everyone. But they surely “worked” for Georgia and I.

FACEBOOK PARENTING - Life With Georgia by Nancy Walton

The comment immediately following my endorsement had a horrified, “No videos!!!!” and went on to insist that instead the new mom should instead be engaging the baby by “talking to him,” turning lights on and off, turning water on and off and engaging the baby in the most banal of errands with full narrative description. All good. Yep, sure.

You’ve all had one of those moments on Facebook where someone disses you — maybe inadvertently, or maybe quite explicitly. Someone who knows you through perhaps two or three degrees of separation and has absolutely no idea about your life. You feel an odd and pressing need to justify the frivolous little comment you put out there in the spur of the moment.

I’ve had barbs tossed my way by seemingly caring fellow mothers so it’s not as if I can’t handle it – “You shouId be doing behavioural therapy,” “You really should have programmed her more,” “This must have happened because you immunized her” etc.

But yesterday, I read and reread this mother’s comment and then all the comments agreeing with her and talking about all the “wonderful” things that you should be doing with your baby, instead of letting them to watch a video.

“Wait! You all think I’m a bad mother because I let my kid watch videos?”

I would have loved to engage my baby in such simple pleasures as turning lights on and off or water on and off. What that mother didn’t realize was that, if I’d encouraged the turning off and on of lights, Georgia would literally still be standing at the light switch, right now, thirteen years later.

Turning lights on and off would be just the perseverating trigger she’d love to love. Water, well, sure, it’s a great toy! After a massive flood and a caved-in kitchen ceiling in my previous house (water can be fun!) I can barely think about water as play.

And as for maintaining a constant narrative with my baby, you can be sure I did that. I spent hours and days saying, “What makes you tick, Georgia? Do you like this? Is this going to help you show yourself to me?” My world was a constant conversation with my little baby, who was such a mystery to me.

FACEBOOK PARENTING

When Georgia was a baby, she was a mellow kid. Nothing seemed to upset or rattle her. Toys went unloved, attention-getting noisemakers and mirrored toys were not engaging or interesting to her. She was mellow and – I realize now – unable to engage. It was before her diagnosis of autism and on one hand, everyone said “how easy” I had it, as my daughter appeared to be a happy, gurgling baby while their toddlers tantrumed and demanded and screamed.

Knowing what I know now, I realize that the world simply didn’t “speak” to Georgia, and the toys we had simply didn’t catch her attention. The things that most kids fought over, she barely noticed. Her level of engagement in the world was, and continues to be, something that truly sets her apart. And challenges me. What I would have given for a tantrum.

FACEBOOK PARENTING - Life With Georgia by Nancy Walton

Imagine my pleasure when I put on a Baby Einstein video and my mellow baby pulled herself, with great effort, across the room. And gurgled away at the screen. And almost, I think, pointed! Eyes bright and gesturing, she woke up. She got excited. She (wait!) yes, she laughed. Her eyes moved, tracking the kangaroo puppet. She mouthed a word. She reacted.

And me? I cried my eyes out, astounded and thrilled.

I’ll be honest – those videos not only helped to show me what made her tick in some ways (she still loves and asks for music by Bach), they gave me tiny moments of reprieve. Yes, I’ll admit it. Reprieve. Relief. Sanity. I was a mom who was on my own almost all of the time and I was tired. I wrote a doctoral dissertation while Georgia was being born and was moving into the world. I still worked as a nurse, and a teaching assistant at the university.

I also was busy doing Georgia’s physiotherapy, occupational therapy and keeping up with her medical appointments. I had an unravelling marriage that I was barely keeping afloat and a husband who wasn’t there. Who had already checked out. Some days, shockingly, I also needed a hot shower. Those wonderful Baby Einstein video allotted me small slices of time, kept me clean and vaguely presentable to the world and on top of all that, played Bach and Beethoven for my baby.

So if you want to decide I’m a bad mother for letting my kid watch videos, well, that’s your decision. She’s turned out fine – she’s kind and funny and engaged. She loves classical music. She likes talking to people when she’s in the mood. She still loves videos — thank goodness, as most traditional toys and programming and books have not reached her in the way so many others take for granted.

Did I always want to be that mom who puts a video on for my kid? I never thought so. But that’s what raising Georgia taught me. Moms often don’t get to be the ideal mom they pictured, and I’ve thought about that a lot.

Moms do what they can do with what they have, they find their own ways to cherish, nurture and engage their kids. And sometimes, to others, the things they do look either different or strange or make other uncomfortable.

I don’t agree with plenty of other mothers on lots of things: what to feed kids, how to approach discipline, how to dress your little girl, whether to let your little boy play with guns (probably not). But I’ve learned not to push my beliefs and values so far onto other mothers to make them feel badly.

And I’ve learned that motherhood often thrusts the most unexpected, and unknown to others – and ultimately wonderful – surprises onto your lap. And when you are the mom, you need to do what needs to be done, day after day after day. It may just be that on one of those days, you feel the need to pop a video into the DVD player. You know what? That’s absolutely okay.