Until I was in my 20s, I did not know that I had dyslexia.
I checked out May B. along with a host of other 2012 released kidslit books that were possible Newberry Award Winners. Some were amazing. All were helpful in thinking about my own writing. None of them touched me like May B.
I sit down, mint tea in hand, to the striking slate blue, cream, and black covered book. I open the book and read the dedications.
I furrow my brow. That dedication almost sounds like an apology. I re-read it. It seems immensely personal and intimate.
I open to the first page. It must be an epigraph, a poem to start the chapter, I think.
I turn the page. It is also in verse. I flip through the next ten: still in verse. My heart sinks. Is this lovely book for children going to be too hard for me to read?
But I continue. The white space and pauses between beautiful phrases become a rhythm. Soon I am drawn into the story: May, short for Mavis Betterlys, is a Laura Ingalls Wilder like heroine who faces a host of challenges in an 1870s Kansas prairie winter in a stranger’s sod house.
The poetry puts me in a space where I am unusually aware of how I am reading. My dyslexia sneaks up on me sometimes like this. As a child, even though I was a voracious reader, I also have early memories of wishing I were in the advanced reading group like my friends.
My sweet first grade teacher, Miss Neath, who was on the verge of retirement, sat with me after school catching up on work I had missed during a family vacation.
“Read the little words, Amy,”
“No, you keep skipping the little ones like ‘the’ and ‘a’ and ‘at.’”
“I wish I could be in the advanced reading group.”
“Well, I tell you what, I’ll put you there if you promise to try hard and read those little words.”
The following week I move up to the advanced group, even though I still skipped most prepositions and articles.
Throughout my schooling my teachers have been for the most part incredibly encouraging and simultaneously not understanding about my strange inability to not “try hard enough” to read and write quite right.
I continue to read May B.’s story. She can’t be in school. She studies the lessons but when she goes to read them in front of the class, it all falls apart.
As a child, I always thought dyslexia was when letters would float above the page. Like that great 1990s PBS show Ghostwriter, the “d” and “g” in dog would just get up and switch places in mid-air and become “god.”
Since I never saw letters float, I didn’t think I could have dyslexia. For me, it was more that the middle of words seemed to fade and become hard to recall when I looked away from the page to pronounce or spell them. I just told people I was bad at spelling, tried to double check everything, and laugh it off when people pointed out my childish mistakes.
May B.’s dream is to be a schoolteacher. But how can she be one if she can’t get through school herself?
By age 14, I wanted to be a writer. I loved reading good books more than I loved doing anything else, except perhaps daydreaming my own tales.
But more and more as I listened to my teachers I heard, “Amy has good ideas, but she has a hard time getting them down. Amy struggles with grammar and spelling and organization. Amy is not a strong writer. Amy is a careless proofreader.”
How could I be a novelist if I wasn’t good at writing?
I’m in bed and it’s late as I approach the middle of May B. She is facing her school reader in the lonely winter.
I frown at the page. All four sentences look the same to me. I know that May is supposed to be struggling to read the sentences.
I hand the book to my husband, Evan, who is reading GK Chesterton beside me. “Can you read this to me?” I ask. He reads it aloud. I hear the little differences. But when I had read it my brain had just re-ordered the sentences so they made sense.
I am surprised at how my own dyslexia and May B.’s intertwined on that page.
I am surprised how strongly I feel May B.’s frustration at not being able to get what is on the page to come out right. I feel myself wanting to go into May’s freezing sod house and say to her. “I know it’s hard. Breath deeply. Just take it one sound at a time. You are strong and beautiful. You can do this.” It’s how I feel sometimes when I tutor a child with an undiagnosed learning disability. But of course May has to find her own strength.
I decided at age 15 that I couldn’t be a writer if I was bad at writing. I had always gotten good grades in social studies. If I couldn’t write stories about princesses, I could study them in history. But high school history teachers teach presidents not princesses. I decided I would have to get a PhD to teach princesses.
Now I see the immense irony in leaving writing what I loved to pursue a career that would involve mostly writing what I thought other people said I was good at. A PhD in history is all writing and reading. Also, it involves very few princesses.
May throws the reader across the room. She’s so frustrated and lonely.
I failed the first thing I tried to do in that PhD program: the French competency exam. I had a minor in French. But dyslexia in your first language can hide in ways it can’t in a foreign language.
I finally go and get tested. Two and half years previous, during the spring break right before I started dating Evan, I went to San Diego and visited my godmother. There I learned that my godmother has dyslexia. She struggles with rights and lefts, spelling, grammar, syntax, and pronouncing new words too. She is also one of the brightest and wisest women I know. Our time together planted a seed.
Maybe I had dyslexia.
Failing that test two years later was the first time I really needed an accommodation. So on December 3, 2008, I went and got tested.
I don’t know what those numbers mean: Reading Disorder 315.00, with Dyslexia 784.61 Disorder of Written Expression 315.2. I know that they got me time and half and an electronic dictionary. I passed that French Exam. The next summer I passed the Latin exam. And in many ways, those numbers helped me to leave the program. Not because I failed though. I wrote those papers, painstakingly, and Evan read and proof read each word. I left because I wanted to face what I had run away from at 15. I wanted to write stories.
At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable.
I remember that intimate dedication and I feel like Caroline Starr Rose wrote this book in part for me.
It was as if she were writing to encourage me on behalf of all my teachers in and outside of the classroom who for years didn’t see that all the misspelled words and run-ons as a red flag. It was as if she were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And she whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you Caroline. Thank you May.
What was the last book that touched your heart and encouraged your soul?
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