Past and Present
As a kid, I saw my learning disability as a curse. Now I see things differently.
When I was in third grade, a teacher I didn’t know walked into my reading class, called my name, and then led me down the hall and into her office.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked, offering me a seat at a table next to her desk.
I shook my head back and forth.
“Because you have a learning disability,” she said. “That’s why it’s difficult for you to read.”
“What’s a learning disability?” I asked quietly.
She looked me right in the eye, smiled and said, “It’s a gift.”
And while I’ve thought about it from time to time during the past 36 years, I have to admit, it’s something I never fully understood. At least not until recently.
I wish I remembered this teacher’s name, but I don’t. What I do remember is that we spent every Wednesday together, working on ways to help me learn to read. Sometimes, I read into a tape recorder (since my brain apparently made errors processing the information my eyes took in, this was supposed to help me better comprehend what I read). Sometimes, we read the sports section (it was hard to find reading material that interested me, and this way, I could at least follow the Cubs, my favorite team). Sometimes, we practiced reading in different voices. I have no idea why. But it was fun.
She ended every meeting by telling me the same thing: “You see and learn differently from the other kids. But different is good. This is your gift, even if it doesn’t feel like it.”
She sure was right about that. It definitely didn’t feel like a gift to me. In fact, it felt like just the opposite: a form of torture. Imagine being terrible at what everyone tells you is one of the most important skills you need to succeed in life. I heard it a million times: Reading feeds the imagination, improves the memory, and, well, I can’t remember the other benefits.
Before my 13th birthday, I told my Aunt Judy—a teacher for 32 years and a great lover of books—that I wanted to be an architect. I should have known better. A few days later, I unwrapped a present from Aunt Judy, only to find it was a book about architecture. A totally thoughtful, considerate, lame present—especially for a kid who hated to read. I still didn’t know what kind of gift my teacher was talking about, but I hoped this wasn’t it.
What these well-intentioned adults didn’t understand at the time was that you can’t just make someone love to read. At least you couldn’t do it for me. The truth is I would have loved to love reading. I was jealous of all the kids in class who asked for an extra paragraph to read aloud because the one they were assigned was too short. Plus, I was meticulously counting ahead so I could practice my paragraph, and their enthusiasm completely messed me up.
But when you’re a kid and when you stink at something—in high school it took me four hours to read 87 pages of The Great Gatsby—it just isn’t fun, no matter how many books on baseball or Walter Payton or animals you check out of the library.
And yet, when I had my own kids, I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to encourage them to love reading. I knew firsthand that lectures wouldn’t work. (They didn’t work on me.) Instead, for the first time in my life, I embraced reading. I read to my kids all the time—Dr. Seuss, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Peter and the Starcatchers, and much more. When my Aunt Judy told us that Atticus Finch was voted best literary hero of all time, we read To Kill a Mockingbird, just to see if this guy was better than Spiderman. He wasn’t.
When my kids pleaded for “one more chapter” before bed, I always said yes, regardless of the time. I regretted it the next day when they were overtired and grumpy, but I did the same thing the next night and the night after that.
We basically turned reading into a team sport, which made it fun. We created voices for the different characters. We talked about the issues in the book and how it made us feel, even if it took us to a place that had nothing to do with the story. And we spent a lot of time laughing. Even now that my kids are older (ages 12 and 14) and even though their lives are more complicated, I still try to read with them every night, even if it’s just one page.
At one point, my kids predicted the ending of a book we were reading. That’s when they challenged me to write a book for kids with an ending you’d never see coming. I accepted the challenge.
I recently told this story to a group of 500 fifth- and sixth-graders at an elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas. They were the first ones to read The Last Akaway, the first book of my fantasy-adventure series.
“It’s strange that I would be here to kick off the book fair,” I said. “Because when I was a kid, I couldn’t stand to read.”
I told them about how my struggles with reading led to other interests—something I had never thought about until I was preparing for this school visit. Instead of reading books for research papers in high school and college, I would find experts on the subjects, track them down and interview them. My first job out of college was as a sports reporter for The Washington Post, where I stood out because of an innate ability to unjam the copy machine under deadline pressure. The kids were more impressed that I once ate seven hot dogs when covering a minor league baseball game.
When I asked for questions at the end of my talk, a sea of hands flew into the air, which led to a beautiful discussion about animals and magic and how every kid has special powers (which I truly believe).
I would have stayed all day, but after an hour, the librarian said there was only time for one more question. I scanned the room and out of the dozens of waving hands, I chose one.
“I don’t have a question,” the boy said right into the microphone so everyone could hear. “I just wanted to say, ‘I know how you felt. I have a learning disability, too.’ ”
I paused for a second trying to figure out how to respond to a comment I had never expected. It was in that moment that I thought about my third-grade teacher, because I finally understood exactly what she was talking about. n
Gary Karton is the author of The Last Akaway, the first book in the Brody Boondoggle fantasy-adventure series for young readers. He has spent the last 17 years working for nonprofits such as the Welfare to Work Partnership, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and Safe Kids Worldwide. He lives in Arlington with his wife, dog and two sons—and occasionally sneaks away to write at the Central Library.