Every Saturday afternoon, around 3:45, my son drops a bit of change into his pocket, hops on his bike and rides over to our neighbour Sally’s house, only a few blocks away. Sally is the local “bootlegger” on Toronto Island where we live, a 10-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto.
There are no stores here, so Sally provides an important service to the children living on our island. Part of Michael’s weekly ritual is buying a candy bar and a can of coke from her before hopping back on his bike, now properly stocked, to ride a few more blocks to see another neighbour, Ann.
Ann is the real reason Michael runs out the door each Saturday. She is Michael’s tutor. Michael and Ann, a retired special education teacher, meet at her house every Saturday at 4:00.
Michael can’t wait to see Ann, and in the three years she’s been tutoring him, Michael has not only improved his reading, writing and math. More importantly, he and Ann have become friends. Real friends. Last week, Michael brought his private, treasured rock collection over to Ann’s house to show her. As Michael must have known, Ann went through each piece one by one with him, ooing and aahing over each one, from the pink quartz to Fool’s Gold. Michael doesn’t share his rock collection with just anyone.
Michael, who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, dropped out of school when he was 16, almost completing Grade 9. We tried doing everything we could at the time to keep him in school, but we weren’t successful. Michael just shut down completely and refused to go to school one day, and that was that.
I can’t put blame any one thing to explain why Michael dropped out. He was in a special high school for children with special needs; most teachers were nice to him, and he was friendly with several kids in his classes, unusual for Michael who is normally shy and uncomfortable socially.
But something went wrong when Michael left Grade 8. Classes got bigger. Homework increased. No “homeroom” teacher to pay special attention to him. Greater independence was expected. Put all that together, and you get a kid, my Michael, who just felt lost, confused, isolated and unable to function in what to him, became “the big world.”
Of course I look back to that time now and think of all the other possible things we could have tried to keep him in school, but hindsight, and remorse, I suppose, are useless. And Michael may have experienced some bullying or other physically or emotionally damaging experience he never told us about, and therefore couldn’t address. But, he dropped out with the words I will never forget, “I’m never going back to school, ma.” I knew he meant it.
For years after he dropped out we tried to get him back in school, or at least to take remedial courses. He refused. He wanted nothing to do with learning. It was particularly unfortunate, because Michael’s skills in reading, writing and maths were never good, and we naturally were worried that the knowledge and skills he did have would be lost over the years. To my great disappointment, he wasn’t a reader, so even buying him books about nature or animals or plants, things he’s interested in, didn’t work either.
The years moved on, and nothing changed. Then one day several years ago, I had a brainstorm. I was speaking to Ann, one of my neighbors, and asked how she’s spending her time since retiring from teaching. I had always liked her, and was always quite moved hearing her talk with such dedication about her students, many of whom had both learning disabilities.
After telling me about this and that, I blurted out, “Ann, would you be interested in tutoring Michael? He’s been talking recently about wanting to get his GED (high school equivalency), but I have absolutely no idea what grade level he’s at in any subject. We’d have to play it all by ear. My hunch is that he’s a long way off.”
Ann had known Michael since he was young and was willing to give the idea some thought. Eventually she came back to me, saying, “Let’s try it.”
Ann found teaching Michael to be a challenge. Besides being at a fairly low level in most subjects, Michael’s mind doesn’t work like most people. Poor executive functioning, poor memory. One week he’ll know something and the next week have absolutely no knowledge of the same bit of information. Sometimes his reading is good, sometimes the words barely come. Sometimes he can remember his multiplication tables, other times not.
We never got much feedback about the sessions with Ann, but we assumed lessons were going well because Michael never does anything he doesn’t want to (like most necessary activities of daily living). “How did it go, Michael?” was always met with a simple, “Good.” But he went each week without a murmur, a clear marker that something was going right.
As Michael has little sense of time and doesn't wear a watch, it was always necessary for my husband and I to keep close track of Michael on Saturdays so that he wouldn’t forget to go to Ann’s for tutoring. Sometimes we would get so caught up in our own lives or be out of the house, and Michael would wind up missing his meeting with Ann because we weren’t there to send him off.
One day, about six months after Michael began going for tutoring, we started noticing that the first thing Michael would ask when we woke him on Saturday mornings was “Is this the day I go to Ann’s?” We’d say yes, and expect to start reminding him to get ready around 3:00. But we didn’t have to. Before we would say a word, Michael got himself ready to go and was out the door by 3:45, whizzing away on his bike, the change rattling in his pocket.
Over time, Ann began to share with me how special their sessions had become. She would light up when talking about Michael, thereby making me light up listening to her. Listening to Ann was a mother’s dream.
She talked about getting Michael to do a bit of writing. Though his thoughts and words were simple, often in list form, Ann found them revealing and poetic. Sharing that with him made him want to do more. They began reading books aloud together, talking about passages as they read. While helping Michael with his comprehension, it was an opportunity to bring Michael out of himself and to share thoughts and feelings. Ann shared hers as well. She cut out newspaper articles she thought he’d be interested in, providing more material for conversation and thought. She invented games to play with him, always ending their sessions with a bit of fun.
I have no idea what grade level Michael may be in his reading, writing or math. He doesn’t mention getting his GED anymore. He still doesn’t tell me much about his sessions (so I’m fortunate that Ann does).
All I know is this: Michael runs out the door each Saturday now, usually without a reminder, arriving at Ann’s house early. And everytime I see Ann, she has a wonderful story to tell me about her session with Michael. The icing on the cake is that while telling me the story, besides grinning from ear to ear, Ann oozes, what appears to me to be strong feelings of fondness for my son. They have even made plans to go together to see the film version of the book they’ve been reading the last six months.
I can only conclude that Ann’s enjoying the sessions as much as he is.
If this isn’t a success story, I don’t know what is.