Homeschooling a Dyslexic Child…Words that Break the Rules

English is a crazy language.  If you are dyslexic, or if you’re teaching someone who is…you learn to really, really hate those rule-breaking words that pop up unchanged from Ye Olde English or have been borrowed from another language (which has a whole different set of rules).  First you spend years drilling phonics rules into your poor kid’s head, and then you have to explain why this particular word does not actually sound like it ought to.   I remember learning in French class that the French people are so particular about their language that they have a government department whose sole purpose is to examine words and decide whether or not to allow them to become part of the accepted French language.  I used to think this was overkill. After spending a few years teaching a dyslexic child, however, I’m thinking of writing my congressman and asking if we could get a little of that going over here.

We got a good tip from our reading specialist that I  thought I’d share…it works with any beginning reader and is very helpful in spelling those nasty, phonics-ignoring words.

While Youngest is reading aloud, I quietly make notes on the rule-breakers that trip her up. Then, we choose a few at a time (I choose the words that are commonly used first) and make flash cards.  She watches as I write the word, then we sound it out together…”This word is spelled d…o…n…e.  Let’s sound it out the way it should sound:  D-oh-n.  But it’s a rule breaker, so instead it says d-uh-n.”  Then, I have Youngest circle the part of the word that breaks the rule.

We go over the cards, a few a day, to remember what the rule-breakers look like.  I hold the card up and have her look at it, then we draw the word with large letters in the air while saying the letters.  We do this twice for good measure.  Finally, I hide the card and she writes the word on some paper. It’s a lot of work, but I have found that with just a few sessions like this per word, the rule-breakers don’t trip her up any more.

So there you have it.  Until America gets it’s own Délégation Générale à la Langue Française et aux Langues de France, we’ll use this tool to combat those nasty phonics rule-breakers!


Faith and the Mustard Forest

 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”   ~Mark 4:30-4:32

Jesus said it, so it must be true.  But have you seen a mustard seed?  It’s not that small.  And have you seen a mustard plant?  It’s not that big. It’s one of the parables I’ve glossed over, keeping the big-picture in mind and suspending my tendency to want scientific proof to back up everything I read. 

Except I have found that when you gloss over these things they don’t go away, they wedge like weeds in the back of your mind.  Waiting.  They wait for the water to find them, the moisture of discontent and life circumstances and weak will to seep in and germinate them, these weed-seeds of doubt.  And although I never meant for them to grow, they do.

But Jesus said it, and it is true, and Truth does stand up to even the most careful scrutiny.  And so I have learned to look.  To research, to turn every stone and not to stop until my heart is satisfied….and I am blessed, every time, with much more than a lack of doubt.  Scientific fact will never replace faith, assurance about what we do not see. But each time I seek to understand more fully, the space where doubt lived is filled to overflowing with grace, with hope, with Truth and with a deeper understanding that leaves me breathless, hungry for more.  With each dive deeper into this sustenance called The Word I find faith, like a mustard seed, increasing within me, choking out the weeds and I find the courage to delve deeper into each mystery because yes, the Truth does stand and yes, the harder I look the more He speaks. And yes, some times faith is a blind thing. A walking in the dark thing, a clinging tightly with all you have thing.  But the Word?  It opens the blind eye, it speaks in the darkness, it holds you so that when your grip loosens and you expect to plunge downward, you find that He was holding on to you, your grip was never meant to hold you up because He was holding you all the time.

So, the mustard seed?  Though not so small, was the smallest seed in that time and in that place.  Jesus spoke then to a crowd who would have planted nothing smaller.  And the mustard tree?  The fields of small, yellow flowers we think of here and now are not the same.  Black mustard was the plant the Lord referred to, and it grew.  In a land where water was scarce and most trees were not that tall, Black Mustard would grow to heights of over 3 meters…12 feet.  If left for years, these shrubs could become giants, branching over fields and providing a perfect place for birds to perch, sway. And as far as a garden plant goes, you would not see one any bigger in your vegetable patch. Jesus said it, and it’s true.

And, like the mustard seed, when I searched with the smallest faith that said this is true, and I want to know why I found something take root that grew much bigger than my doubt.  I found that, beyond the vertical heights of the black mustard plants, there was something else.  There was this:  Tenacity.  These plants, they don’t grow only skyward.  They propagate, setting their small seeds out far and wide, running their yellow blooms down hillside and across field.  They reach and spread.  They cover the bare earth with nodding, yellow light.  And once it takes root, it is very hard to weed out.  It can take years of tenacious effort to uproot a field of black mustard, for once it has established it grows to a forest meters tall.  From a website outlining how to eliminate an unwanted field of established Black Mustard, here is a description of a “Black Mustard forest”:

The destruction of a thriving forest may not seem like a fitting pursuit for restorationists, but that was our obsession when we began work on San Onofre Beach in 1994. The forest was a single-species stand of exotic Black Mustard (Brassica nigra). Normally only waist-high, this “forest” was two meters in height, with occasional ” forest veterans” nearly three meters tall. This widespread southern California weed had a nearly unbreakable hold on the open ground between remnant patches of coastal sage scrub on the coastal bluff. The high fertility, both natural and from agricultural chemicals, brought dense stands of mustard exploding out of the ground every year……Black mustard has all the attributes of a successful weed, including rapid growth, copious seed production, and independence from mycorrhizal fungi. Under the mustard canopy was an understory of more mustard, and the supply of seeds was nearly infinite. The fertile soil was of little use to native plants, which are adapted for the low-nutrient conditions of a natural ecosystem. The mustard, on the other hand, was able to take full advantage of the fertility. Any hapless native that might germinate under the mustard was hopelessly outmatched in growth rate and competition for water and sunlight.  (

Could we, with our tiny mustard-seed faith, be meant to grow a forest?  Could our faith catch on like wildfire, spread miles of burning yellow flowers dancing in the wind? Could it grow to heights suitable for birds to nest, provide shelter and sustanence to living things in need of home?  Could it become a live thing, an ecosystem of grace and protection and love?  Could it overshadow the evil in this world, grow faster than the pain, replace bare soil with deep roots to fight the erosion of the soul?

 I find this thought:  Our faith, however small, may plant those tiny seeds and they may grow.  That one small seed, the lowliest of all, might start a forest that spreads and grows and roots itself deeply in the soil of hearts…to be spread outward, in ways we may never know this side of Heaven.

Someone Else’s Tears

I didn’t know.

When we opened the door almost a year ago with the simple word “yes,” when we opened our arms to an infant tossed and tumbled by the storm of tragedy, when we brought home his brother too (little more than an infant himself) and made them a part of home, we didn’t know what we were getting into.

We knew we didn’t know.  We felt God’s hand on our shoulders, His voice soft in our ears…surrender to my will and we said that “yes” without condition or direction, knowing only that we did not, could not know and that somehow, God asks us to find peace in that place.  In His wisdom He knows and all that we can do is be still, listen, let him grow us in the protected garden of the now– where the future comes one day at a time and shows itself no further than that, a chain of nows that He waters in the shelter of submission.  There are some “yeses” that lay the heart bare and open, that break apart the hard, protective shell of costal bone and lay it wide to the slings and arrows of the world and this year has been open-heart surgery, open soul surgery.

What I didn’t know, is how life can break a person so that their heart is hard, the walls have thickened and grown cold and inside there is no room for the kind of love you need to raise a child.  What I didn’t know is that addiction is a cold, hard thing…a killer that rages within and stamps life out, one love at a time.  A thief of will and judgement that breaks into your life to take everything of value and leave you empty, always wanting. What I didn’t know is how you can love such a person so intensely, want so badly to see them succeed and fall so easily into the habit of saving them from the natural consequences of their actions over and over again.  How easily a person can contribute to the downward spiral, simply by trying to ease the blow at the bottom of the fall.

I have found myself in places I could never have pictured myself in before…locked in a room full of addicts court-ordered to come and share their stories, waiting for the outflow of heartbreak to be finished so I can take her home, this meeting being a rung in the ladder she must climb.  Here in this office, shabby and worn, is  more heartache than my mind can possibly wrap around. More heartbreak, but no tears…they speak these bare, hard stories out flat and frank, unsoftened by emotion, untouched by tears.  I have come to the conclusion that tears are the solvent that breaks down the hard crust of apathy, that they are absent here speaks more than the words that are falling down around me. They are talking to each other in loud voices, comparing stories of prison time and discussing the favorable conditions of the jails here in this state. My friend, she does not belong here.  Not yet.  But then, too, any of us could belong right here, given a few months of bad choices and bad circumstances.

Or, perhaps, given the compassion to be here as a healing voice to catch and defuse the harsh words and hurt that fly through the air of this room, this life. Me, I only sit here thinking about how wrong this could go…with the doors locked for the meeting and the gang tattoos and the fractured minds and I am weak, thinking only of myself and not the love of God that needs so much to be spoken here.  I look at my hands, fiddle with my purse.  I search for Bible verses stored in my mind but they read through my head without waking my heart. I tell myself this is not my calling. I tell myself this over and over, Jonah-like, grasping at any excuse to stay mute and safe in my imaginary world where these people do not exist, where they know how to heal themselves and Jesus doesn’t need to be spoken loud enough to break through closed ears and emptied hearts.

It occurs to me: I am the only one waiting there for someone. All of the others?  Have no one. I hear one woman say, in a voice raked over by years of smoking things I’ve never even heard of, that she’s alone now, entirely alone.  She’s used up everyone she ever knew, used them empty and then, too, I see it on her face…the empty, so that even as these words are spoken her eyes are dry.  The hurt lives somewhere else, in a place apart from her. I think perhaps it lives instead in the eyes of those used up, who have had to let her go. I know this personally, how someone else’s tears can fall from your own eyes. There are no words for the fear, pity, rage, and sadness that collide in my heart sitting there, faced with the knowing that this story, in which I am just a chapter…a transient, supporting character…is only one of so many others and each one is equally broken, equally incomprehensible.  My own, too, except for Jesus. Sometimes the weight of all the suffering, knowing it is there…the weight of it presses down on my chest and makes it hard to breathe.  To draw in the air of all this brokenness and sorrow, and to do it again and again…perhaps it’s that very weight that drives people to pick up the bottle, the needle, the pills. 

Where is Jesus in this room of suffering?  I’d like the answer to be simple, to say that if only they each knew Him, the suffering would immediately end.  But I have lived enough life to know that sometimes even those of us who know Him suffer, even those who love Him sometimes bleed out of hope and out of touch.  Where we are heading is one thing, how we are living is sometimes quite another. I have seen enough to know that sometimes all of us, like lonely addicts, we use Him without giving back…no, without giving up…our control, our will, our desire, or idols, our addictions to anything and everything other than Him.  We do our best to empty ourselves of Him, our souls seem to run dry.  And our tears fall from His eyes.

Jesus at the WIC office

                                                                   Photo from a stock image collection

It is my first time in a WIC office, second time in a public health office at all.  I am feeling a little superior here, I must admit. I have grown accustomed to the diaper bag again, after an 8 year break from carrying around half my belongings everywhere I go.  I have three other children who have, thus far, turned out pretty great if I do say so myself.  I have a degree in Psychology, emphasis in Child Psychology.  I have spent years reading the labels on everything my family eats, cooking most things from scratch, planning menus and sharing meal planning ideas.  I could, if I chose, teach any of the classes offered here. That’s my attitude as I sit down at the desk to get the boys’ WIC temporarily switched over into our name.  

I set Toddler on my lap and eye the waiting room critically as the person behind the desk takes information, examines guardianship papers.  I vow to avoid letting these two babies touch any of the toys in the corner, which are clearly seething with a variety of viral filth sure to bring on any number of illnesses within a week of even the slightest contact.  Toddler babbles and points. Baby squirms on my lap.  The paperwork takes twice as long as it should, the employee on the other side of the desk is the only person working this area of the office and must answer phones and direct people who are coming in, while she is entering our information.  She answers the fourth phone call, speaks in fluent Spanish.  As I shift the squirming Baby on my lap, I wonder…not for the first time…why I took French in College.

Thirty minutes later, the office has filled up.  There is a general chaotic noise around us that makes it difficult to hear, our answers and questions are vaulted over the desk in tones only slightly softer than a shout.  There must be 50 children under the age of five here, I marvel. Or maybe it only seems that way. More keep coming in through the door, most of their parents must stop to ask the woman behind the desk what to do. My patience is wearing thin, I feel a claustrophobic panic start to rise in my chest.  Toddler has exhausted every brightly colored plastic item in my arsenal of diaper bag boredom-busters. Baby has chewed on my keys, my smartphone, my arm, and his brother.  Both are fussing, squirming, and in constant need of re-direction.  I am sweating in my tee-shirt and hoodie, wrestling with a combined 57 pounds of baby boyflesh while trying to keep all our belongings from being spread throughout the office and continuing to answer questions…many of which seem increasingly arbitrary considering the mounting stress of the current situation. I stare hard at the plastic, germ-infested baby-nirvana calling to the boys from across the room.  Thirty-five minutes have passed before my resolve breaks and I send them toddling off to contract three weeks worth of booger-noses and sleepless nights, playing with the waiting room toys.

As the woman behind the desk is explaining to me that I now need to watch an orientation video (with two squirming children on my lap in a room where the decibel level is only slightly lower than a runway at the airport?), the room becomes strangely silent for a moment.  Then, filling the silence, a woman shouts in a shrill voice:  “You can’t do that!  That’s abuse!”  I turn and see a young woman with a little boy, perhaps three years old, her hand clamped around his shoulder.  Another woman stands and points accusingly at her.  “Did anyone else see that?  Did you see her drag her child across the room by the ear?!?”  Murmurs begin to float across the room, and the woman with the boy shouts right back.  “None of your damn business, lady!” she snarls.  “He was taking a toy from that other kid.”  Her friend is standing beside her, glaring savagely at the other woman. The babies, sensing the shift in mood, abandon the germ-infested toys and begin to toddle back in my direction. The two women continue to fight, and tension mounts in the room.  Several other people saw the incident, and everyone seems to be ready to argue.  The lady behind the desk makes a quiet phone call, and a bored-looking police officer comes from the front of the building to intervene.  The lady, her child, and several witnesses are escorted to a back room and the noise level gradually rises back up to fill the empty space.

I turn back to the employee behind the desk, with what must have been a bewildered look.  “Happens all the time,” she says with a shrug, and answers the phone for the fifth time. The florescent lights, the noise, the whole situation start to close in on me and I feel suddenly so lost; a speck of person afloat on a vast and uncertain sea, clutching a pair of sticky hands and trying to touch something within myself…anything!…that feels normal.

“What will happen?”  I ask, when she hangs up the phone and hands me back a stack of paperwork.  She sighs.  “Nothing, probably.  DCFS is so overloaded with cases that they don’t do anything unless the situation is serious.  Not enough foster families, not enough funding.”  I pull the boys off my leg, tote them over to watch the inaudible video in another area of the office.  I can’t get the little boy’s face out of my mind, his mop of dark hair, chocolate-brown eyes.  He never cried, just stood there looking.

Over an hour later, I finally have everything I need to purchase Baby’s expensive allergy-free formula and Toddler’s cases of milk substitute.  I have vouchers for a month’s worth of babyfood, cereal, and produce.  The babies are past their limit and I am, too…both boys need lunch and a nap and I need to get out of this building as soon as humanly possible.  I yank sweaters over two bobbing heads, track down a missing shoe, re-pack the toys into my diaper bag and fish my keys out of my purse.  I am exhausted, emotionally and physically, overwhelmed and feeling dangerously close to tears.  I sling the diaper bag over one shoulder, hoist one boy on each hip, and push out into the crisp fall air.  

As I am buckling Baby into his carseat, I hear her.  The woman with the three-year old has been released and is walking to her car, the boy tripping along behind her as she speaks staccato bursts into the fresh afternoon, her friend agreeing with every obscenity-peppered word.  

“None of their damn business how I raise my kid!  Who do they think they are, telling me what I can do?  What do they know about my f—ed up life, anyway?”  She walks past me, opens her car door, lights a cigarette.  The child climbs into the back seat.  They drive away, and I try not to think about where they are going.  

I put the key into the ignition, turn the car on, sit back in my seat.  I press a hand to my forehead, the space between my eyes, but the tears come anyway.  I try to picture Jesus at the WIC office…his lap is full of children; his hand touching their faces, brushing back curls and wiping away tears.  I try to listen to what He says to their mothers, yes, even to that mother.  But I can’t quite hear Him over the noise of everything else, over the sound of my own angry tears.

A Mile in Her Shoes

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37

Did you see her in the grocery store?  She has two small children, babies really, squalling in the cart.  She’s parked in the babyfood aisle, blocking the lane…one hand re-arranging a bottle propped in the infant seat that’s resting precariously in the front of the cart. The toddler in the basket, surrounded by babyfood jars and boxes of diaper wipes, is pulling things off the shelf and she doesn’t even see him. She’s fumbling with boxes of rice cereal, rifling through rectangles of paper vouchers in her purse.  “That’s it,” you think, as you try to maneuver around the cartfull of chaos blocking your way. “Food stamps. My tax dollars at work.”  The toddler is screeching and shaking the side of the cart, he looks like he might pitch over the side at any moment.  The infant in the carseat is starting to fuss, her bottle having rolled to the side again.  Her nose is crusted with mucous and her brother’s face is covered with whatever he ate for lunch, you can feel the sticky from three feet away. The mother doesn’t even seem to notice the noise and disarray, she’s frantically tossing babyfood into the cart and picking up the scattered stack of vouchers that have fallen to the floor.  She’s everything that’s wrong with the welfare system today, too young, too overwhelmed, completely inexperienced.  You shake your head and push your cart on by, get out of there as fast as possible. You only hope that she’s not in front of you in the checkout line.

I’ve been there, too.  Rolled my eyes as I passed by.  Been frustrated by the fact that I’m scrimping and saving to buy the groceries in my own cart while she’s filling hers with the money that I (ok, my husband) worked so hard to earn. Judged her parenting based on the mess I saw in aisle four.

And this week, I have been the mother with the WIC vouchers.  The one holding up the checkout line, with the two babies in tow and 32 assorted jars of babyfood rolling around in my cart.

Hubby and I managed to avoid using social services.  We were dirt poor for a lot of years, and we barely made ends meet.  We would have qualified for food stamps and WIC for many years, but we proudly refused to apply for or use these services because by working hard and not spending money on ourselves, by driving old cars and sewing up the holes in our socks instead of buying new ones, and by God’s grace and the generosity of family we were able to make it through.  Were we right to refuse to look into these services that were available to help us?  I didn’t question anyone else’s decision to use those services, just figured it wasn’t for us. I was always glad to know that they were available should we really need them. We just thought we could get along without it, and we did. We were getting Hubby through school and we knew that there was an end in sight, so as little as we had back then we were looking at it all as temporary, a passing hardship. Those tough years were a blessing, they taught us to make a little money go a long way, and once Hubby finished school and got a good job we moved happily forward into the American Dream and didn’t look back.

Even in the hardest years? We were lucky, blessed.

In the last year, along with the two babies we took in, we began a crash course in compassion and understanding for those in “the system”.  A graduate level course on patiently dealing with mounting frustration, caused both by people and the system itself, with the programs available to the poor and lost among us. A learning experience that has highlighted both the remarkable faults of the system, the terrible brokenness and need that lives right next door without our realizing it, and the amazing strength and fortitude of the people we tend to hold the least respect for.  We have seen stereotypes confirmed and stereotypes proved wrong. We have been stretched in all different directions, we have been blessed and broken and challenged and changed and still, a year later, we are waiting blindly and trusting God to lead us.

In the days to come I’ll share some of what I’ve seen and experienced.  I’m not offering any answers, in fact I have found that I’m left with more questions the harder I look at things.  But it’s made me leave my safe little place of ignorant bliss and realize that there is a great need right here, in our own neighborhoods and on our own streets.  That there’s a whole world out there that I walk right by, that I could live a whole life not noticing if I chose to remain blind to it.

And the desire to judge?  One thing I’ve found, the more involved you become…you first fight the desire to judge by the way things appear.  Then you question every judgment you find yourself making, realizing that there are an overwhelming number of factors that contribute to the way things are and you are not qualified to sort through them all.  Finally, you find that there is simply a sense of profound relief…that this is not my job.  That I can do my best to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and in the end I am responsible for my own actions and thoughts and nothing else; we are all accountable to the same Judge who is infinately more qualified than I.