Long ago, in 2003, my mentor sent a beautiful teen-aged boy to my practice who needed help managing his homework and his writing, she told me. I met the family in their home, and the first thing I saw was how exasperated the father of the boy was with him.
“Look,” he said after sizing me up like the litigator he was. “I think you’ll be too soft on him. I want him to get A’s an B’s, I want him to turn in his work, and work harder. It’s Harvard or nothing, you understand?” He was furious with his son, and frustrated that the boy just couldn’t keep track of his assignments, didn’t seem to understand what was wanted of him in the deduction-based inquiry based curriculum in Chemistry. Writing for English when musing on theme? Forget it.
During our first hour together, at the dining room table in the Brooklyn townhouse the family owned, I saw a striking curio cabinet filled with antique toy soldiers. The young man told me that collecting them and arranging them in battle formations he had studied from the Civil War was a passion he shared with his father. He also showed me his work and as he sat looking at his planner, I could feel the tension rising from his shoulders and spine. He couldn’t make eye contact with me, and spoke to me obliquely for about six weeks, until something changed and he felt comfortable enough to turn toward me directly when he spoke.
At the time, I thought, could he be just slightly on the spectrum? Is there such a thing as a whiff of spectrum? He had such wonderful qualities: he was direct and honest with me:
“No offense,” he sometimes said after a lesson, “but that was really boring.” I was glad to know and told him so.
“In fact,” I said, “Tell me as soon as you realize you’re bored next time, OK?”
I came to love visiting this student. He was frustrated, he was a sophomore and so grades counted. As if figuring out why inferences made no sense wasn’t hard enough, he had to think about SAT and ACT prep. He was under the most severe stress now, and his frustration would erupt from time to time.
“If you want me to understand Stanley Kowalski, write me a psychological abstract!” He sounded just like his dad at that moment, and though I laughed with him, I heard him.
What in the test could tell you about feelings beneath the lines? What in the lines could tell you about the character’s intentions. I told this young man that we would look at both subtext and surface intention in the lines, and he’d read them aloud with me until we felt something. That something would come from us: our schema, our experience, our prior knowledge of life, and we would match that to the lines we read. We’d look for the author’s clues in the directions and in the reactions of characters around Stanley. We’d make a study of physical and sexual bullying and see how we felt about Stanley after that.
Meanwhile, my student, who truly liked working with me now, entertained me by reciting whole passages from his favorite old movies, which were the hilarious scenes by the Monty Python group. He could do them verbatim, with infectious enthusiasm and perfect recall. He told me he and his best friend, the son of a famous actor, did these scenes for each other all the time.
So what did we have here? A boy who could do details but not big picture, trees, not forest. And who got lost in the organization and execution of big papers and projects. We broke them down endlessly till he developed a better sense of how long anything he needed to do would take. We identified topics and artists he cared about so he could write his senior thesis about Ned Kelly, outlaw of Australia. We found a way to get his father to ease up the pressure on him, but it took a crisis.
One day, my student began to show signs of the same rigid, coiled tension he had displayed when we first met. I asked about it: his grades were suffering again and he was missing assignments.
“What’s the point of trying? The work just gets harder and I can’t do all this and SAT prep the way dad wants me to.”
“Is dad getting frustrated again?” I asked.
“Would you like me to ask him to ease up?”
So I made a date to speak in person with my student’s father. I arrived one afternoon when the boy was out, and sat in the kitchen with the father and silent mother.
“He’s under such stress right now,” I opened. “What can we do to take some of the pressure off of him?”
“Did he put you up to this?” the father exploded. “Did he?”
“He asked me to speak to you, yes.”
“Do you think you know better than I do about my son?” his face reddened with rage. The boy’s mother sat silently.
“How could I? But I do know that he’s very close to the state he was in when we met. He’s overwhelmed.” I held my ground while the litigator took apart my arguments and at the end of the 15 minute talk, fired me.
As I was leaving with a very heavy heart, the mother whispered, “He’s always been depressed. He wanted his only son to be…” she shrugged.
–Better, easier, more glorious — I thought. It is a steady observation in our work as educational therapists, that parents need somewhere safe to vent their frustration, fear, narcissistic wounding, lost dreams, regarding the child they have v. the child they imagined they’d have. I knew that this father loved his son, but for some reason, he couldn’t give him a break. I was afraid of what would happen to him when I was gone, but, as I’m no magician, and just an educational therapist, I had to trust that I’d taught the boy well, and that life would find a way to help him.
In fact, the boy made sure I returned. He got himself suspended from school for the second semester of his junior year. That was when his mother searched for experts who could explain the boy to her. She found one who saw the boy in the light of a “new” diagnosis. This boy wasn’t oppositional, closed, unintelligent or unwilling. He had NVLD.
This expert had the parents send him back to me for home schooling, and with this diagnosis in hand, the father relaxed. He at last could understand his son and let him be himself. After all, hadn’t the boy nearly been lost to the anger and fear that got him suspended? Anything was better than that.
I resumed my work, though for many more hours than we had before, and when the boy returned to school, he graduated with a senior project he did all by himself on Ned Kelly, outlaw in film, literature, and legend. He got a standing ovation for his presentation, and his acting chops for the role.
And this was how I learned what NVLD was, and began my work in adding expertise on the diagnosis and treatment of it to my practice. Break it down visually, break it down on a calendar, break it down verbally. Use books on CD to “hear and feel” subtext. Take science classes that are more traditional and in which the teacher tells you what you will learn, and then proceeds to teach it, sharing his slides. Do your text book reading after the lecture, so what the teacher thought was important is fresh. Be mindful of your stress, and of all the loving feelings you have. You are different, special, but equal to others whose minds work differently.
This wonderful, loving boy went on to become a valuable member of a police department, a detective of note, that no detail escaped. After all, this was a man who could still tell me over lunch, the exact timeline of the invasion and battles of the Norman conquest of England. He was handsome, he was doing good work, and he was happy. He had a girl, he had his father’s love and knew it.
PS: I love my work.
Susan Micari, MS. Ed.
Board Certified Educational Therapist
Susan Micari is a Board Certified Educational Therapist who, together with Dr.Annalisa Perfetto, has started a practice for adults with learning disabilities called EdTherapyNYC. This practice addresses dyslexia, NVLD, ADHD and executive function deficits in adults who are in college, graduate school, and the work force.
Susan has practiced educational therapy with children, teens, and adults for 27 years, and has written for The Educational Therapist, an online journal of The Association of Educational Therapists, and has served on the board of directors for the organization. Her film on learning disabilities appears on youTube and on The Today Show.Share your own story