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Mary E. Furlong: Hope springs eternal for struggling readers

I’ll call him Lazarus. Years ago, when I taught first grade in the Niagara Falls School District, he was in one of my classes. He was poor, had few opportunities and had seldom been anywhere beyond the few blocks between his home and school. He was rich, however, in imagination, good humor, intelligence and charm. Oh, that charm. Lazarus smiled and bantered his way into the heart of everyone who met him.

But he couldn’t read. He was almost 8, repeating first grade. And he still struggled with the simplest stories.

Fortunately, there was one more straw to grasp at. Buffalo State College, in cooperation with the school system, offered a summertime workshop course in reading instruction, called the “language experience approach.” Each participating teacher was to choose a child who needed remedial help, offer the child real-life experiences and use those experiences as a basis for writing-to-reading lessons. I chose Lazarus.

Lazarus loved the experience aspect of the program. Dictating the stories was OK, too. But read? Nuh-uh. He flatly refused to even look at the printed words. I urged, encouraged and cajoled until I began to see the anxiety that lay behind that charming manner.

I gave up. If he couldn’t read, he couldn’t. It wasn’t fair to ruin the summer fun he’d been promised by insisting. So we continued with the fun stuff – excursions here, there and everywhere with some of the other kids and teachers in the program. True to form, Lazarus charmed everyone we met. Back at school, he dutifully dictated a follow-up story about each adventure. Then, he gazed out the window as I read it back to him. Neither of us pretended for one minute that he was going to read.

On the last day of the program, I gave him a book as a parting gift. He flipped through the pages as I completed some paperwork. Engaged by the colorful illustrations, he began to read aloud. Really read. He continued for three or four sentences, then stopped, his eyes wide. “How come I can do this? We’ve just been fooling around all summer.” He was silent for a long time. Then, his voice thick with emotion, he said, “Thank you for my book. Thank you for the summer.”

Lazarus and I both changed schools the next year. Two years later, I met his third-grade teacher. “Isn’t he a charming little boy?” I asked.

She frowned, puzzled. “I guess so. I can’t get his nose out of a book long enough to find out.” She seemed surprised that anyone had ever been concerned about him.

I don’t know why or how Lazarus learned to read that summer. Maybe our excursions had convinced him that there were interesting things to read about. Maybe my backing off did the trick. Maybe he was just developmentally ready. Maybe there’s something to be said for “just fooling around.” I suspect it was a combination of things.

Eventually, Lazarus and his family moved out of the district. I never met with him again in person. But in memory, I still see him with that little book in his hands, his eyes wide with a combination of awe and something else that I couldn’t identify at the time.

Now I think I know what it was. Hope – the forlorn, fragile hope of someone who has been disappointed again and again. Hope is a thing with feathers, wrote Emily Dickinson. Lazarus’ feathered thing had taken to the sky.