My stomach in a knot, tears on hold till alone stung my eyes, shoulders slumped in defeat as I regarded the alarming Reading Benchmark score during Katerina’s first grade parent/teacher conference. The kind teacher quickly pointed to Katerina’s impressive score in Math, more than quadruple the points compared to Reading. I nodded my head throughout the conference, half-smiled at Katerina’s cute antics and comments her teacher shared, disguising my despair. I felt I’d failed my daughter.
We’d always been a family of readers, the library one of our favorite places. I’d taken all three kids to library storytime, read big piles of books often daily to each of them, perhaps not as often to Katerina, and I’d also taught my older two how to read before they entered kindergarten. Parent/teacher conferences were entirely different for Katerina’s siblings, always “off the chart” scores. I’d taken their progress for granted. As a parent, I was suddenly placed in a new territory, an uncomfortable place where my child wasn’t thriving in school. In fact, she was flailing in Reading.
Reflecting on my third baby, I remembered how all too often I’d chosen the easiest and shortest book, to speed up the bedtime rigmarole. In fact the night before, Katerina had requested a longer book, so I intentionally skipped pages hoping she wouldn’t notice. I realized in that uncomfortable chair that my expectations were lower with Katerina, I was far more relaxed, and had left academics for school. I suddenly remembered how often Katerina would mention that so and so was smart and reading chapter books already. I promised that she would get there in due time, when she was ready.
I discussed the issue with my friend Sandy, a retired kindergarten teacher, now substitute teacher, because she loves kids that much. She’d handed me a cookie, had an of course look on her face and said, “Well naturally Katerina has a few hangups. She was simply struggling to survive when she was little!” Katerina was born with congenital heart disease, holes comprising 70% of her heart. Our Spartan warrior has had to deal with a number of obstacles due to some other health issues as well. Chagrined, I muttered to Sandy that she spoke the truth.
Cuddled on the couch, Katerina would labor through her daily assigned reading of three books by her teacher. She admitted to hoping that she’d be taken out for Speech class during Stamina Reading at school. Katerina stumbled often, made up words so she wouldn’t have to remember the sounds that “silent e” and “ough” made, and often threw her head back in exasperation and discouragement. Honestly, I often dreaded the daily assignment, just as much as Katerina. She’d cry and her tiny face bled frustration. Just about any book seemed overwhelming to her, and I clung to every ounce of patience to hide my own frustration. It broke my heart that she had a disdain for reading, she truly seemed afraid of it. But she trudged through the drudgery, because she was a good little student, and I knew deep down that she wanted to succeed.
I had to help my daughter. Ultimately, the whole reading gig had nothing to do with competition or test scores, but everything to do with her success in school and her future. My husband has often remarked that I was the most determined and stubborn woman in the world, so I thought I’d put that claim to good use. I also knew that Katerina was quite stubborn in her own right. The two of us would get there, one sentence at a time.
Katerina and I constructed a chart using a poster board, with 50 squares. At the bottom, Katerina drew a cake, presents, and a book. We would have a Katerina Can Read party, once she’d read all fifty books. I promised her that once she completed the chart, which meant reading 50 challenging books (above her reading level), she would know how to read. We started with a My Little Pony book, one that she found to be quite challenging. I reminded her that once she reached her goal, the early books would seem very easy.
Meanwhile, Katerina was placed in her school’s Title 1 reading program. Mrs. T, the Title 1 teacher, explained how positive the group was and that they called it the Fun Reading Club. It was wonderful for Katerina to be in a group that was on her reading level.
Katerina was very fortunate to have incredibly gifted teachers, Mrs. Z, a master teacher, transformed my little first grader into a number-crunching, culture- and language-learning, journal-writing smarty pants. Katerina’s Title 1 and Speech teachers were also amazing and nurturing and according to Katerina, always looked pretty and sparkly.
Truthfully, I used to smirk at the almost corny cliche, It takes a village to raise a child. I’d always been determined that I didn’t need to rely or receive help from anyone, I could handle everything. I learned during Katerina’s reading journey, to step outside my closed door and embrace that village.
There were weeks when Katerina’s school books, after-school activities, and family time caused the reading chart to be neglected. But it was stuck on the fridge with plenty of magnets, and occasionally, Katerina would announce that she wanted to read a book.
Early March, I plunked down in the kid’s chair at the second parent/teacher conference, and regarded the second round of test scores. Katerina’s math was impressive-I knew that already. Mrs. Z then directed my eyes to Katerina’s reading score, which had risen to slightly above average. I grinned as wide as an open book and whispered with tear-filled eyes, “Really?” Mrs. Z answered smiling, “Really!” I stared at the paper until my eyes dried back up, thanked Katerina’s teacher with pure sincerity, and told her that was the best news I’d heard since Katerina’s last ECHO, revealing that her heart was healthy. I also thought how “off the charts” was annoying and how much more exhilarating it was that Katerina was progressing.
Katerina graduated from the Title 1 program after a mere two months, thanks to Mrs. T, who teaches with her heart and believes in every single child. Katerina loves homework, and her Speech teacher worked with the other teachers to create assignments that correlated with reading and writing, and somehow managed to make Speech fun. How does one thank people who’ve helped to open the entire world up to a little girl?
We’d a busy spring, but eventually Katerina filled her chart with fifty well-earned stickers. Katerina has gained fluency and her favorite books involve puppies or dolphins, usually non-fiction. She still doesn’t construct a makeshift fort and curl up with a challenging book, but progress continues to be made.
Somewhere along the way, Katerina had begun to enjoy reading. One evening, my heart sang after listening to her laugh along with a book she was reading. I whispered to her, “Katerina, I am very proud of what a fine reader you’ve become!”
You better believe we made a big whoop-dee-doo for the Katerina Can Read party! I decorated with balloons and other fun shiny things, concocted a trophy of little playthings and whatnots, glued them together and Nikos spray-painted it gold. Elizabeth made homemade cinnamon sticks, I made one pitiful-looking cake but Katerina thought it was perfect, homemade pizzas, and a big bowl of cantaloupe. I’d wrapped a gift for both Nikolas and Elizabeth because they’d helped their little sister along her reading journey as well. Of course Katerina received mostly books as gifts, one came with a nifty dolphin pen! She picked out a book and we all gathered around and she read it to her family. That afternoon was truly golden, as shiny as her trophy.
The last day of school was June 8. It happened to also be Katerina’s Happy Heart Day, my very favorite day of the year, marking when Katerina’s risky open-heart surgery was a success. During the school assembly, Katerina was recognized for her perseverance, both with reading as well as gaining the strength to pump her arms on the swing. Yes, her amazing teacher taught on the playground too!
Occasionally, while prodding along on a well worn path, I catch my breath and reflect, thanking God for each and every crag and stumble. Katerina sure does navigate with far more grit than I’ll ever possess, but her shining love has held my hand so I can skip alongside her.