Like my twelve-year old son, I picked up reading easily. My ten-year-old, however, had a difficult start with the alphabet and with school.

I remember when he started kindergarten. One afternoon after school, his teacher stepped outside and told me my little guy was working with the Education Program Assistant (EPA) that day when he suddenly refused to participate in an activity with her and had a meltdown. I told his teacher I would talk to him about it.

Our talk didn’t go anywhere though. He was grumpy and uncommunicative. Finally at about 6:30 that night, he climbed on my lap looking very sad. Something was on his mind.

In his own words, my five-year old told me that he “yelled” at his teacher because he couldn’t remember the names of certain letters or what sounds they made. And when he got upset, the EPA sent him back to his desk.

Of course, I could see that he was feeling completely overwhelmed and anxious. He wanted to do what he was asked to do. He wanted more than anything else to cooperate. The moment he was sent back to his desk for being uncooperative was sadly ironic.

As he sat on my lap that night, with eyes downcast, he pushed a small sound from his little lips: t-t-t-t.

Once I said the name of the letter out loud, “T?” He had his answer. The incident with his teacher earlier in the day had been on his mind for hours. And once he knew the name of the letter that matched that sound, he finally started to relax.

“Yes, T. That’s the one I couldn’t remember.”

I asked him why he didn’t tell his teacher that he forgot, so she could help him. He said he didn’t know how to say it. He didn’t know how to tell her that.

Next, he told me he also forgot: eh-eh-eh.

“Is it E?” I wondered.

“No.” His little lips parted as he whispered again “…eh …eh …eh.”

“H?”

“Yes! It’s H. When I was with the teacher, I couldn’t remember.”

I looked down at him again, so young and vulnerable, so eager to please, and so upset with a world of trouble on his mind. There are rarely sweeter moments or sadder ones.

I reminded him that learning is about trying, and making mistakes, and trying again. And you can be certain that I reminded myself too! I didn’t understand at the time why he was struggling the way he was, but I needed to remind myself to allow him to try and fail, and to keep trying and failing again and again if that’s how it played out. I knew I had to show him that it’s important to be willing to fail without feeling ashamed. I had to encourage him to keep trying.

But when my son was just five, I felt his vulnerability keenly as he confided his fears and struggles to me. His vulnerability was my vulnerability.

In grades one and two, I saw the helplessness and frustration on his earnest little face, his ongoing battle between reluctance and persistence, and his sweet desire to please everyone. Throughout grades three and four, he was sent home with a homework pack every week. My nightly encouragement often deteriorated to squabbling over homework pages. Him resisting. Me insisting.

Now five years later, after countless hours and persistent effort with reading, writing and talking together, after too many battles sitting in front of frustrating homework pages, after years of intermittent testing by the school psychologists, and after an official diagnosis of his learning disability late last year, I know I will watch him grapple with learning some skills more slowly but steadily and patiently for many years to come.

But I also watch him coming up with learning strategies that other kids don’t need. I’m impressed by him. I’m deeply moved by him, by his determination to succeed.

I see bigger truths in all this too – that none of us can thrive without the right tools and resources, that there can be little joy in a challenge or achievement without the empathy and support of other people.

Update: His grade five teacher called me at home today out of the blue to tell me how well he is progressing this term, how much he is smiling at school, and how willing he is to try new and challenging things that would have overwhelmed him before.