I couldn’t teach my kid to read. So I taught her about neuroplasticity.
I prop a special slanted desk on the porch table at the farm as Ula puffs air out of her cheeks in annoyance. It is a beautiful day. She wants to spend it with the chickens. But I am there, armed with models of analog clocks, eye patches, eye charts and motor sensory worksheets, ruining her fun. “This just isn’t going to work,” she reminds me, a refrain I’ve heard many times over the past year. Rose breasted grosbeaks issue their siren calls to her, beckoning her to ignore me and hide…maybe somewhere down by the creek bed.
It has been a hard year. We thought this would all be over in nine months; that her therapy regime would be complete; that we’d witness a miracle of recovered vision, a newfound ability to read. I’ve centered my life around making sure we complete her exercises, putting forward my best, most determined effort to help her gain the visual skills that stopped developing after she turned two. But it hasn’t all unfolded as we’d hoped. Yet. Admittedly, we’ve achieved a lot. She has begun to see in three dimensions. And even though it gives her a headache, she can throw and catch a ball for brief periods of time. In spite of these strides, some of the experts we’ve talked to have warned us that the final hurdle, reading, might not be possible.
Putting a book in front of Ula is like putting Kryptonite in front of Superman. She wants to be brave. She wants to tame those letters and numbers on the page, to make them stand still, to find them in the exact place where they’ve been printed, facing the directions they are supposed to face. But instead, I’ve watched them destroy her. They scream out to her messages that I cannot see or hear: You’re stupid. You’re a failure. There’s something wrong with you. They break her. She is reduced to a puddle of self-loathing by mid-morning.
As the mom, the last few months have been the worst for me. I am frightened that I am losing my joyous little girl — the one filled with hope and fearlessness and boundless belief in the impossible. She wants to quit: to forego learning to read, to abandon vision therapy. But if I give in to that, I know the cycle of despair and powerlessness will proceed to devour her spirit as she continues to face a world that holds most of its information in the printed world. I must find a way to keep going, to persuade her that we are on the best path forward.
She comes up with all sorts of machinations to fight me on this. She cries. She curls herself into a ball. She assures me therapy isn’t working. She disappears. She tries to schedule playdates. She distracts me with nonsensical questions. She tries to throw me off by disappearing and playing quietly, hoping I will forget about her. She may have a learning disability. But she sure as heck isn’t stupid.
She seems to think this is where I want to be….That I take some sort of sadistic pleasure in torturing her with therapy seven days a week. I’ve got numbers to crunch for our farm transition plan. I need to get the firewood moved. I want to get out to my garden. I have customers to take care of. I have another kid who also deserves an education. I want to put my feet up with a cup of coffee. I want to go have lunch with one of my girlfriends. I’ve got lots of things I’d rather be doing.
And so, this cycle of anger, resentment, guilt and manipulation continues. I want to get out of this. I want to hire someone else so that I don’t have to be my kid’s therapist, so that I don’t have to come up with a way to teach her with all these disabilities. I don’t want to be the menace in her life. I want to be the one who is always on her side. I want to just be the mom.
That might be an option in a city. That might be an option for someone with a higher income. But it isn’t an option out here. Unless I want to uproot my family, abandon the farm and go into debt, I have to be the teacher. And the therapist. And the mom. I have to keep trying.
On this spring morning, I draw a deep breath and open my bag of tools. She is expecting me to take out a pair of red/green lenses, or the patch that goes over her glasses. Instead, hoping I can turn the tide and win this eight-year-old’s willing participation, I take out a plastic spider and set it on her desk.
“Tell me about a spider,” I say. She picks it up and fingers it, then pulls it close to her face for further examination.
“It eats flies.”
“Where does it live?”
“On a web.”
“How does it catch flies?”
“They land on the web and get stuck.”
“What if the spider needs to catch more flies?”
“He needs to weave a stronger web. A bigger web.”
Then, I take out a simple drawing I’ve made. “This is a brain cell,” I explain. I label for her the nucleus, the axon, the myelin sheath, the dendrites and the axon terminals. She tries to act bored, one of her many defenses, but I can tell she is watching with some interest. I point out the axon terminals and dendrites. “Those are like a spider’s web,” I explain. “They catch information and spread it around your brain.”
My neuroscience isn’t perfect, but hopefully the gist is close enough. I draw her a second neuron with lots and lots of dendrites, with lots more axon terminals. I put it next to my simplified cell. “Which brain cell do you think works better?” She points to the second, more complex one. “Exactly. It helps to build a more intricate web. That means your brain can make more connections faster. Or, if you think of ideas as flies, like the spider’s web, it catches more of them.”
I touch two spots on the left side of her head – the premotor cortex, and the juncture of the parietal, occipital and temporal lobes. “You’re a smart kid,” I tell her, “But the cells in these two places aren’t as strong as the rest of the cells.” Her hand reaches up and touches my own to find the spots. “But here’s the cool thing,” I continue, “They don’t have to be that way. We can fix them. We can help them grow more dendrites and axon terminals. This is called neuroplasticity. Your brain can change. That’s what we’re doing with vision therapy.”
It has taken me six years of taking my daughter to doctors and therapists before I sat down and learned this simple lesson. Hopefully I can bring her up the learning curve more efficiently.
As I explain, she nods. “But there’s something else you need to know,” and now I’m in dangerous territory. “When you try, even if you don’t get it right, those cells still get stronger. That’s the good news.” I suck in my breath before I relay the other part of the story. “But when you get upset, when you get tense or frustrated, they don’t. They may even become weaker.” This, I now realize, is the real threat of a learning disability. If we keep pushing our children, in spite of the fear, the anger, and the self-loathing (a sin I’ve too often been guilty of), things only get worse. Maybe I shouldn’t share this. But my gut is telling me this is something she needs to know.
She puts her head in her hands. “Now you’ve just made it worse,” she confirms my fears. “Because now I’m just going to worry about that.” I lean back and draw in a deep breath, and commit to a period of silence. If she knows, if she gets the theory behind what we’re doing, maybe she’ll resist this less. Maybe she’ll realize that I’m not just forcing her to do exercises that are pointless. Maybe, if she understands why, then the daily work will make sense. “That just means we have to stop when you’re frustrated,” I edge forward gently. “But it also means that we have to promise to come back to it later. And even if you’re getting things wrong, as long as you’re trying, we’re making things, better, okay?”
She nods. “Mom, can we please get going? I really want to go catch crayfish.”
We move to the exercises, and I hope the seed has been planted.
The next morning, we sit down at our exercises again, and she stares at me through those thick bifocals. “I need incentive,” she says slowly, her voice filled with cunning.
“Umm…isn’t regrowing your brain cells incentive enough?”
“I’m just trying to tell you what motivates me,” her voice is soft and sing-song. I’m being played. She pauses, then adds,. “And I need motivation.”
“So you’re saying I have to PAY you to do the right thing?”
“It would help motivate me to re-grow my brain cells.” She gives me a sweet smile. She may not be able to read numbers on the page, but the quantitative part of her brain seems to work well enough.
She’s a tough negotiator. I run some numbers in my head, then come up with an offer. “Fine. I’ll pay you one dollar for each completed therapy session. But — ” I hold up one finger, “I want professional behavior.”
She opens her mouth wide. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“When you go to your therapy sessions at the doctor’s office, you don’t cry, you don’t hide, and you don’t carry on. You try, and you don’t get upset.”
“Well, I shouldn’t do that. It’s different there.”
“Of course not. That’s a professional situation. And you know how to be professional. So let’s look at it this way. If I’m going to pay you to do therapy, then I’m paying you to be a professional. No crying. No pouting. No telling me it’s impossible.”
“FINE.” Her voice has a hard edge. “But I get a dollar every time, right?”
“Now, wait a minute.” I’m dealing with a pro, and I need to be careful. “What happens if you don’t hold up to your end of the deal?”
“Then I pay you a dollar.” Her answer comes a little too quickly. She’s ahead of me on something. But I don’t know where she’s going.
Luckily, the phone rings. Ula takes advantage of the distraction and dashes out of the house. My mom, the other tough negotiator in the family, is on the other end of the line. I tell her about our deliberations. “Watch out!” She warns me. “She’s about to trick you! As soon as she has a pile of dollars, she’s just gonna hand the money back to you to get out of the therapy whenever she wants to skip.”
“Crap! You’re right! She almost had me.”
We hang up. Ula comes back in. “So do we have a deal?” Her voice is melodic with an undertone of victory. She’s already found a jar to store her dollar bills.
“Here’s what we can do,” I reply. “Smile and grin, and the dollar goes in. Cry or pout, and all the dollars come out.”
She looks at me, aghast. “But that’s not fair!”
“Take it or leave it.”
She took it. We had three days of great sessions. On the fourth day, she began to cry. “We need to rest,” I told her. “Let’s come back to this later.”
“No! I want my dollar! Let’s finish it.”
“Remember what happens to the axon terminals and the dendrites when you get upset? We have to stop.”
She flings her body across the table, covering her head with her arms. I give her a conciliatory rub on her back, then do the cruelest thing imaginable. I reach across the table and take all the dollars she has earned out of her jar. She peaks out from under her arms and gasps in horror. “Mom! NO! YOU CAN’T DO THAT!!”
I don’t want to do that. But I fear if I don’t, I’ll lose all that I’ve bargained for. “I love you sweetie, but we had a deal,” I explain.
“Let’s finish. NOW!” She shuffles the papers and puts her patch back over her eye.
“No.” And then I say the most honest words I’ve spoken to her. “Because right now, I need a break, too. Come back to me in a few hours. If we feel better, then we’ll get this all done, and you can earn your dollars back.”
She runs outside in anger, and I don’t try to stop her. Instead, I go out to the garden and pull weeds. This is a big change for me. My customary habit is to push through the to-do list, no matter how upset I get. And I get more and more frustrated the more my daughter gets frustrated. But my willfulness forces us to move forward. Maybe my own axon terminals and dendrites are shriveling, too. Maybe, by pushing too hard, I’m losing ground in my own mind. Maybe Ula isn’t the only one with a learning problem.
I put the money in my pocket and set about my day. Two hours later, Ula came to find me. She wanted to try again. She was calm. I was calm. And we smiled and laughed our way through the exercises. She got her money back. I think we both got a little smarter that day.