Reflections on a Rainy Night: Beyond Borders in DyslexiaLand

By Cheri Rae

A bright spot on a dark night.

The bookstore was practically deserted, just a couple of customers, the staff and me. I was there, as planned well in advance, to sign and sell books—but it didn’t seem too likely there would be much demand. Not that night. It’s tough to get anyone out on a school night, much less a cold, windy one when it had been raining all day long. In California, where it almost never rains, and now when it does, it’s cause for alarm.

Literally thousands of residents in the community had been evacuated that morning due to fears that the approaching rainstorm would dump so much on the fire-ravaged hillsides that another debris flow might be unleashed, like the one that that devastated much of the area, and so many lives just a year ago.

Even some of my friends begged off, preferring the warm comforts of home in front of a crackling fire to hearing me go on about dyslexia. Again.

Then the door opened and a raincoat-clad couple walked tentatively into the nearly silent bookshop; they looked around and hesitantly headed to the table where I was seated, doubting they were there to discuss dyslexia. But I was wrong.

I introduced myself and asked if they had a child who was struggling to read. Wrong again.

“No,” she said with a smile. “I have dyslexia. My husband just figured it out, and I’m going to do something about it.” She spoke impeccable English with an accent I couldn’t quite place. And then her story tumbled out.

She grew up in Kenya, where despite access to an education, she never learned to read. She has worked as a tailor for a couple of decades and now supports the family. She’s good with design, patterns, and seeing how things fit together. As good as she is with her hands, she really doesn’t need to know how to read. But she wants to.

Her husband, stricken with Parkinson’s, can barely speak at a whisper; still, he’s been trying to teach her to read. It hasn’t worked too well.

I told them about videos on You Tube she could watch to learn more about dyslexia, and about the Adult Literacy program at the library, where she could work with a volunteer, but those suggestions didn’t seem to fit her needs.

Then she added even more to her intriguing story: “I am not embarrassed that I have dyslexia, because I know that I am smart. I can speak nine languages that I learned by listening to them. And I feel so blessed to be here in America where we have so much. More people should travel abroad so they would appreciate what we have here.”

This conversation took place just hours after news reports about horrific violence in Nairobi, the kind of violence in the streets she had become accustomed to before she moved away at the age of 18—as she described almost matter-of-factly, so familiar she was with almost daily occurrences. And she noted that virtually all of her friends, formerly Christians, had converted to Islam, and now wear full burkas. “I literally kissed the ground when I returned from my last visit to Kenya,” she said.

Finally I suggested she contact a learning specialist I know, one who is dyslexic and who is also well-traveled—having taught students ranging from the children of migrant workers to college students in Finland, Russia and France. She, too, has taught herself many languages, and specializes in teaching with a variety of approaches in a holistic way. “That sounds perfect,” she said. “I have been through so much, and I’ve done so much for so many.  Now at 48, it is time and I am determined. This learning to read, it’s just for me. I am ready.”

She pointed out that if there had been a large crowd, we wouldn’t have been able to have such a chat or learned so much from each other. We hugged. We exchanged contact information—her husband had to write hers—and we promised to stay in touch.

A bright spot on a dark night.

That cold, wet and rainy night, with just one customer turned out just perfectly.  There was such a lesson to be learned for both of us: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.