In this heartwarming story, author Rob Shindler tells how he offered his time, unflagging energy, and unconventional teaching techniques to help a boy with serious learning differences and adults suffering from low literacy levels.
A father who wanted to help his son with his reading deficiencies, Rob discovered the way to that goal was through volunteering at the Literacy Center of Chicago. There, he learned firsthand how ridiculous the common misconceptions are about learning disabilities and adult illiteracy. The assortment of students he taught were ambitious people who were eloquent, driven, clever, and so funny they made him laugh out loud. Here, Rob shares his students' pain and humiliations, frustrations and hopes.
Hot Dogs & Hamburgers demonstrates that literacy issues reside in all neighborhoods and that its victims are committed to finding dignity and life's possibilities through learning to read. Rob's teaching experiences are so motivating and rewarding that once you've read his story, you're likely to begin your own journey as a literacy tutor.
|Publisher:||River Grove Books|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.47(d)|
Read an Excerpt
HOT DOGS & HAMBURGERSUnlocking Life's Potential by Inspiring Literacy at Any Age
By ROB SHINDLER
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2012 Rob Shindler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI'm waiting for the elevator to arrive. Even though it's the middle of the day, the lobby of this busy metropolitan building is completely empty. Finally the bell dings, the doors open, and I step inside. After pressing number nine, I notice my shoelace is undone, so I kneel down to tie it. Before the steel doors close, a hand pokes its way in and prevents them from shutting. Actually, it's more like a paw—of a grizzly bear. Its fingers resemble five frozen bananas dipped in chocolate sauce. I gaze at the owner of that paw as he steps inside to join me. I feel as though I'm looking up at the character Jack discovered when he reached the top of the beanstalk.
I wonder if this man is wondering why I hadn't held the door for him. As we climb upward, I realize he may be bigger than a grizzly bear. I also can't help noticing he has yet to select his own floor. While waiting downstairs in the lobby, I had glanced at the directory of the different businesses and establishments in the building. I reviewed them now as the elevator began its climb. The Department of Transportation has two offices, one on the tenth floor and the other on the twelfth. There's a massage school on the fifth, a real estate school on the seventh, and a travel agency on the eighth. You can become a hair stylist by pressing three, and you can learn to make a wicked Long Island Iced Tea stepping off on six.
As we ride together in silence, I can't stop looking at my traveling companion's nails. They're the size of postage stamps. I'm forty-five, and the top of my head barely reaches the zipper on his light brown United Parcel Service jacket.
Normally, it would be quite comforting to know this elevator had been tested and properly maintained just fourteen short months ago by Earl T. Wilkens. But with Bigfoot standing next to me, I'm not so sure I'm safe. He could finish me for lunch before hunting for dinner. Please don't break down now, I pray.
Elevators are funny little cubed places. You can choose to be alone in these motorized squares even when sharing intimate space with complete strangers who are standing closer to one another than they've stood among relatives in their own family. You can say hello, good-bye, or nothing at all. You can be a stand-up comic, a philosopher, a weatherman, or a tour guide. I've cried in elevators. I've practiced closing arguments inside them. I've daydreamed. As I've mentioned, I've prayed.
Elevators are also like shadow boxes holding special memories from different chapters of our lives. I remember my very first elevator ride. I was about seven years old and I was shopping with my mom at Marshall Fields. I put on my fancy dress clothes and we rode the train to downtown Chicago. It was so exciting to push all the buttons. Even though back then they didn't light up, it was still pretty powerful to believe I could control the elevator. I loved it being just my mom and me inside there together.
I also remember the night I went to pick up Andi for our first date. I was so nervous I rode up and down to the fifteenth floor three separate times.
Years later, I remember riding the elevator down together moments after our wedding. How beautiful she looked in those mirrored steel doors and how her gown and train filled the compartment. I also remember riding the elevator up for our first appointment to see the infertility specialist. Both so nervous, neither speaking a word but knowing exactly what the other was thinking. And a few years later, the feeling of joy as we descended from the maternity ward at Northwestern Hospital with our two-day-old twins, ready to step outside to begin our new life together as a family.
As the doors finally open at the ninth floor, I step out and walk toward the sign on the wall that says Literacy Chicago. I stop at the desk to sign in. It's three fifty and my tutoring career begins in ten minutes. I decide to make a quick visit to the restroom. I return to the classroom, take a seat at the desk, and nervously open my Tutor's Handbook. I'm so nervous, in fact, I don't even notice him sitting in front of me. I lift my head and he nods hello. And then he smiles. A smile that certainly could never eat anyone for lunch. Or dinner. The kind of smile you remember when you need to be reminded of what a smile should look like.
He no longer seems dangerous. And his giant hands are folded politely in his lap. Before, when we stood together in the elevator, I saw him as a person who could harm me, probably how everyone else views him. But in this room, he's just a UPS guy who wants to learn how to read. As I get up and approach him, he looks into my eyes the way you teach your son to look at someone when he meets the person for the first time. "Hi, I'm Melvin," he says and holds out his hand. As we shake, he continues speaking. "Thank you for coming here today and for being my tutor."
I realize at that moment I had done something else during our ride in the elevator. I had judged a book by its cover.
Chapter TwoThat early tutoring session with Melvin was a world away—in a field of dreams, you could say—from when I initially learned about my own son's reading deficiencies.
At first, we dads and moms on the sideline think the two boys on the field are only chatting. But then I realize it's not just simple teammate banter about grabbing a milkshake together after the game. They're arguing, and Oliver—standing on third base—keeps turning his head back and forth jerkily like a robot with a mechanical tick. I can see his mouth moving ferociously up and down, but I can't make out what he's saying because I'm sitting too far away behind the fence with the other parents. Every time Oliver turns toward home plate, I can see those oversized gums of his. They're a little too big for his mouth: his teeth should start here, but instead they start there. During any normal conversation you can't help but see Oliver's prominent gums. You particularly notice them when he's smiling or laughing. At the moment, he's doing neither, because now these two eleven-year-olds of the Wells Park Junior Orioles are tangled up in a knock-down, drag-out debate about which one gets to throw the practice ball back into the dugout before the inning begins.
Silly to most, this verbal battle is life altering for two Little Leaguers. And then, coming out of left field, literally, Jordan yells, "Yeah, well at least I'm not in special ed, retard." And suddenly I witness all the spirit and self-confidence disappear from Oliver's body. He deflates in front of my—our—eyes, standing next to third base with his head hanging giraffe low to the ground, craving a hole he can climb into.
As I ached for my son, a flood of memories washed through my mind. The conversation I'd had a few years before Oliver was born, for instance, with a friend of mine who shared a very intimate story. The kind of story men don't traditionally volunteer unless multiple cocktails are involved. After learning that his son was severely autistic, he confessed, it was as if he had suffered a sudden death. An assassination of all the hopes and dreams he had held since the moment he first knew his wife was pregnant. With a Boy. He mourned the loss of what would never be: Peewee Quarterback. Eighth-Grade Class President. High School Prom King. Youthful conquests slipping away before his son had even had his first visit from the Tooth Fairy.
And I thought of my own response to the news about Oliver's difficulty in school. In Webster's, the word disappear is defined as vanishing from sight. To cease to exist. That's exactly what I did when I first found out about my son's situation. That's what Miss Jennifer called it. His "situation." His "learning disability." Are you out of your mind? I said to myself. That stuff happens to other people. People whose kids ride on short little yellow buses and eat paste right out of the can. (As if eating it from a paper plate or in some other respectable fashion would be any less disturbing.)
I was never embarrassed by or because of Oliver. I was scared for him. Or maybe I was just scared for myself. I'm not sure what drove my fear, but early on I did my best to guard this private information from becoming public knowledge. I never wanted people treating my son differently. I knew how cruel society, especially kids, can be, and I didn't want anyone reaching quick verdicts before all the evidence was in.
It was a few weeks after the twins entered Lakeshore Preparatory Academy when Miss Jennifer first noticed Oliver wasn't learning as quickly as the rest of his preschool mates. As I sat there quietly during our first parent-teacher conference, my blood began to boil: What kind of name is Lakeshore Preparatory Academy, anyway? These youngsters are five freaking years old, for God's sake. What could the teachers be preparing them for, pudding and a nap?
Miss Jennifer elaborated on Oliver's situation, saying he was deficient in his processing skills and was having difficulty with the alphabet and pronouncing the sounds of almost every single one of its twenty-six letters. Poor Miss Jennifer. She didn't nearly deserve all the remarks I made about her behind her back. And in our kitchen. And in the bedroom. And in the garage. Oliver was my little boy and he could be anything he wanted to be in this world. So what if he had some trouble pronouncing some of the letters in the alphabet? That didn't mean he had a "situation." A situation is having a third ear, not having problems with the letter G.
Over the next few years, I may have remained physically present in Oliver's life, but I stayed as far away as possible from dealing with his learning struggles. I was walking around wearing dark-colored glasses of denial, refusing to consider the possibility that Oliver could have a serious problem with reading. My refusal to accept the assessments concerning my son also affected the most precious relationship I have. Although Isabella and Oliver may have been too young to notice their father's inadequacies, Andi wasn't. You envision your partner being a cheerleader for your children, not a spectator. I became emotionally and spiritually invisible. I allowed everybody else to carry his educational load: That meant his mother, the revolving door of weekly tutors, and the special education department at Walter J. Newberry Academy, the grammar school he attended after graduating from Lakeshore.
Oliver began his education at Newberry as a kindergartner, at which point he immediately took a seat in the second row of Miss McLain's classroom. Miss McLain had recently graduated from a small teaching college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and had become the special education teacher at Newberry. "Warden of the Misfits," as some cruel upperclassmen referred to the teacher in Room 208. Misfits, by the way, is just one of the words flung around to describe kids with special needs. Others we've heard over the years include retard, stupid, idiot, moron, dumb, and the ever-popular loser.
Loser? Oliver's not the loser. I am. What kind of father turns his back on his own son? That's not a question; it's a confession. As I've just shared, I let my own fear and my own insecurity about not producing the perfect offspring drive me into neutral. I was a parent stuck in quicksand, incapable of performing the most basic of parental acts: being there unconditionally and completely for my kid. Thankfully, at the time, Oliver was too young to fully comprehend the chinks in my armor. Armor held together with mirrors and Silly Putty.
I did make one futile attempt at grabbing the bull by the horns, though, when Oliver was about six years old. It was right after we met with the child psychologist Miss Jennifer referred us to.
I humored the "kid shrink" as we sat frozen on her twenty-thousand-dollar couch listening to her hand down the official diagnosis dressed up with some fancy verbs, codes, and numbers. Judith (she insisted on us using her first name) spoke of the years in special education Oliver would need just to make it past grammar school. I felt like Andi and I were trapped inside a pack of Starbursts. Every wall in the office was a different color: oranges and limes and strawberries and grapes.
After our session with Judy, I lay back in my sugar-induced coma gazing up at her wall of fame with its baker's dozen of degrees while she put Oliver through a battery of tests. He wore a pair of oversized headphones and raised his hand every time a certain sound chimed. As Oliver took off the headphones and gave them to the technician, he looked over at me. Holding his thumb in the air, he said, "See, Daddy, I'm not deaf."
Dr. J's official diagnosis was that our son exhibited a receptive/ expressive language disorder characterized by significantly reduced comprehension and processing skills, as well as an articulator/phonological/neurological disorder presenting deficits that would have a significant impact in his language function. Truthfully, I liked Miss Jennifer's "situation" explanation a whole lot better!
After stepping off the elevator that day and walking toward the car clenching Andi's moist hand and Oliver's chubby one, I was determined to cure the problem on my own. My plan was simple. I'd attack the alphabet a letter at a time. One a night, times twenty-six letters, equals twenty-six nights. I'd have this articulator thingamajig solved in less than a month.
I decide to set up a workshop for me and my pal Oliver inside my bedroom closet. I know I have to find someplace quiet and private so he will be hundreds of feet away from SpongeBob SquarePants and the rest of his adopted cartoon family. I write out each letter on a separate note card in a different color. As a pre-tutorial treat, I bring up two slices of blueberry pie with a side of chocolate ice cream for each of us. Our man cave, our à la mode rules.
"Okay, Oliver," I begin. "It's just you and me in here."
"Can we keep the door open?" he asks.
"Because it's a little spooky in here." I look at him and smile because by now I know all of his stalling tactics.
"I just put a new bulb in. It's brighter inside this closet than it is living on the sun. Now let's get started."
"But what if the bogeyman's in here?" Oh, this kid is good.
"He's not," I lower my voice. "He's under your bed, not in my closet!" Oliver's face turns whiter than the vanilla ice cream we're supposed to be having with our pie.
"Reeeaaalllly?" he gasps.
"No, I'm teasing. Now let's go, Big Man." I've been calling him "Big Man" since he was born.
I hold up the first card. The letter A is written in red. "Now, what letter is this?"
He looks at me like I'm from outer space. "Are you kidding?" he says. "Do you think I'm a dummy or something? That's an A."
"No, I don't think you're a dummy or something. I think you are smart, really smart. So tell me, what sound does it make?"
"What do you mean?"
I quickly run out of the closet. I hear his voice trailing me into the hallway. "Where you going, Daddy? Do you have to drop a deuce?" He's been using that phrase for the past few months. A gift from his crazy Uncle Matt. My wife's brother also taught him how to light firecrackers in February and finish an entire bag of pretzels at the grocery store before reaching the checkout line.
Downstairs in the kitchen I grab an apple off the tray on the counter. Isabella and Andi are working on a clay project together, and before they can say anything, I'm already back upstairs.
"Did you wash your hands?" Oliver wants to know.
"No, I didn't go poo. I went to get this." I hold up the apple.
"Yes, for you. Now—"
"Can I have a bite?"
"Yes, you can have a bite."
"After we do this."
"But why can't I have a bite now?"
"Because I'm trying to do something here. Now please, can we just keep going?"
"Well, you're the one who left."
"Okay, fine. You're right. I did. But now I'm back. Now, what is this?"
"That's an apple ... An apple you won't let me bite."
"Fine. Take a bite, you little ... Big Man." He wraps his hands around mine and chomps down like a crocodile. The juice drips down his chin and onto his neck. He wipes it off on my shirt.
"Okay. Now tell me again what this is."
Great. I point to the letter A. "Tell me the sound this letter makes."
"Uhh." I hold up the piece of fruit again with the two-inch forensic impression on it and again I ask him to tell me what it is. Again, he correctly identifies it as an apple.
"Great. Now look at this first letter and tell me what sound it makes."
Excerpted from HOT DOGS & HAMBURGERS by ROB SHINDLER Copyright © 2012 by Rob Shindler. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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