The First Grade Genius

August 21, 2009

My six-year-old nephew, Dorian, is a genius. Last weekend, while meeting his cousin Owen for the first time, he spotted a flyer I’d left on the coffee table. It was an invitation to a neighborhood block party scheduled for the same day Owen was born, so naturally we hadn’t made it.

“What’s that?” Dorian asked me.

“Why don’t you read it?”

So, he picked it up, and in about ten seconds flat, read the whole thing. Out loud. Without hesitating.

Well, okay, he slowed on the word “neighborhood,” but that was only because he had to sound it out. Correctly, I might add.

I haven’t been able to talk right this week because my jaw is still lying on the floor.

At age six, Dorian has the reading prowess of a fifth grader. And what’s more, he has the reading performance skill of an adult. When I asked his parents their secret, they revealed that they’ve read to him every day of his life, and lately they’ve had him read back to them.

It’s just unbelievable — and oh, so inspiring. Here I am, with a newborn in my house. Owen is already filling his brain with knowledge (and his diapers with poop). And there Dorian is, already perfectly literate on the week he starts the first grade. What an enviable position my inlaws have: to be raising a son whose greatest scholastic danger is not that he will be ever become stupid, but that he will become bored.

Contrast this reading prodigy against many other children slogging their way through public school today. They’re stupid because they come from stupid households. They can’t read, they can’t draw, they can’t talk, and they have no emotional control, all because they have parents who don’t give a shit. They have parents who put them on the school bus in the morning with the attitude that their children’s education is somebody else’s problem. I know this because I’ve met these children and spent months sharing lunch with them in their schools. They’re wonderful, they’re sweet, they’re innocent, but they’re also the victims of illiterate households and neglectful parents. What a shameful waste.

There are also a few kids I haven’t met but whose stories I’ve heard secondhand, kids whose parents were too illiterate to spell their children’s names for the birth certificates. Kids like Ferdy, whose name is pronounced “Fred.” There’s also a girl whose teacher became frustrated because she never responded when the teacher called her name. When the teacher called the girl’s parents, a conversation something like this ensued:

“Just this morning in class, I called your daughter’s name, ‘Lah. Lah.’ And she just ignored me.”

“That’s because her name is Ladasha.”

“How is that so? It’s spelled, ‘La-a.’ L-A-dash-A.”

“The dash be not silent.”

True story.

How can you not blame the parents for this? This isn’t solely the fault of the school system. It can’t be.

The in loco parentis of No Child Left Behind isn’t going to cure our ills. Indeed, if your Congressman spent just half an hour chatting with a public school teacher about the fallacies of No Child Left Behind, I believe he would move to repeal the law the next day.

No, the problem is parents who don’t take an interest in their child. My nephew Dorian is proof that committed and loving parents can make the difference — that through literacy a child can be given the tools to explore every other branch of learning. Congress should reallocate the money spent on standards-based learning to remedial parenting programs.

Yeah, right. A surefire way to ensure your legislative idea never gets passed is to infuse it with common sense. This one ranks right up there with our government committing to debt reduction. Keep dreaming, Matt.

In the meantime, my hat goes off to Dorian. I’m looking forward to the day, which will no doubt be soon, when he can read something I’ve written.