My Flower Child

Liz Hofreuter and daughter Ella on the first day of school in 2017.

A few years ago I wrote a piece as Ella started school for the first time.  I spoke directly to her future teachers and envisioned a path forward through school and life addressing the adults who would most profoundly influence her.

I wrote the words expecting hers to be a typical journey. She was three at the time. Last week she turned nine. In just six short years so much has changed… so much I couldn’t have possibly expected.

By the middle of her second year of preschool, her father and I were sitting across from her teacher being told that we should consider a “growing year” for Ella. Precocious, tenacious Ella was falling behind in letter recognition and emergent reading skills. Verbal as any adult, she had no interest in letters. Books …she loved. She wanted to hear the stories and see them come to life through the illustrations on the pages. Realizing that she needed to learn to make letters into words to create those stories for herself caused her to shut the door to that world entirely. 

When sitting one-on-one with her teacher, she could recognize the letter C as “the first sound in my friend Claire’s name,” but the connection to the letter itself was missing.

I had to face the reality that my child may not learn to read like others did. My own daughter may not be able to attend the school where I was the head. We did more story telling, rhyming, ABC games -everything. We hoped it would click.

It didn’t click. We decided to give her the gift of time – another year of preschool.

And I took the time to soul search. Nothing opens your eyes to the learning needs of students as well as the needs of your own child. I called friends, asked questions, and worried. I listened carefully to places where Ella’s thinking differed from others.

Adults in her life tried to be her hero. I could see each grandparent, friend, teacher trying to light that spark. Each one offered typical pathways into reading. Ella isn’t typical. She had a answer for everyone. “I don’t need to read.” Or, “Someone will read it to me if it’s that important.” Also, “I don’t want to go to college…ever.”  And the one that felt like a knife in my heart… “I hate school. I only like rest time.”  

With limited options available to us, I created another option. From this desperate maternal need to help my daughter, the idea for the Center for Multisensory Leanring at WCDS was born. Here …not all minds would have to think alike. Here …students could use multiple senses to open up new pathways in their brains and make learning connections.

Enter Theresa Kowcheck, an Orton Gillingham-trained teacher who understood dyslexia – a diagnosis Ella never officially received. She works miracles with children one at a time. With Ella that meant cajoling her out from under the water fountain. It meant bringing in “Coach Joe” as reinforcement, so he and Ella could stretch out on the library floor to form the q and u with their bodies. It meant being positive and present for hours of practice with a four-year-old, who hated sitting upright in a chair.

When she was three, I asked Ella’s teachers to challenge her, accept nothing but her best. I didn’t ask them to stay extra hours to make her feel like she had the most amazing mind in the world, but they did.

She is going into third grade now and is getting a jump start on multiplication and summer reading …because she can.

For her ninth birthday, she wants books – “every single Judy Moody ever written but I think I might like Stink even better” – and sand “I’m a sensory learner mom, I need to touch the sand when I am stressed about hard stuff” – and anything from Penn State, where she swears she will one day be a Nittany Lion.

In the midst of it, I couldn’t see how it would all work out. I only saw her difficulty and knew my inability to help.  I wore my fear and grief privately, but now I know better.

I have learned so much from Ella through this. I have greater empathy for what others might be experiencing when trying to learn something.  I have deeper gratitude for those who dedicate themselves to what is best for a child. I have genuine appreciation that the path I thought she would take, didn’t end up being the best path for her …nor for us …after all.  

They say if the flower doesn’t bloom, change the environment in which it was planted, …don’t blame the flower. I love you, Ella, my flower child.