This is Quite a Puzzle
A dyslexic, a writing tutor, and diligent practice
By Emma Margraf
My student, after more than three hours of work, was standing on his head.
He was a person who needed to move around. Sitting in desks wasn’t something he was made for. He’d try, for the first few minutes, then start wriggling, then he would stand up from his seat, pace around the room, stretch and bend his nineteen-year old body while answering my questions as best he could. When he was really thinking hard, he’d rub his hand through his hair in a haphazard pattern, leaving it standing at odd angles.
We were working on a paper that was the culmination of an entire semester. I was reading his words out loud to him, and as we moved through it I would ask him about sentences I didn’t understand and he would explain what he did or didn’t mean before we would try rewriting them together. He was tired, I was tired. The paper was due in a few days. If he wanted to bag it and turn it in the way it was he didn’t let on, but I had the feeling that as long as I was willing to sit there with him he was going to stick it out. He’d look at me squarely, thinking.
“What’s going on in your mind?”
“This is quite a puzzle,” he’d say.
This young man, I’ll call Jacob, was midway through college, and although his dyslexia made the first drafts of his written language virtually inscrutable to the untrained eye -- he was on the verge of completing a full-time academic course called American Fictions.
I’d heard about Jacob before I met him. He’d come into the writing lab where I worked as a student tutor, looking for help on a paper. The tutor who’d helped him was profoundly impressed with Jacob’s thesis in the paper, comparing two kinds of wooden furniture and finding central similarities in the design. Jacob worked in the woodshop on campus. Wood was more familiar than words. At the time the idea that dyslexic brains allowed for more talent in other areas was new. But I could see it in his woodworking. For him there was more simplicity there, less intellectual scrutiny.
I was midway through college as well, and assigned to a full-time academic program with an arts’ focus when I started officially working with Jacob. As program tutors we were responsible for giving workshops on paper writing and setting up appointments with individual students to work with them on weekly reflections on their reading. The appointments usually had a regular pattern; we highlighted thesis statements, discussed their strengths or weaknesses, laid out outlines, discussed arguments, and sent them on their way. It was repetitive work, with the exception of the occasional conversations about thesis statements that bordered on the ridiculous:
“The main character in Metamorphosis was oppressed. His parents should have accepted him for who he was. If he wanted to be a bug he could be a bug, there should be room for everyone’s decisions.”
Jacob’s essays were different. His arguments were subtle and nuanced, but first the sentences had to be unraveled. He’d spell check, but his dyslexia threw the corrections so far off that our first pass was always to find and correct ten to twenty words in a three-page paper. While the other student meetings would last thirty to sixty minutes, Jacob and I would sit for 2-3 hours at a time, working our way through his thoughts until he felt confident that he could explain his argument in a way someone else could understand. Along the way we’d discuss our mutual love of Willa Cather, respect for the deep sadness of Faulkner, and my great hatred of Hemingway. We talked about our relationships, our lives, and the themes that we could trace throughout.
Once we were both 21 we often moved our meetings from the school library to the Irish Pub downtown, ordering pitchers of Guinness midway through editing, often getting derailed into conversations about our love, school, or politics. I was young too – in love with a girl in another state who was never going to love me, a fact Jacob knew before I did, but still patiently listened to me discuss my dreams of meeting her in Europe and having a romance on trains from Paris to Lyon. I had a lot of trouble being in my moments; while describing my dream relationship, Jacob pointed out, I didn’t mention wanting her to be there, with us, drinking beer and trying to understand Faulkner.
“The headscratcher here is, do you not want her to be here with us right now?”
“I didn’t say that I don’t want her here …”
“Well you didn’t say you did. And so I think this is quite a puzzle,” he smiled, so I would know it was a friendly piece of feedback, much like I’d smile at him when I told him I didn’t understand his sentences.
“Yeah. We still have two more pages of your paper to get through.”
“I think we need beer!” Jacob said as he waved to our server.
Jacob was the child of upper middle-class parents in the northeast. His mom was a filmmaker, and she made a documentary about their experience of his dyslexia that I watched after I’d known him for a while. Much of it was predictable in a pleasant way; a mom fights for her child, because that is what moms do and even for a privileged white child, there were no easy ways for him to get help. She became an advocate. There are hard moments, but they made it through, and eventually they decided to apply to college.
Jacob’s mom hired someone to help with his college application. They tackled the college entrance essay, and they worked and worked on it. When it was finished, 17-year-old Jacob began to read it out loud in front of the camera. He would stumble over the words in the first few sentences. He’d stop, and start to cry. It was his essay, and he couldn’t read it.
I was only a writing tutor. I was hired because thanks to an old school style Catholic education, I had been trained in essay writing. I’d spent years in cold brick buildings writing hand written five paragraph essays on binder paper, which my English teacher graded on a ten-point scale. Five paragraph essays, every week, for years. Catholics are nothing if not fans of diligent practice. Teaching-wise, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved sitting with Jacob, so I dove head first into diligent practice. It wasn’t until the moment I saw his tears caught on camera that I realized that all I was ever trying to do was help him be able to read his own words, explain his own thoughts, and have his own voice. It made a certain kind of sense that someone who mixed up so many of his letters would need to stand on his head here and there in order to do that.
Over the course of three school years, Jacob and I spent hundreds of hours together. Eventually we started having discussions about the challenge of his learning disability in light of the great privilege he grew up with. He would joke that I was one of a long line of people paid to support his success, part of a dedicated group that had been hired for his benefit. It was a painful and long journey but he was grateful. His mother had a flexible work life and time to commit to his education, they had financial resources, and he was loved. There was a scene in the film that featured him on a picturesque hillside with beautiful sun shining on his life. His mother filmed it for Sesame Street.
A few weeks before graduation, I told Jacob I wanted a bookshelf. He perked up and smiled, and invited me to visit him at the woodshop. He couldn’t stop laughing when I told him I wanted it to be able to fit in my car.
“Of course you do.”
“Nothing, nope, nothing. We have some work to do!”
Then he pulled a measuring tape out of his bag, and we went to the car to take some measurements. He was very exact about the assignment, and took it seriously when he wasn’t laughing at the request.
Together we picked out wood, and built it to what he called “my exacting specifications.” The final step was to sand and stain it, which he said was my job. It was unbelievable to me that it took so long to sand it all down. I spent all day there, and he delighted in coming to check on my work. He pointed out the spots I missed, the places that were uneven, the areas that needed more attention.
“Right there!” He pointed with pseudo-incredulousness. “Is that what you meant to do? Don’t you want your bookshelf to be smoother than that?”
I was familiar with most of his friends at this point, as our worlds had fully overlapped. Many of them also worked in the woodshop and as they came by to say hello he would gleefully update them on what he called “our assignment," and let them know I was working hard at it.
“Smoother?! So, I need to keep sanding? Still?” I asked.
“Patience, my friend,” he smiled, “there is more work to do.”
I kept sanding. When he determined I was finished we stained it together, and let it sit in the shop for a couple of days. The final result was the most beautiful piece of furniture that I’d ever seen, and twenty years later it sits in the bedroom I share with a woman who loves me back, holding space for her plants and my books, in the house she and I share. I follow Jacob on social media, where I’ve seen him building large complex treehouses.
I am sure he says they’re headscratchers. I say they’re beautiful.
Emma Margraf is a writer who lives in the Northwest with her girlfriend and Boris the Great Dane. She has an MFA from Antioch University and a government day job. Her work can also be found in Entropy, the Tiferet Journal, Chronically Lit, and Manifest Station. You can find her on Twitter @emargraf.