When I’m writing, I usually listen to one song on repeat. Working on this interview with psychologist and writer Mary Avery Kabrich, I have been listening to “Chosen” by Rose Cousins:
“Give me a sign, a photo, a map
Something to go by
How am I supposed to know
What I’m supposed to look like”
Mary’s novel Once Upon A Time A Sparrow has become that sign, photo, map for my own dyslexic journey. As a child, I didn’t have any role models who struggled to learn, let alone a novel with a dyslexic female heroine like Maddie. As Mary says in our interview, “I knew something was wrong with me,” but I didn’t know quite what it was. That is changing for our children, and it’s partly because we are bravely telling our stories.
I was thrilled to compare notes on dyslexia with Mary: how it has impacted her reading, her education, her career, and her mental health; how she has overcome challenges to become a psychologist and an award-winning author, and ultimately to simply believe in herself. Drawing from her extensive experience with the school system, she suggests a better way to teach children with learning differences. I encourage you to read her book — Once Upon A Time A Sparrow.
Before we get started, here is a summary of Once Upon A Time A Sparrow from the author’s website:
School psychologist Dr. Mary Meyers evaluates students who fail to fit in. While skillfully responding to these children’s emotional needs, she is entirely sealed off from her own. When her mother dies, Mary discovers an artifact from her past, the tattered black hooded coat she had worn throughout third grade. Reuniting with the coat sets in motion a stream of long-forgotten memories of her childhood and her nine-year-old self, a girl with a love of stories who struggled to read even the simplest words. Overwhelmed with intrusions from a past filled with failure, Mary finds her professional practice beginning to crumble as she struggles to separate herself from who she once was.
The Dyslexic Library interview with Mary Avery Kabrich, June 2018:
- Learning to read, and writing about it
Dyslexic Library: In particular, I’m struck by your incredible memory for detail. So often, I felt like I was right there with you in elementary school learning (or not) to read. For me, as a fellow dyslexic, it was fascinating to take in all of these details because I don’t actually remember the act of learning to read, I just remember that I couldn’t read and didn’t enjoy it even when I finally learned. How did you remember so much detail?
Mary Avery Kabrich: Like you, most my memories are ones of not learning to read. Of being confused with how everyone else figured out how to turn letters into words. I don’t recall getting any type of extra help until fifth grade. That is when six of us went to a special class (I don’t think it was special education) where we recited vowel sounds as if this would somehow help us learn to read.
I’m amazed I did learn to read as I truly received such minimal support. I knew I wanted to read and at some point, I got enough of a toe-hold to begin to figure out a few words on my own.
Back to your question about memory for detail. I have worked in elementary schools for many years. First as a special education teacher, and now, as a school psychologist. The special education teacher who shows up in my story (Ms. Ellen) unfortunately never showed up in my life. Her methods are what I now understand to be best practices. I gave my imaginary version of my younger self the special ed teacher I wished I had.
In sixth grade I was finally assigned a special education teacher. I recall her helping me complete the worksheets I couldn’t read. I finally began to pass my science tests because she would read me the test questions.
In short, the details I recalled are the product of a few past impressions and many years of observing students and teachers in elementary schools.
Dyslexic Library: How much of the book is based on your real life, and how much is imagined? In particular: Maddie is placed in the “sparrow” (beginner) reading group and told she was “minimally brain damaged” Was your personal experience similar to your character Maddie?
Mary Avery Kabrich: Being “a sparrow” came from my imagination and observations of what I saw happening in elementary schools. I think I was mostly ignored and given as much help as was possible by a teacher with a full class. The reflection in the story by the adult Mary is accurate. I was never diagnosed with dyslexia, it was called (in mid-western USA) MBD – Minimally Brain Damaged. In other parts of the United States during the 70’s and 80’s it was called Reading Retardation.
Dyslexic Library: Is the book that Maddie falls in love with – The Fairy’s Gift – a real book, or was it based on a book you read as a child?
Mary Avery Kabrich: I completely made it up. I have always been imaginative, making up stories as a child. Listening to my teacher read was a favorite part of the day. I loved the irony of a child who could not read, who desired to be a nun (like me), deciding to steal a book. Of course, Maddie would want a magical being in her life who could wave a wand and fix her.
When I took my desire to write seriously, I realized the greatest impediment to moving forward was how I viewed myself. I didn’t believe someone with weak literacy skills, could write a successful novel. It seemed an impossibility.
Prior to writing the story I went through a spiritual crisis. I emerged embracing the notion that if I practice affirming what I want to see in myself, I will have the internal strength to accomplish it. This is the foundation that led to the concept weaving threads of gold, creating a dream catcher that catches the aspirations we have. Our capacity builds with repetition – strengthening our resolve.
Just as I gave Maddie the special education teacher I never had, I also gave her The Fairy’s Gift – the tools to build her confidence. I gave it to myself as well to persevere and complete the novel.
I love that this story is my debut novel. I want it to serve as an inspiration to anyone who doubts their own ability to accomplish what their heart desires.
2. Her parent’s reaction
Dyslexic Library: So often, parents are very concerned when their child struggles to learn to read. You portray this well in your writing. Is this how your parents reacted in real life?
Mary Avery Kabrich: Yes, I would say so. When I started college, my mother shared her feelings of failure and hopelessness with not being able to meet my needs. She revealed that although my father thought my problem was a lack of intelligence, she always believed I was smart. She shared getting some ideas and strategies from a second-grade teacher who was a family friend, but nothing seemed to work.
3. Emotional impact of dyslexia in childhood
Dyslexic Library: I don’t sense a lot of shame coming from Maddie about her struggle learning to read (which I love!). Was that the intention? How did that make you–Mary Avery Kabrich–feel at the time?
Mary Avery Kabrich: This is an interesting observation. I tried my best to portray Maddie true to my own experience. I think of shame as a sense of having done something wrong. Anger arises when witnessing or feeling unjustly treated. In my childhood mind, teachers were smart and knew what they were doing. My primary emotional experiences were distress and anxiety. I knew something was wrong with me. I could tell my mother was worried. Like the book, my father openly stated there was something wrong with me. I interpreted that something as a lack of intelligence. Both my parents were very intelligent, my older brother (portrayed as Rob), skipped a grade.
4. Emotional impact of dyslexia in adulthood
Dyslexic Library: How does your dyslexia present itself as an adult? Or does it?
Mary Avery Kabrich: It does to me, but hardly to anyone else. It kept me from reading novels which are critical to the development of becoming a writer. Audio books have changed my life. So yes, I can read but I read very slowly, which is excellent for non-fiction. When one is taking in lots of facts or concepts that need to be absorbed, it’s good to read slowly. I have never experienced “a beach read” and I’m envious of those who can consume a novel on a plane ride. I embarrass myself occasionally when I’m in a situation where I need to write something and can’t spell a simple word. Overall, the lasting impact has been (as I’m now mostly over it) a sense of inadequacy.
You had asked what parts of the novel have occurred in my life. I did see a therapist to address depression after the PhD and practicing school psychology for about 8 years. What came up was my shame in having had special education and the continued belief that I was not a smart person. Having a PhD made me feel like an imposter.
I would say, the most devastating impact of having dyslexia for me was the deeply embedded notion that I did not learn to read because I was not smart enough.
I could not have written the story without having therapy to reclaim “my nine-year-old self”.
Dyslexic Library: I have heard some people say that they would not wish dyslexia on anyone. Others say they see advantages to the way their brain works. What do you think?
Mary Avery Kabrich: Given the current public-school system that I am familiar with, I would be in the camp of not wishing it upon anyone. Adults continue to say things such as “she/he is so smart, they are already reading!” I still regret the books I missed out on because I never read. Being able to effortlessly read, and read quickly and accurately with comprehension, is an incredibly useful skill. I would love to pick up a novel and fall into the world flipping pages until I reached the end all in one sitting.
5. Overcoming challenges
Dyslexic Library: You went to university, became a school psychologist, now an award-winning author. What, if any, challenges have you overcame to achieve this success (past and present), and how did you overcome them? Did you have a parent, teacher or mentor who encouraged you?
Mary Avery Kabrich: I had huge challenges that I am incredibly grateful to have overcome. My parents were busy raising four children and had no understanding of what was going on for me. Nor did my teachers. I have a cousin I’m very close with. She used to share what she was reading, instilling a strong desire within me to also want to read. By sixth grade I could read at about second grade level. It was enough that with my own practice, I strengthened the skills. But like you, reading has never become effortless to where I can easily read a novel. Audio books has been a game changer for me.
I would say an even bigger challenge I overcame are the secondary effects of being viewed as “having something wrong.”
In middle and high school, I was “tracked”. Placed with the students who possibly did have weak cognitive skills. I began to skip school and identify with those who were considered “drop out material”. But then at the beginning of 9th grade, a new girl moved into our small town. I met her when I tried out for basketball. We became instant friends. She also happened to be a straight A student graduating at the top of her class. She inspired me to take school seriously. I wrote a blog about how my friend transformed my life.
6. Disclosing dyslexia
Dyslexic Library: You touch on this in the book – the hesitancy of Dr. Mary Meyers in revealing her dyslexia to her colleagues and students. Did you have the same concerns in your own life? And how did people respond?
Mary Avery Kabrich: Absolutely. This changed after therapy. And yet still I feel a tightening in my chest when I realize it is a good moment, the right student/parent, to reveal myself. It is still not easy. I would say the adult chapters in the story are quite accurate in many respects. People have always responded supportively and have found it helpful to know this about me.
7. Feeling like an imposter, and the journey to self-acceptance
Dyslexic Library: You say your book is an “act of redemption”? What do you mean by that, especially given by all accounts you’ve carved out a successful career? (I’m thinking of page 148, “Is it really necessary, after all these years, to reach back and find acceptance.”)
Mary Avery Kabrich: Excellent question. You are right, I have achieved a successful career. What I mean is redemption in the sense of clearing a debt. I actively hid who I was which had everything to do with who I sought to become. I would not have chosen special education teacher and then school psychologist and completing a PhD had I not been someone who struggled so hard to make it through school. And because I had not accepted myself – felt profound embarrassment about my reading challenge – all of it felt like a lie.
In the novel, Dr. Meyers reflects, “Regardless of my doubts, the fact is, I’ve achieved the pinnacle of education…Shouldn’t Maddie be satisfied?” All children fundamentally need acceptance for who they are. Even the child within ourselves. I thought earning a PhD would help me to feel intelligent. It didn’t work. I needed to reach back and fully accept the child I was. Evidence of that emerged when I was finally able to share my story without shame.
8. How to support children with dyslexia at school
Dyslexic Library: If you could wave a magic wand, how would you have changed your educational experience as a child? And for children today?
Mary Avery Kabrich: The answer to both questions is the same. My magic wand would have all teachers, starting in kindergarten, spend time sharing with students the truth: No two humans are ever completely alike. Being different from one another is normal. Someone might be better at running or math or reading but it is only a difference, it doesn’t make them better humans. Everyone learns in different ways with different timelines.
Schools however are in the business of teaching literacy skills. There are evidenced methods of teaching reading to those who do not respond to traditional methods. I would love the magic wand to wake up the powers that be and insist that professionals educated in cutting edge literacy swoop in and ensure all students can be successful readers.
9. On writing a second book
Dyslexic Library: What’s next for you? I understand you’re writing (or planning to write) a second book? Can you give us a hint at the subject matter?
Mary Avery Kabrich: Yes, I have a solid first draft. The characters and plot are quite different from Once Upon a Time a Sparrow. This story takes place in 2014 in a small town outside Boulder, Co., the place Mariah chose to start over with her one-year old daughter. Now 13, her daughter Star is beginning to ask questions about their family’s past, questions Mariah is not ready to confront. Like Once Upon a Time a Sparrow, the reader will be introduced to a child who has unique ways of being in the world and a story that also reveals the dangers of denying the past, and the possibility of transformation at any stage in life.
10. Message to Maddie
Dyslexic Library: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what would you say to your younger self?
Mary Avery Kabrich: I reconnected with my younger self through therapy, making the book possible. The title is the message shared with the younger me. It affirms that being a sparrow is in the past – once upon a time – no longer.
Dyslexic Library: Thank you Mary!
For more information about Once Upon A Time A Sparrow and insights on life, dyslexia and writing, visit Mary’s website.
You can read my book review here.
Photo credits: First photo of book cover and photo of inside text by Dyslexic Library; All other photos used with permission of the author.