There’s something in your room that reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci,” I told my younger boy. “Something you have in common with him.” At least that was my understanding— flawed as it turned out, or so I’m now convinced, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
The presumptuous parallel drawn between my then 10-year-old and the inimitable genius was a deliberate toss of the gauntlet calculated to distract him from a case of nerves before a school performance, and it worked.
“Leonardo da Vinci?” he echoed, eyes bright—but then, as gently as possible, for he is a polite boy, so much as said that my riddles were too easy for him. Still, he surveyed his room with careful scrutiny, his fingers trailing over sketchpads and models, experiments and collections.
“It has to be one of these things,” he mused.
“No” I told him, “it’s none of those things.”
This is a story about another riddle: a child whose brain runs hard in two directions.
It begins on an early Saturday morning in the West Village of New York, a long time before he was born. Though whole decades of my youth remain obscured, I remember clearly how the day dawned with an exuberant sun—a gift after a water-logged week. Coffee in hand, high-spirited, my not-yet husband and I took to the streets and wandered amid the early risers; the dog-walkers; and the sleepy-eyed, slippered man making his way to the corner for a newspaper, a coat thrown loosely over his pajamas. We were in our 20s then: bold and undaunted, flush and lucky. The things that might mark a later age—the reversals, blunders and indiscretions—were unimaginable. Besides, the sun was shining, and in the wag of a tail, the soft set of a shoulder and the tilt of an unshaven chin toward the skv. it seemed that all life was unfurling toward the unexpected warmth.
We turned a corner and found ourselves on St. Luke’s Place, a pretty intersection of streets lined with trees and fronted with well-kept brownstones and tidy, diminutive gardens. The first bulbs were up, the splashes of color enough in evidence to make one believe in the promise of spring, but my eyes were fixed on the street sign. In that moment, I knew—”knew” in the way that sometimes defies reason or explanation—that one day I would have a boy named Luke. It was a sharp realization that held none of the ambiguity of a hunch or daydream. In fact, it was nothing like a dream at all, and it wasn’t wishful thinking or a self-fulfilling prophecy, either, but a discrete, concise moment that possessed the precision and clarity of a gem-stone. All the rest came by ambush.
“Is it my colored pencils? My drawing pad? My watercolors? My modeling clay?”
I shook my head.
“But he was an artist—it has to be something of this sort, right?”
“He was an artist, yes, and many other things, too, but no, it’s nothing like that, nothing to do with art at all.”
And my boy disappeared again into his room, every light switched on as if inadequate illumination was the reason he hadn’t yet dispensed with one of his mother’s riddles.
Luke was born some 15 years later on a fall evening. It was an unremarkable birth, the doctors said, which in the matter of birthing babies is a good thing. We fell in love immediately, took him home and took good care of him, which included the reasonable provision of the materials necessary to feed his interests. This took some doing, as his gestures were large: his tide of art, his card houses and string pursuits, his magic and mechanical devices—these and other things experienced or executed on a grand scale, often with startling results.
Take folded paper, for example, one of his earliest interests. By age 2, he learned how to fold an origami crane. By 4, he had a number of books on the subject and was churning out pinwheels and zoo animals. By 5, he had mastered lanterns, globes and elaborate ornaments. We were traveling a good bit by then, and as he ran through supplies, we came to know the inside of artist supply stores all over the world. We shopped in Amsterdam, Paris, St. Petersburg and Shanghai, and he was out of supplies by London. We used newsprint in Tallinn and Bornholm, and in Taipei, this was the paper of choice because he was intrigued with Chinese script. He never went anywhere without paper.
By 10, his tastes had moved on to more intricate things, like reversible boxes and complicated, 6-inch-high rabbits made from hundreds of hand-colored pieces. He never lost his interest in cranes, though, and often returned home from a dull day at school with his pockets stuffed with scores of birds of assorted sizes, single and double ones, and miniature, fragile foursomes connected at the wingtips, the whole flock created from luncheon napkins, candy wrappers, the school newsletter and his spelling lists.
“I hate school,” he said.
Thanks to centuries of diligent scholarship, the world knows a lot about Leonardo da Vinci, and yet, great mysteries abound. The same might be said of any of us; the human being is such a complicated animal. Here are some things we knew about Luke:
He routinely used his spelling lists for his origami.
His handwriting was dreadful.
His collection of origami books grew; in fact, his entire library held nothing else.
He had an odd pencil grip, which he refused to surrender.
He stuttered at times—severely on occasion and especially when excited or upset.
And he shuffled off to school with a leaden slump to his shoulders, not at all in keeping with the cartwheels and spins that typically marked his passage.
Here is something else that we knew: He was and is a very sweet child, eager and earnest, honest and thoughtful, but in moments of frustration, in the whirlwind of his disappointments, whatever they were, accidents occurred: a car door kicked from its hinges, a picture window shattered by an angry jab of an elbow, the window screen accidentally ripped and the oil painting torn, as well.
We knew all of these things, each element a facet of our boy, but we did not have the keystone to the puzzle that was our child. In fact, we did not even perceive that it was missing, but without it, the arc of his life had no strength, and his effort over time could so easily be reduced to rubble.
Luke was 2 when a pediatrician asked us to keep track of the number of words he spoke. Over 700, I told him, and then I stopped counting. He wasn’t much older when he could name and write his letters, making, as is true of many young learners, the occasional substitutions: b for d, for example, or m for n. There were other substitutions, too—whole words like car for automobile or dog for animal—but because these had their own kind of logic, we thought nothing of them.
When he was still a preschooler, I tried to teach him to read. We had a family habit of reading aloud each night, a pleasurable time punctuated with the emerging reader of the household taking on a few lines of his own—only Luke couldn’t.
I assumed there were many reasons for this. For one, he loved story time, and the early primers—”This is Bob. See Bob run.”— bored him. He just didn’t care about Bob. He wanted to know what Harry Potter was doing—or Joey Pigza, Huck Finn or Pippi Longstocking. For another, there was the fatigue factor. He had put in a full day of being a boy, an exhausting endeavor, and by bedtime, his energy was spent.
So I began to work with him more concertedly during the day, but this also failed because he rarely wanted to stop what he was doing to read. He turned the book sideways, and I thought he was stalling, making a game of it. He invariably stumbled at the first line, no matter what it was, and again, I suspected mockery. He hid the book under a cushion, under the rug, under the bed, behind the canned goods and, finally, outside, down at the beach, under the canoe.
Given his reluctance, we made only slight progress, but by then, he had entered kindergarten, where he shined with his dimples and sweet personality, his big vocabulary and mastery of letters. His teacher assured us that soon—”Very soon, trust me; boys take a while”—he would learn to read.
Only he didn’t. And by first grade, he still wasn’t reading, not really, not well at all. I hired a tutor, but by the close of second grade, we had little progress to show for it. Of course, I continued to work with him at home, as well, and by third grade, he could read a little but still made lots of errors. Small words in particular eluded him. He guessed and paraphrased and, more often than not, missed the point entirely. He had a tracking problem, too; he’d get to the end of a line and skip the next one completely. Unfazed, he just kept going.
“Wait a minute,” I’d tell him. “it doesn’t make sense.”
But he hadn’t noticed, and when I questioned him further, he confessed that he never listened to what he read because it never made sense.
“I hate reading,” he said.
There’s a breaking point for all families coming to grips with something unnamed, and for us, it came the afternoon I saw Luke flipping through a book of science experiments in search of something to do. He spent some minutes pouring over one in particular and asked me various questions about the properties of salt, whether kosher salt would behave the same as table salt and what the word compound meant, but then he turned the page and browsed some moments more before he settled on a simple experiment involving straws and balloons.
“What happened to the salt experiment?” I asked. Because I knew him to be both charmed and engaged by the mysteries of the world, I thought for certain he would have pursued the matter—but he didn’t answer, which sometimes happens with Luke, a sign that his active little mind was already taken up with his very big plans.
“What happened … ?” I started to ask again, but looking over his shoulder then, with a sudden chill descending, I knew: Like the origami, the straw-balloon experiment was almost fully diagrammatic, the few words of instruction easily ignored.
What happens to the spirit when an initiative proves unreachable, even senseless?
That same afternoon, I registered him for testing at a well-regarded learning center a few towns over.
“What we have here,” said the evaluator, hours later, “is a gifted boy.”
I must have looked blank, for he repeated his findings and allowed a silence—my breath conspicuous in the quiet—to stretch between us long enough for the import of his words to penetrate.
“Gifted,” I repeated, saying it aloud just to hear my voice, to get it straight.
He was rummaging through the stacks of tests on his desk, ruminating about our boy’s strengths and weaknesses, complimenting his curious and generous nature, and sweeping aside the mounds of origami that marked our child’s path,
“What we have here—,” he said again, but by then, I had come to my senses, flushed into purposefulness by the earnestness of his tone.
“—is a bright child who cannot read,” I interrupted.
He didn’t argue, of course, not with the evidence sprawled so definitely between us: soaring math and reasoning scores, yet, when it came to reading, writing and spelling, numbers that dipped into paltry single digits. “A galaxy of brilliance,” he said, “and a few dark holes,” but no name was ascribed to our son’s situation. Indeed— remarkably, even—it would be years before a diagnosis emerged. For now, the working theory was that what ailed Luke was nothing more than a failure of curriculum. “Let’s try teaching him,” the evaluator said, “and see where it gets us.”
“Word blindness” is what it was called a century ago, and patients were put through all sorts of eye exams to no avail. Stupidity, it’s called today—or apathy or inattentiveness. At least that’s what’s said when there is no adult to advocate, to insist that nothing could be further from the truth, that it’s something else—”Can’t you see?”— something terribly, miserably amiss.
My son had moved on to his bathroom. “You’re getting warmer,” I told him.
“The toilet? Did Leonardo da Vinci invent the toilet?” He giggled.
“I don’t think so, and anyway, that’s not it.”
“The light bulb?”
I paused, and he heard the weakness, this child of mine who could read between the lines, no matter that the lines themselves were a mystery.
He thought he had me. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s the light bulb, isn’t it?”
“No,” I answered carefully, “but some surmise that the man who invented it, Thomas Edison, also had this thing, the thing Leonardo had, and you have, too.”
I could have recited a long list: Nelson Rockefeller, Walt Disney, Thomas Jefferson, John E Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Henry Winkler, Tom Cruise, Wendy Wasserstein, James Carville, Cher, Pete Conrad, David Boies. I could have gone on and on: Some say Albert Einstein belongs on the list, and Winston Churchill, Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin, Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Ted Turner, Gen. George Patton, Woodrow Wilson, Gustave Flaubert and W.B. Yeats, too.
I could have rattled off all those names, and I might have if I’d thought they would’ve had any meaning for Luke, indeed, I could have multiplied that list three times over, adding, among others, the writer John Irving and the financier Charles Schwab, who were none the wiser to their disabilities until their own children were diagnosed. As the facts about Luke came to light—the reading struggles, the poor handwriting, the stutter, the frustration and anxiety—Luke’s father experienced a similar shock.
A digression: Some time ago, I attended law school, a place I commuted to, Monday through Friday for three years. I took summers off to work, but every September, there I was, behind the wheel of a car and on my way to school—only I couldn’t find my way, which seemed ludicrous and set me up as an object of ridicule: “What? What do you mean you got lost? But that’s ridiculous!” And it did seem preposterous, even to me.
I had strategies for compensating. For one, î drove by sight, but when the landscape changed—a restaurant burned down, say, or a detour was put up—the system fell apart. For another, I plastered directional notes to my dashboard, but I was so busy reading that the next thing I knew, I was picking glass out of my hair and ears, and collecting law books that had been flung across the car floor.
And then I was driving my son to this educational center twice a week, same route, back roads, but all of a sudden, it didn’t look familiar, not at all, and I didn’t know whether to turn right or left at an intersection. The seconds ticked by, but it was as if a fog had blown in—unyielding and opaque—and I didn’t know which way to go.
This was what it must be like for him, I realized in a rush of sudden comprehension, a kind of impenetrable confusion when he looked at the printed page. He knew the word had, for example, and the word little—why, he’d read those words hundreds and hundreds of times—but sometimes, the letters appeared unhinged, and he read “Mar gha dal it tie lamd” instead of “Mary had a little lamb.”
He knew all these words, and, yet, there were times he looked at the page and saw “Aw ords reo db lo king” instead of “The words are odd-looking.” There were times he looked at a sentence and read “A boy with dark hair and his sister said … ,” with the thought left unfinished and hanging in a nonsensical way, instead of “The boy with the brown hair questioned his little sister.”
But calling upon his keen ability to accommodate himself to strange circumstances, a child’s ability, he had his systems for dealing. For one, he took his clues from the pictures in books, from titles or from what the teacher said by way of introducing a text to the class. For another, he could read enough to gather the gist of a story, paraphrasing as he went along, substituting what might have reasonably been written for the actual words. These and other measures allowed him a modicum of success and mostly got him through his day but left him anxious and exhausted.
Deep down, this child with immense ambitions sensed that something wasn’t right. He had no name for it, no description even, and neither did we. It was subterranean, some reality not fully apprehended and never verbalized, but it became more urgent with each passing day. And then—boom!—our little man’s elbow shattered a window in the heat of an unhappy moment, and everyone, including the perpetrator, was stunned over the havoc engendered by one isolated whack.
He didn’t know what was wrong, our boy, but he did know that homework was “dumb,” especially math, which was too easy and so laborious, all that step by step, A leads to B leads to C, but he was already on X and waiting the interminable time it took for the rest of the class to get there, keeping his impatience in check, his boredom at bay, such an effort, and because he was a polite boy he just sat and sat and fiddled with paper until finally he got to go home, where he gave the same answer he always gave when í asked him how school was. “Boring,” he said, his head hung in lassitude, but î told him there must have been something that was fun. But no, it was all boring, he said, except recess and lunch and maybe art, and he was tired of telling me that every single day. It was so boring and then—smash!—there was a splintered heap where once stood a chair, an accident certainly but a splintered heap nonetheless, a tangible form of the perceived irrevocability of his situation, of the realization that it was only Monday. His teachers thought he was bright, as did his classmates, but it was a hard notion for him to hold onto when he was the last to finish anything, still writing his essay when recess came, and when even his best handwriting was close to illegible. And he was still on the same “free reading” book he started at the beginning of the semester, only the semester was over, and the next one, too, which was humiliating for him, and—wham!—a car door was unhinged with an angry kick.
He played the piano beautifully, a confirmed pianist, but the notes on the page were next to meaningless. It was OK, I told him. John Lennon couldn’t read music, either, and for a moment, he wras mollified, but it didn’t end here. The menu in a restaurant; the directions to a new game; the back of a box of cereal; the “This Side Up” notice on microwave popcorn; his various manuals, field guides and handbooks; and the preferred but abandoned science experiment— these and 1,000 other moments of frustration added to the six dull hours of the school day.
Six and one-half, he said. Smash, kick, boom.
“What on earth?” we cried, our heads held between our hands. We had entered that realm of misery peculiar to parents: no plan, no name even for what was going on, just the trepidation of thinking the matter was in our empty hands.
What we wanted for our child was what any parent might want: a life ignited by his passions and fueled by his intellect—not necessarily a frictionless life but one painted from a vivid palette. What we feared was a marginal existence prescribed from his difficulties in accessing printed information, from his discomfort at his sense of being different, from imputed arrogance at his abilities or from ostracism triggered by his ideas, which so often proved sophisticated beyond his years.
Reading, so fundamental to learning and infiltrating every aspect of a person s life, is a peculiarly human skiH and one acquired in childhood—only our child wasn’t getting it. “Think what he’s missing,” a friend remarked. It’s said that Shakespeare alone put 884,647 words in print—a body of work inaccessible to Luke unless read aloud.
Most people have a story, usually only one, that sets all the rest in motion. I worried that “a few dark holes” would control the narrative, that “young boy, buoyant and alive, who nonetheless struggles to read” would become his tagline.
Struggles, meanwhile, was the new word I had come up with to describe his situation.
Won’t as in “He simply won’t do it,” was what I said when he was little, before I understood that his willfulness—noteworthy—had nothing to do with it.
Then I substituted can’t, and when I said it, I used it like a club to bully a tired world into believing that our bright boy nonetheless needed help: “Hey, listen up. My son can’t read.” It sounded extreme, even to my ears, no matter the absolute truth of it, but it got their attentions—the teachers, the principal, the special education department, the speech and language pathologist, the reading specialists, the attorney with the State Department and the tutors. To say it, though, with everyone finally paying attention and trying hard, seemed defeatist and entirely too conclusive, so I switched to struggles, with its implication of a battle that could be won or lost.
We returned to our experts, and this was what we learned: He’s bright; hell get it. He’s a boy, and they take longer. It’s developmental; its the curriculum, the teachers. Don’t worry. And the kicker: Maybe he just doesn’t like stories.
When the tangible world falls short of providing answers, one s exploration of the mystical can grow ever more devout, and so I consulted a psychic, one of many I’ve conferred with throughout the years, an approach so commonplace for me that I sometimes forget the oddity of it.
I have my mother to thank for this recourse, for I grew up in a home where her spiritual views—vague, even by the tolerant standards of the church—were nonetheless marked by an unequivocal faith in the afterlife. în my youth, this faith surfaced as her keen interest in the paranormal—ghosts and auras, energy fields and spirit guides, omens, premonitions, and people meditating in the living room. Later, her pursuits became more studied, and the varying strands of her interests merged into a cohesive view. But it was the formative years that counted for so much, and in those days, mystics gathered in the kitchen, and spoon-benders held sw¾y in the dining room. Once, in the company of a couple of wild Russian women, my mother and I walked barefooted on a bed of hot coals, and let me be clear: They were very hot coals, and it was not a short distance.
But the fire-walking aside (as it only happened once), the rest of it—the chats with the dead, the signs and the superstitions—was a normal part of our lives and fit in well with the rest of the extended family. The oldest of my many aunts regularly told the future from the grounds of a cup of coffee, while the others, deferring to her wisdom, contented themselves with trading tidbits of information that came by way of dreams, hunches or visitations from the dead. Sleeves pushed up, aprons fresh, paring knives flashing as plums were pitted for jam and vegetables were trimmed for pickling, my aunties sat circled around bushel baskets straight from the farm and talked:
“I had that dream, the same one. My brother, my dear departed brother, the one my mother loved best, no point in denying it, he came to me, again he came, and sat at the foot of my bed. He just looked at me—looked, that was all. ‘What?’ I asked him. ‘What is it you want, brother? What is it that you are here to say?”‘
The others, all ancient to my child eyes and each with an opinion more forceful than the next, set about interpreting meaning. ‘‘Again you say? Again he came?” Foreheads creased; lips were pressed into thin, straight lines; paring knives stopped, but only briefly because there was still okra to trim, beans to string, onions to dice, apples to peel. “A warning, certainly. … That business deal, maybe. … That house you want to buy, and for what? You have a perfectly fine house as it is…. There are your dreams, I tell you, and then there is the world ready to tear them apart. … Be careful, that’s all we’re saying. The world never leaves anyone alone.”
The idea of consulting with a psychic was by no means strange to me. Besides, the most recent appointment was a gift from my mother and arranged a year in advance because the waiting list was long. The psychic channeled a spirit named Benu—Sanskrit for the word gateway and the nickname for Gabriel.
“The archangel Gabriel?” I asked my mother.
“Benu,” I asked near the close of my allotted time, “one more thing: What do I make of this boy, my youngest?”
There was a short silence before he said, “What you have here, of course, is an indigo child,” and because I am my mother’s offspring, this made some sense.
The reference was to the color indigo that’s nestled between blue and violet on the visible spectrum and ascribed by some to the body’s sixth chakra or third eye. If Benu was correct, those able to discern auras would see Luke surrounded by this deep, rich color, from which certain assumptions might be drawn. An “indigo child,” as the term is used, is one who displays a particular set of psychological attributes marked by a heady mix of self-reliance and curiosity. They are very bright and charming—and challenging because they generate ideas at startling rates: Will marshmallows cook over the toaster? Will hot water freeze before it hits the ground if dropped from a second-story window opened during subzero temperatures? What’s the difference between the living and the nonliving, and aren’t they really, Mom, the same, the way opposite sides of a coin are still a coin, the way black or white are still colors?
“An indigo child? Fine, okay, terrific even—but he can’t read,” I complained.
“These are children who know who they are and what they are about,” Benu answered, tossing off my concern. “You’re not going to change them; you’re just going to round off the edges.”
One year passed, and then another.
Back and forth we drove to his twice-weekly tutoring sessions at the learning center, passing the drive with books-on-tape, each carefully chosen to help him get through his curriculum and to keep pace with the lunch crowd all abuzz over dragons and wizards. And as he learned how words came together and apart, we saw a marked decrease in his anger and frustration—the smash, kick, boom of his accidents now things of the past. Even better, as he became more acclimated to the printed page, his stammering diminished and then ceased.
More time passed, and he qualified to take an entrance exam for a program for gifted youths. One look at the sample materials, however, made it clear that he could never manage the exam without someone reading it to him. As I flipped through the instructional handbook in search of some mechanism by which he might be able to sit for the exam, I came across just the accommodation he needed—and it was listed under the section titled “Students with Handicaps.” It was the first time the word handicap was linked to our boy, and it required both a deep breath and a diagnosis.
Again, I went in search of the experts. “What you have here,” one finally said, “is a dyslexic mind.” And with this belated news, things changed for our son, now twice-labeled “exceptional.”
For his gifts, he was put into accelerated math. For his challenges, he was assigned a reader for the standardized tests and put on an educational plan that included tutors and an introduction to assistive technology—spelling devices, for example, and a software program that could scan and read material to him in any of eight or so voices from which he could choose. He liked “Jane” best because her English accent did so much to disguise the robotic nature of a computer reading aloud. Though she was best heard at roughly 165 words per minute, when he got bored, he turned her up to 600 words per minute.
While he was doing all of this, we were educating ourselves. Dyslexia, we learned, has nothing to do with intelligence, though
Luke’s intelligence was certainly never in doubt, not in our household anyway. To the contrary, the core problem centers in the language factory of the brain—the place where words are broken apart to make sounds and where sounds are pieced together to make words. He could ponder the big mysteries that captured his imagination and figure sophisticated mathematical problems that had little easy application in the tangible world—this much was readily apparent—but the everyday, pedestrian, segmental aspect of language eluded him.
Adding to the difficulties, small words with no visual content— the, where, there, when, then, to, for, it and so many more—were, in particular, meaningless and, therefore, interchangeable or, from Luke’s point of view, even easily ignored. The word saw, for example, might be pronounced “was,” “maz,” “sam” or “som,” or he might merge it into the word that followed or with one from the next line down. He might skip right over it, and while he was skipping, he might just as well forget the whole paragraph, which was too long anyway, he’d say, too dense on the page, too full of tedious description, the thread of which he lost long ago, and why did he have to read anyway, since it took the charm of life away and left only unspeakable dreariness?
With the advent of magnetic resonance imagery, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are at work in a given activity, and I showed Luke the maplike diagrams of a dyslexic mind—how it is configured differently from the brain of a person who has no trouble reading. He studied them intently and seemed satisfied that there was an assignable reason for his difference: dark patches appearing from birth in unexpected places and small clusters of neurons that drifted from where they are usually anchored in the brain.
A bunch of straying neurons, a relatively mere handful cut loose from the brain’s usual arrangement of its 50 billion. Was that it then, we asked ourselves, the reason Luke struggled to read? With such staggering effects for the life of our boy—indeed, statistics say, for the lives of a sobering 1 out of 5 kids—it seemed there should be more to it than that. And now that we knew, our faith pinned to neuro-science, what could be done about it? After all, he had a lot of years of education ahead of him. “Further to the matter of a foreign language requirement,” I mused in a daydream that involved college admissions boards, “please be advised that the applicant can hardly hold onto the order of letters in the English language, to say nothing of the scrambled eggs of, say, French. … But have you considered music, a language capable of expressing far more than a paltry string of words?”
Experts say that if you catch a problem early enough, the plasticity of the brain is such that with proper instruction, it can overcome the innate wiring glitches. But after first or second grade, reprogram-ming the neural pathways becomes much harder, and by the teenage or adult years, it is extremely difficult. “I’ll have what he’s having,” I overheard the other day in a restaurant, and when I looked over, I saw a young man nervously drumming the table with his fingertips, the menu closed and upside down in front of him—and I wondered.
A few years ago, Luke picked up a sticker with the words written backward, a gag necessitating a mirror so you could read the words from left to right. He placed the sticker on his medicine cabinet, which was reflected in his bathroom mirror.
This looking-glass writing is something Luke does on occasion when he writes simple words and almost all his numbers: To write the number 14, for example, he writes the 4 first and then the 1—a kind of reverse-order writing reminiscent of that found in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. But when I at last told Luke the answer to the riddle, he was disappointed: Only this? Backward writing? Not a phenomenal drawing, or an elaborate experiment, or a new flying machine, or some mystery of the universe cracked wide open? Backward handwriting, a dumb old sticker, that’s all?
No, that wasn’t the only parallel I could have also cited his fearlessness in tackling the amorphous—a gleeful quality to his curiosity—and how he has the gift and grit to reduce the matter to specificity. I could have mentioned his knack for seeing patterns in the most random displays and his ability to scrutinize, like a jeweler, the flat face of a problem and see it for all its facets.
But, yes, the backward script, only that, and, as it turned out, I had based my riddle on an incorrect assumption, a fact I would later have to clarify with him lest I be a party to misconception. While it is true that dyslexic minds can turn letters around willy-nilly, break words into chunks and send them adrift like icebergs and even shift whole lines from their proper places, it’s more to the point that they cannot name what they see. “Backward script has nothing to do with it,” í told Luke when, at last, I understood my error.
He considered this a moment and then used a magnifying glass to scrutinize a piece of his homework placed next to a page from Leonardo’s sketchbook. He looked for some time, though the conclusion was evident at a glance: Luke’s scrambled and scattered pencil scratches bore no resemblance to the elegant and precise flow from Leonardos hand, in which the looking-glass element was perfectly executed, as well. The riddle was wrongly conceived, he agreed, and Leonardo was off the list.
Now, a riddle put asunder could have been a deflating moment unless one was able to see what shot up in the cracks. “If Leonardo’s backward handwriting is not an indication of dyslexia,” he wondered aloud, ‘‘then what is it?” We did some research—most of which I read aloud to speed it along—and discovered a range of theories. Some said it was Leonardo’s attempt to hide his ideas from casual, prying eyes. Others thought it was the clever recourse of a left-handed man who sought not to smear the ink as he wrote. One theory suggested that, given his brilliance, perhaps he sought to complicate something ordinary so as to give it heightened interest. But Luke was only partially engaged with these theories. What interested him more was the fact that, despite 600 years of scholarship, there was no definitive consensus.
He was young. It would be some years yet, I presumed, before he realized just how much of life turned upon great, unanswered questions—or at least that’s my view of it—the number of very good minds applied to such issues notwithstanding. In Luke’s scant handful of years alone, some notable questions had already arisen. If pressed, for example, how would I account for that odd, long-ago moment on a spring morning in the West Village when the street sign seemed to stand out like an announcement of things to come, and what did I make of the stories I heard subsequently about indigo children— fleets of them, to hear Benu tell it—the whole idea like smoke in the hand? His reading and handwriting, too, were things I didn’t understand, and their probable course was entirely elusive. But these days, I can say how he’s coming along: slowly, so slowly that his tutors appear to me like the monks of old, one pen stroke after the next, with no hope of earthly reward.
Big, unanswered questions are a part of every life, I told Luke; the cloudiness of his prognosis a case in point, I thought to myself. There was a time when this uncertainty was unsettling, to say the least, but the shock has subsided over the years, and I worry less as I age. “What do I know of a man’s destiny?” Samuel Beckett once asked. “I can tell you more about radishes.”
Sensible man, I thought when I read those lines aloud to the family, a fellow who apparently knew the value of fact. The mind is incapable of finding all the answers it might seek, I explained to Luke, but a good mind will continue the quest nonetheless, and in the effort, the ability to read is very helpful. So practice, I urged.
“Practice!” demanded his tutors, and we sat down yet again with a book propped in his lap. It was right-side up this time, a good sign, but he complained that he’d rather look at the volume with Leonardo s drawings and blueprints. “Later,” I told him, and I insisted, as well, that he apply his index finger to the page, which helped with tracking. This time, it was Beckett in his lap, since the quote piqued his interest. “Nothing in here about radishes,” he said after a bit, and he was disappointed, but because he had managed a few lines on his own, I celebrated how far he had come.