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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

Voices: The Teacher / When Max Took the Plunge

The day I met Max started out as typical as any in my role as a speech and language therapist at Westerly High School. Westerly High serves nearly 1,200 students, and I keep approximately 34 students on my caseload. I serve teenagers with a wide range of learning problems, from mild to profound. The excitement of the job lies in seeing the way language poses a unique challenge to each student.
Max was one such student, referred to me as having “language processing problems.” I asked Max how his freshman year was going, and he reported that everything was fine except for English class. I acknowledged that I knew this and told him I was assigned to help him. He nodded and tackled the assessment I handed him with what I would come to see as his usual tenacity.
For all intents and purposes, Max was functionally illiterate. Although he tested as reading at the 5.1 grade level, he exhibited phonological awareness closer to kindergarten level. He had no idea that the alphabet was a code, predictable by rules. His reading comprehension and vocabulary were significantly below his peers as were his grammar and syntax. But his IQ was above average, so it seemed all I had to do was teach Max the code, build his vocabulary, and coach him to use his knowledge in his writing. Considering the vagaries of English word origins and the myriad of sounds associated with the alphabet, this was no easy task. But Max was up to the challenge. We spent fall and early winter decoding the alphabet and learning phonics rules. By Christmas, Max was reading some sophisticated words and incorporating them into conversation.

Max Gets Hooked

But it took an alluring book to spur the leap to reading. In January, I attended the kick-off conference for Reading Across Rhode Island. Every year, this program selects a high-quality book and urges schools, bookstores, and libraries around the state to promote reading and discussion of it. The 2006 book was Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, the true story of deep sea divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler who, in the 1990s, discovered a World War II U-boat sunken off the coast of New Jersey. Their six-year odyssey exploring this wreck took them 200 feet under the sea, culminating in a death-defying dive to identify the submarine. I began reading Shadow Divers with Max. When I told Max we would be reading this book, he said, “Mrs. Foley, can I close the door? I have to tell you something.”
I looked at him expectantly. He confessed, “I have never read a book completely. That's an adult book. I don't think I can read it.”
Undaunted, I replied: “Max, it doesn't matter if you read it or I read it to you. It's a great story and you're going to love it.” I knew if I could engage Max in the story, he'd be hooked and the experience would build his confidence.
Max fell in love with Shadow Divers. It brought the cold depths of the Atlantic Ocean and the personalities of Chatterton and Kohler alive for him. Midway into the semester, Max started volunteering at the Mystic Aquarium in nearby Mystic, Connecticut, and taking scuba lessons. He brought to school a photograph of himself with his arm around a beluga whale. Max and I were soon taking turns reading pages—and eventually chapters—out loud.
Spring break was a turning point. We had reached a point in the book that was so compelling that Max could not wait until school resumed for the next installment. Max took the book on his family's trip to Toronto, where they traveled to watch the Red Sox play. Not only did Boston win, but Max finished Shadow Divers independently. He could hardly wait to tell me what he'd learned about the origin of the U-boat. Max had finally read an entire book. Not only was he a reader, but he was also an engaged reader.
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Max and DJ Foley enjoy Shadow Divers.
Photo courtesy of Jack Foley

A Moment with the Author

To celebrate Max's success with Shadow Divers, Max, his mother, and I attended the annual Reading Across Rhode Island breakfast at which Robert Kurson and the divers were guest speakers. I arrived late, and by the time I got to the hall, everyone was seated in the dining room. The foyer appeared abandoned, but I spotted Robert Kurson, John Chatterton, and Richie Kohler standing in the doorway. I impulsively approached them and blurted, “I have to shake hands with the men responsible for my student's success.”
As Robert Kurson shook my hand, I told him about Max. He encouraged me to bring Max to meet him later. After the breakfast and speeches, Max and I maneuvered our way to the front of the hall for the signing. Veterans at moving through crowded high school corridors, we ended up 15th in line. But 700 other people were also waiting to meet the shadow divers and Kurson. The most I expected was an autograph and a quick hello.
When we got to the front of the line, I hung back to let Max have his moment. When Kurson realized whose book he was signing, he said loudly, “Richie, John, this is the kid.” All three men leaned toward Max. Max and his mother told them about Max's reading difficulties and how Shadow Divers had changed his life. Max was just about vibrating, he was so excited. He told them about getting scuba certified and working in Mystic. At one point, John Chatterton glanced at me and said, “Guys, look at the teacher. She's crying.” He called me over, and Max and I hugged.
The men told Max how proud of him they were. They chatted as if there weren't a line of people streaming back into the dining room. Time stopped, or at least paused, to allow these three men and this boy to recognize how powerful one book had been.
Six months later, John and Richie maintain e-mail contact with Max and sometimes point him to resources for school projects or act as primary sources. Max now aspires to be a marine archaeologist.
We never know what fate will make of our actions. I never suspected that choosing this book would lead Max to a thirst for reading, a passion for sea diving, and contact with a famous author. I couldn't have designed what happened that year if I'd tried. But, I'm glad I was around for Max's plunge.

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