Rob was 10 and couldn't read. Then one day he told Christine Walter a joke - from a book
"It's because of my head, Miss," ventured Rob at our first meeting. "My mum says it was too big." It was a surprising start to a year-long struggle for both of us.
I was teaching in a middle school in a Devon market town in the late 1980s and Rob was a bright-eyed 10-year-old who couldn't read. I was to be his mentor and guide for one day a week. Later he told me he'd had a difficult birth, getting stuck at one point and being deprived of oxygen for a short time. So the comment about the size of his head began to make sense, and I could see that he did indeed possess a certain cranial width, which might have caused his mother problems. However, it was the interior of Rob's head which was to be my concern.
During the year, Rob and I explored more strategies for learning than I can remember. We used his interest in ornithology, and were frequently found stalking birds around the school grounds, camera in one hand and encyclopaedia of ornithology in the other. I transcribed countless stories from Rob's fertile imagination, which we transferred to the computer and turned into Rob's own reading books. I also ran a mail-order book club in the school; every month Rob collected orders, counted the money, and, when the book parcel arrived from the publishers, unpacked the books, then delivered them to their owners.
Rob struggled manfully on, one day recognising words, the following day appearing never to have seen them before. But he never gave up and never complained. During the summer term a book parcel arrived, and as we were unpacking it I was called to the telephone next door. Five minutes later I found Rob gazing at a book of jokes. "Listen to this one, Miss," he said, and proceeded to tell a limp joke about a chimpanzee and a bunch of bananas, collapsing into giggles at the punch line. After a few seconds, he realised I hadn't obliged him with my usual hoots of laughter. Then the penny dropped. "I can read it Miss, all by myself!"
At secondary school Rob got a clutch of GCSEs and an apprenticeship in agricultural engineering. I often tell children about him and say: "If Rob could tackle it, then so can you." The joy of that moment, when the penny dropped, reminds me why I always wanted to teach.
Christine Walter is a primary teacher in north Devon