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Memories are bittersweet for advocate mom

A mother and son share memories of their 20-year campaign to help him achieve success, in spite of severe dyslexia.

By Martha Langston , Rob Langston

For 20 years, Martha Langston and her son, Rob, were a team on a mission to help Rob succeed in school, in spite of his severe dyslexia. But it didn't always feel like a very well organized campaign. Martha often felt like she was just taking things one step at a time, making it up as she went along, running into unforeseen obstacles, and occasionally reaching the point of despair.

Today, at age 36, Rob is a motivational speaker and author who specializes in helping people overcome internal obstacles to reach their goals. He graduated from a four-year college with a degree in art and graphic design. In recent years, he has formed his own company, written a book, worked as an artist, and spoken to as many as 20,000 school children, college students, and business executives annually. The story of how his family helped him cope with his disability and overcome the terrible isolation he felt as a child with dyslexia is now part of the message of hope he brings to others.

A 6-year-old "under cover"

"When I speak at school assembly programs," Rob says, "I think it's crucial to tell kids to 'tell on themselves' if they're having problems learning. I didn't start getting help until second grade because I hid the problem so well." Like many kids with learning disabilities (LD), Rob had found creative ways to hide his dyslexia, such as making trips to the restroom during read-aloud time, memorizing the readers used in class, and cultivating playground friends who would let him copy their tests. 

Martha stumbled onto Rob's secret one day at the end of first grade when she asked him to read aloud — just for practice — the 40 words on the first-grade mastery list his teacher had given them. After an entire year in the advanced reading group, Rob could decode exactly two of the words: "a" and "I." Martha readily admits that she panicked. "I thought, My gosh, this child has been in first grade all year, and he hasn't learned anything."

In the style that would characterize the next 20 years of advocacy on behalf of her son, Martha immediately went to friends and family for support. "I relied strongly on friends," Martha says, "like when we moved to Conyers [Georgia], Rob ran around with a group of kids in the neighborhood, and I played bridge and socialized with the mothers. Because he was so smart, the friends he gravitated toward were all in the accelerated classes. I told all the mothers about Rob's dyslexia; that, even though he couldn't read, he wasn't dumb. So, by the time Rob told his friends about it, I'm sure they already knew from their mothers.

"I was so consumed with all of it," Martha adds, laughing, "that I talked about it whether I wanted to or not."

Soon after Rob's reading problems were discovered, Martha learned from her mother-in-law that Rob's father, Smoot, had also had trouble learning to read and had been labeled "mirror eyed" in fourth grade. Shortly after that revelation, Martha's mother called to tell her that she'd heard two doctors discussing dyslexia on The Phil Donahue Show and that the symptoms they were describing sounded very familiar. Martha sent for transcripts of the program, and the family finally had a label for what they were dealing with.

Mom on a mission

All of Rob's immediate family supported him in various ways to cope with his learning disability. Martha would later discover that Rob's older brother, Lon, was also dyslexic, though less severely so. Although Rob's father and brother chose not to make their reading problems public, Rob was inspired by knowing that both had overcome these difficulties to become successful businessmen. Rob's younger sister, Natalie, read his textbooks aloud to him all through his schooling and defended him from teasing.

The first tutor Martha hired to teach Rob to read, during the summer before second grade, gave up after a few months, saying he'd run out of strategies. The teachers she approached at school were more than willing to make accommodations for Rob, but were not able to help him learn to read. He was pulled out of English daily during elementary school for reading instruction, received tutoring at the county education office weekly, tried several special schools, traveled out of state to work with LD experts, walked on balance beams, read text on colored paper, did eye exercises, and was privately tutored every summer from first to eighth grade. At the end of middle school, Rob was still reading at a third-grade level.

"Rob has managed to get past the pain of that time," Martha says. "Somehow, he's been able to turn it around. But all I remember is the pain. We were driving home from middle school one day, and he told me he'd failed a test. He started crying and said to me, 'All I ever wanted to be was smart.' Well, here I am bawling, and he's bawling. And I said to him, 'Rob, we're going to get through this. Some way, we're going to get through this. When you get out of school, nobody will ever ask you what kind of grades you made. If you have friends and learn to do something [to earn a living], you're going to be fine. But you've got to get through school.'

"A girlfriend of mine once told me that I should never let Rob see me cry," Martha adds, "that I should be strong for him. But I thought, he doesn't need me to be strong, he needs me to understand." In Rob's estimation, Martha achieved both. "She'll tell people she just operated on instinct, but she got it 99% right. She was unequivocally on my side," he says, "whether I was right or wrong, and she always worked it through to get to the solution."

Comments from readers

"This is an amazing story. It warms my heart to know that we have such people in our midst."