A letter to parents - Talia Hyman 1983-2005
I should have liked to have introduced you to our daughter, Talia, who would have been 22 at the end of July 2005. Talia should have finished a “mechinat bagrut” at Ariel College, the place she found by herself where there was a warm, understanding, helping atmosphere for students with specific learning difficulties. She should have taken those last exams needed in order to be accepted to study social work.
It wasn’t to be. Talia was killed in an accident on March 9th 2005 when a heavy army ambulance, travelling at excessive speed, skidded across the road into her small Fiat car.
Why I am telling Talia's story
Within a few hours of her death, I was thinking that I couldn’t let all the knowledge we had collected - as well as all Talia’s fights with the powers-to-be - be wasted, come to naught. I felt that I had to write something for other parents, so that some of them might be able to avoid a little of the heart-ache that is the lot of children, who have learning difficulties, and of their parents. So I began to write these lines many years ago. But, ironically, I could not publish them because the case for accident insurance compensation was still in the courts. Any compensation due after a road accident is dependent on the deceased person’s theoretical future earning capacity. For this it is necessary to present all the person’s medical and educational records, if he does not yet work, in order for the insurance company to assess potential. You may ask how can the assessment be correct in a case where all the testing shows extremely high potential but the limits of the educational system’s measurements – objective and subjective - mean that achieved potential as recorded is distorted? In any case, all that is in the past and I can now tell you Talia’s story. May its positive aspects give you hope.
Talia was our only daughter, our “sabarit”, our fourth child. She was a mischievous tomboy when she was little, with three older brothers as examples. She was a sociable child and always had friends. She seemed a bit immature to me when the time came to move up to first grade, as she did not sit and concentrate to do puzzles and other board games, nor show quite the same interest in books as her brothers had, nor sit still for lengths of time as other little girls of her age were doing. However the kindergarten’s counselor tested her and assured me she was ready to move up. I thought that maybe I was unjustifiably expecting “feminine behaviour." It is only now, as I write this, that I understand that what I felt was immaturity was in fact the first signs of attention deficiency. If I tell you that this condition was only “officially” acknowledged about two weeks before her death, sixteen years later, you will understand what a struggle we, and later she, had in order to receive the help that she needed.
Primary school 1989-1995
Within two weeks of being in first grade it was obvious to me that she was unable to take the first steps in reading at the same rate as her brothers had, nor to do any homework. I would try to persuade, to cajole, but nothing worked. As the months went on, I persuaded the class teacher that something was wrong. Meanwhile I talked to everyone I knew who asked the innocent question, “And how is Kita Aleph?” Talia seemed happy enough in school collecting friends, but I never saw her study- neither then nor for 95% of her life. Eventually an acquaintance told me that she had organized for a senior representative of the British Dyslexia Association to come to Israel to teach teachers how to deal with dyslexia. At the same time he was prepared to test a few children for learning difficulties.
The first assessment test
That day Talia was in the middle of having mumps, but my contact persuaded me that this was a chance not to be missed and accordingly our daughter was tested. Although her spoken language was more Hebrew than English, the testing went to plan and we received the report about her. She was nearly 7 years old. To this day, I am comforted by the so-British terminology and the assumption that I would be able to explain the tester’s recommendations to the school.
He listed the results of all the tests in detail and continued-
“Talia is a girl of high intellectual ability, showing difficulties in learning in auditory short term memory, visio-spatial awareness and fine motor control, leading to limitations in reading, spelling and writing, consistent with serious specific learning difficulties or dyslexia.” (Here he explained that she was too young for a personality test.)
“…Her personality and behaviour were observed very carefully throughout the test, and it is apparent that she is highly stressed, finds it difficult to adjust to the test situation, and has social, attentional and behavioural difficulties which will require careful management in a learning situation.
Mrs. Hyman should seek for Talia a teacher who can provide her with the detailed programme she needs to improve her learning, literacy, social and numeracy skills to a standard which enables her to survive in the school system.
In learning skills, Talia would benefit by assistance on a programme such as Professor Reuven Feuerstein’s “Instrumental Enrichment”…The best approach to literacy is by means of a structured multi-sensory language programme…... structured multi-sensory support for numeracy will also be of benefit.” (He went on to recommend two British programmes and recommended small group teaching to enable development of social and behavioural skills in order to work effectively within a large class.) ”Talia must be taught by a flexible and sympathetic teacher, who has considerable experience of working with dyslexic children.” (Bold printing is not in the original version.)
But re-reading this document now, I realize how little I really understood and, more so, how very little the class teacher and headmaster understood. In the event the school counselor recommended afternoon classes at a nearby private institution, as the waiting list at the local authority one was so long. I thought all our troubles were over. How little I understood!
Remedial teaching lessons at a young age
Talia went to classes there twice a week for some months, learning to read Hebrew in the process. Most of her lessons were one-to-one but there was some group work at the beginning. It was decided that one-to-one would be more profitable for her and less disruptive for the others, but even so her concentration time was short. At first all went well, then I began to receive phone calls to tell me that Talia had been wandering out of the building. The staff decided they could not take responsibility for her safety. Then began attempts by us to find other help for her. A teacher neighbour was retraining in special education. She kindly tried out her method on Talia, but Talia was too tired mentally after a school day and did not co-operate with the method’s strictness. This neighbour thought maybe Talia would co-operate better with a younger person, so she found a “sherut leumi” girl to tutor her under guidance. That lasted for about a month.
So ended Talia’s special tuition during her elementary school days, at about the age of 9.
However she did receive psychological support. This was provided at first by the local authority in the form of the school counselor and later, after pressure from us, in the form of the school's educational psychologist, to whom she went for two years. It took a long time for them to build up the requisite relationship, but no sooner had they done so than the number of years Talia was allowed treatment at the centre ended. We then had no choice but to send Talia to the psychologist privately and this continued for several years. Of course the rest of the family were also called upon for consultations.
At various periods throughout her school years, Talia’s brothers were told they had to be present at such discussions. It is obvious that their exposure to her problems caused resentment against her at times. Whilst with maturity came greater understanding, they were sometimes called upon by the professionals to take the kind of active role which was not conducive to engendering positive attitudes towards their sister.
In her spare time Talia enjoyed all kinds of after-school activities, particularly physical ones like karate, where she would quickly make new friends, was able to release her energy and to achieve as well as the next child. As she grew up, watching television became her preferred pursuit when alone though there were periods when she “ate up” books.
What it was like to learn in primary school
Meanwhile she continued in her local religious elementary school, the same one where her brothers had studied and which we knew had its pros and cons. Socially, though, we knew she was happy, with plenty of friends. I now realize that she learnt very little there. She was taken out from time to time for extra tuition but this was probably painful for both sides. Looking through her school reports, I see how the teachers’ lack of understanding and disillusion with her grew from term to term. To quote:
”Tidiness: Try to keep your notebooks tidy and clean.
Concentration: You have to improve your concentration.
Participation: Try to participate more in lessons.
Torah: You have to practice and go over work learnt in class.
Reading comprehension and writing expression: You need to read more and improve your understanding.”
We have found a video taken six months into first grade, when all the children were awarded their first siddur (prayer-book) as a sign of being able to read. This is always a happy ceremony for the children and a proud one for the parents. There we see Talia, already one of the tallest in the class, excitedly joining in with her class-mates in the show they had prepared. However not only did she fidget a lot but also scratched her head, particularly whenever she was performing. Suddenly sharp memories of the incident returned to me. I remember later searching for lice- but finding nothing. Now I am sure these were early manifestations of the psoriasis which plagued the second half of her life. The sad thing is that I can’t even tell her what I have discovered, nor how I understand….
The same teacher continued to teach Talia in second grade, by which time she had been tested and found to be “dyslexic”. The two school reports from second grade were encouraging and fair. When I read them, I want to cry with gratitude for here was a teacher who tried to understand. However, the situation did not continue; ironically her class teacher in third grade had earlier been the school’s special needs teacher!
”Tidiness-B/C”(it was rare for a child to get a B grade, and almost unheard of for a teacher to give a C grade).
Participation: You must listen and participate in lessons-B.
Homework: You have to try hard to do homework –B/C.
Torah: You must try to answer according to what is written and participate in the lessons-B/C.
Reading: You have to practice reading aloud – B (my bold printing).
Written expression: You have to improve your written language.- C
Mathematics: You are capable of much more than you have achieved. (Shortly before her death, Talia was found to have a dyscalculic tendency. Maths was the only subject she had never taken for bagrut to date and which she absolutely feared.)
The teacher did have the grace to comment that Talia’s writing had improved a lot.
Then Talia had the bad luck to spend two years with a teacher who ultimately treated her with contempt while giving us the impression that Talia’s interests were vital to her. As a result I have copies of correspondence from this period, so am able to retrace what happened. This senior teacher had a good name in the local community and so we were led to believe that the child was to blame, not the teacher. The school report at the end of fourth grade was satisfactory but without going into details. (Except for in English:
“she doesn’t co-operate”. Was she a typical English speaker? Or a child who would have great difficulties acquiring a second written language? Incidentally she ended up with 95% at 5 points Bagrut). However at the beginning of the following school year an incident occurred which swung the class teacher’s opinion and from then on the road was down-hill all the way. It appears that some of the children told the teacher that the youth leader at that weekend’s B’nai Akiva meeting had been angry with Talia for “misbehaving”. The teacher’s reaction, without being prepared to hear the child’s side, was to decree that she not be allowed to go to meetings during the special activities month as she had brought disgrace on the class and on the teacher. (She must have expected peer pressure to put this into force.) It was considered a severe punishment because this particular month is enjoyed by all the children. When we complained, we were told that Talia’s behaviour was caused by her bad-upbringing. The teacher obviously had never heard of ADHD. Ultimately the headmaster’s intervention smoothed the situation but irreparable damage to Talia’s self-esteem had been done.
At the end of fifth grade, a meeting was held with the school psychologist, as well as with the current special needs teacher, the principal and the class teacher. It was explained to the teacher that rather than give the child low grades and cutting comments for the main academic subjects as had been done half-way through the year, this part of the report would be left blank. However grades should be given for all other subjects, especially as Talia was doing well in them. In the event, the whole of the report was left blank while a comment was added on her sociable nature. To add hurt to injury, a note was affixed telling that Talia had to take exams in maths and English at the beginning of the new school year before she would be allowed to move up a class. At the meeting it had been agreed that she would take this exam quietly with the special needs teacher at the end of the school year and would study the subjects during the holidays. All these arrangements were to be explained by the class teacher to the child ahead of the last day of the year. This never happened. Instead, the teacher announced -in front of all the class- that Talia would have to take exams at the beginning of the next year. I noted in my letter that after this incident Talia lost faith in her ability to enter 6th grade, even though this had already been decided on at the meeting.
Her sixth grade report (different teacher) kindly comments that her grades did not truly mirror her capabilities – but by now the damage had been done.
Most of those other primary school teachers came to visit us during the “shiva”. As they had always done, they were trying to be supportive of us. As they had always done, they couldn’t quite understand how three relatively successful brothers came to have a sister “like that”. They had tolerated her because of her brothers. As one of them told us during that week, they would let her wander round the school rather than disturb the class, presumably as they didn’t expect her to do anything terrible, being the sister of those three. Why, oh why, didn’t they tell us she was wandering around? How different she must have felt already from all her peers, managing to concentrate at their desks!
At the beginning of sixth grade, a new head came to the school with a background in special education. She made sure Talia be part of the class once again. She mentioned Ritalin. She did all in her power to smooth Talia’s path from the relatively caring atmosphere of an elementary school to the enormous girls’ secondary school. She spoke to the powers-that-be, warning them that Talia would need extra help, that her parents and psychologist should be consulted at every step.
Secondary School 1995-1999
Concurrently with changing school, Talia began to study twice a week at another private institution geared to her special educational needs. We were told that Talia had surface-developmental dyslexia, with overdeveloped right hemisphere and underdeveloped left hemisphere functioning of the brain. There were resulting problems in decoding words, in moving from the full phonological code to the impoverished (non-vowelled), code. There was a problem with concurrent secondary thought processes; reading but thinking of something else at the same time meant total lack of understanding. Today I can search these concepts on the internet and come up with a layman’s explanation in English. Then, in the 1990s, we tried to understand everything we were being told, in Hebrew, but ourselves felt learning disabled. Fortunately I kept all my notes, as well as all the school reports and correspondence.
In the notes on the final tests, in 1999, it was pointed out that emotional reasons also affected her performance, not surprisingly considering the attitudes of her formal educators. It is hard as a parent to read that your child’s development is being marred in part by emotional reasons. Physical reasons you know are out of your current control. But emotional? You always wonder “Am I to blame?” You need reassurance, just as much as she does. This the system does not automatically give; the cultural differences between native-born Israelis and others may be in part the reason.
The head of the new middle-school did try. We had several team meetings over the next three years with him, the school counselor, Talia’s current grade teacher, the school’s special needs teacher and her psychologist. I found a series of four drawings Talia did during a 7th grade lesson, supposedly to comfort herself with a commentary in the third person. The first is of a class-mate who says ”I hate Talia. I’m going to kill her.” The second is of Talia wearing glasses (which she did for a short time following a theory that this might help her), saying “I’m frightened! Help!” Underneath she wrote that the other girl ”scratched the glasses, strangled Talia and pulled all her hair back”. The third is a picture of herself crying and saying “I only want to go home.” The fourth is her class teacher who replies “No!” In other words, Talia felt able to turn to her class teacher in times of need, even though the response was not exactly what she would have liked. She was taken out of class for extra help for a while. That special needs teacher wrote at the end of 8th grade that she found a child who had great potential and at times achieved remarkably well when she believed in her own ability. That belief had, of course, been destroyed over the years and really only returned in the last year of her life after much input, as will be shown below.
But did the subject teachers ever understand? A middle school teacher – who came to our home prior to Talia’s funeral mainly to greet one of our sons, her star pupil- dismissed Talia from the world thus – ” A cheerful girl but she was always moving around and didn’t learn anything.” Not true- we wanted to yell, but despite our grief we thanked the lady for coming and explained we were just about to leave for the funeral.
Looking for alternative education
By the beginning of tenth grade, Talia had had enough. At that point the girls had been divided into two groups. All her friends had opted for the more academic stream in the school. She felt that was her place. Yet after six months and a school report in which the teacher gave her nought in four subjects and low grades in the rest, she couldn’t take it any more. The class teacher had written: “There has been a withdrawal in interest towards her studies, with many absences, late arrival and leaving school early, missing Hebrew language classes.”(These came at the end of the day when the effect of Ritalin had worn off and she was totally unable to concentrate on anything that did not fascinate her.) “She has to improve her achievements and attitude”. Talia asked to leave the school.
I remember her missing some days of school and not being able to catch up. She felt dreadful. We went to talk to the municipal officer who is supposed to help when a child drops out of school. She could not suggest even one school that would suit Talia. At the beginning we were asking for a religious school but were prepared to try anything suitable. Eventually, someone suggested a specific boarding school where teaching was in small groups and individually tailored, as many of the girls had had traumatic experiences of various sorts. Reluctantly, we took her there, a place in a dangerous area to which she could travel only by armoured bus. She lasted there a month. She was seriously scared by a stoning incident en route and refused to return. I think she must have felt out of place as her problems were totally different to those of most of the other girls.
Next we tried an “external school” locally, as Talia was determined to finish not only the ten mandatory years of education but the extra two considered essential by her. The atmosphere was pleasant, the teachers understanding as all the students were people who did not “fit in" to the regular system. She stayed there till the end of the school year and checked that the ten years were registered. I suggested she continue there but she did not feel that she was receiving a full education and that it would appear so when one day she would look for work. We all decided that, although we live in Haifa and all Talia’s friends were there, we would have to look for a better educational alternative elsewhere.
At this point it was suggested that we try a certain religious state boarding school in B’nai Brak. The principal was very helpful. He told us that he did not have an educational programme suited to Talia’s specific difficulties, but that he could recommend a day school not far away that did. That is how, in the most roundabout of ways, Talia ended up learning at the remarkable Bayit shel Tamar school at Kibbutz Shfayim.
To quote a report when she later went for careers counselling:
“In her words, she received a great deal of help and personal attention there. As a result of that she began to invest in her studies. At the same time she continued to have problems in mathematics and Hebrew language, as well as with concentration. Testing done in 11th grade shows reading irregularities, difficulty remembering textual details, spelling mistakes, phonological difficulties and problems with English. "
She stayed there until January 2002, completing most of the bagrut exams that she needed for matriculation, buoyed up by the warmth, love, specialized experience and understanding that she found from all members of staff.
Not at all an easy period
At first, she lived in the Bnai Brak school, but gained no benefit by being there as there were no extra-curricular studies by the time she would return from her long school day. She then spent some months living in lodgings, first with a couple in Netanya and then with a family on a nearby moshav. This was tough on her because, although she was an unusually sociable teenager, it was at times very lonely and at other times the host family’s expectations of a 16 or 17 year old were exaggerated. All this put more stress on her, just as she was coping with her studies at long last. The psoriasis, that had begun to form on her skin when she began secondary school, became much worse as a result of the stress. This pressure affected her very negatively in other ways too, so she had to return to live at home and traveled by bus or car to school. Her timetable was organized so that she would not have to attend school all six days of the week and the system worked well. However three plus hours of travel between Haifa and Shfayim is not fun, especially when you have to stand in the sun on the coast road waiting for a bus that was habitually late. That is when the mobile phone became her trusted companion, to chat to friends and to phone to check up on the buses.
Talia had numerous friends, at school, at home and all over the country. It was an intricate support group. Over the past years they have told me how Talia was the lynch-pin who kept them together, who remembered birthdays and organized get-togethers. However I know that at that most difficult period of her life there were kids out there who were at the end of the phone for her, encouraging her at all hours of the day and night. That web of friends had grown and expanded over the years till, after her death, we found over 300 different names and phone numbers on her mobile phone.
Because of the difficulties of travel to Shfayim, she dreamt of driving to school or, even better, of getting there by motor-cycle. She then proceeded to pass the test for both, but this took a long time. Her problem, as happens with many “dyslexic” people, was passing the theory test. She eventually spoke to the manager at our local Ministry of Transport test centre and he was very helpful, assuring her she could take as much time as she needed. He added that, if after several tries she still did not succeed, she could apply to take a special test. His words took the pressure off her and she eventually passed, though like many ADHD people found it hard to control speed until she had had a lot of practice.
Talia was turning into a person who stood up for her rights, not only at the Ministry of Transport. With the encouragement and help of her school, she fought the Ministry of Education on several matters to do with her right not only to extra time in exams, but also to having a reader, as had been repeatedly recommended when she was tested. At that time she was classified as an external student because of her school. (It changed status the year she left.) This meant that she did not have a “magen” from her school work, her grades depended entirely on the examinations when she was always very nervous, and she always had to go to different, unfamiliar schools to sit the examinations. Accordingly, when she later decided to improve her grades at Michlelet Ariel, she found out that once you are classified as an external student your status remains so all your life, no matter where you subsequently study. She was still continuing this fight against the Ministry of Education when she was killed.
Her later struggles and peaceful times
Talia was determined to serve in the army. Growing up with three older brothers, her plan was to be like them. But as she had learned already so often, her path to reach this aim was anything but easy. First of all, she had learning problems. Then, concentrating and sitting still in the course she had to do was hard. But, to top it all, she started to have pains in her arms and legs, the beginning of psoriatic arthritis, definitely the outcome of this stressful situation. Her army service was severely curtailed and she spent much of the 21 months sitting at home or going for check-ups where she would try to convince the committees that she was up to serving. Eventually she was released and chose to spend the next year completing her religious education at Midreshet Nov in the Golan Heights. Here she was able to study just for as long as she felt able to concentrate, choosing only those lessons which interested her. Here she at last began to feel at peace with the world and with herself. She was able to channel her past experiences into informally helping and supporting girls who had learning problems at the local secondary school and likewise helped a young woman working on the moshav, none of which we knew at the time.
When the time came to choose a pre-academic course, she first looked at Bar Ilan University. After she had registered and paid the deposit, she contacted the pre-academic unit for clarifications on some points, such as extra time for exams. The reaction of the person with whom she spoke was that a person like her was unsuited to studying there. By the way, her deposit was unrefundable! Yet again, her self-esteem had been hit hard. Fortunately she discovered the Ariel “mechina”, where there was a very sympathetic counselor and small classes.
What could we have done differently with hindsight?
Today I realize that many different aids exist to teach children like Talia how to concentrate. Perhaps some of them existed then. She did take Ritalin when she really needed it, particularly in order to be able to take exams. However, she was very much aware of the bad press it had been receiving and took it as little as possible as time went on and then only immediately before the event when she had to concentrate. I wish there had been a non-drug alternative. Had she gone to a school like Bayit shel Tamar at an earlier stage, she would not have been made to feel incapable, but would she have felt like a pariah in her home-setting, where everyone else went to the local school? That had always been my fear. The fact that Haifa Municipality could not offer a school or class for remedial teaching still horrifies me. But what horrifies me more is to realize that the average school teacher does not have the knowledge of how to deal with a child who is perceived as purposely misbehaving but in fact is not. In Talia’s case, psoriasis which must have been latent became very active. I understand there are many similar cases of the condition being triggered amongst people with specific learning difficulties.
My purpose in writing this article is so that others may learn from Talia’s case. Her end was so sad, but so were events that happened to her along the way. Many of those were avoidable. She couldn’t help having learning difficulties, but the education system could have helped her learn to deal with them at a much earlier stage. Her attention problems should have been recognised in kindergarten and we should have been advised how to deal with them, so that we and our sons would not have had to reach the situation of being told to impose a strict framework on her as a pre-teenager, a course which I feel sure affected relationships within our nuclear family. Why was she made to feel like a pariah within the school system? Why did the municipality have no alternative school for her at the age of 15 ½? Why did the Education Ministry refuse to grant her the special rights recommended for her in bagrut exams?
But Talia would not want me to end thus. She would want me to tell you to fight for your rights as parents of children whose brains were made differently from the average but who, as a result, are interesting people with amazing capabilities. She would tell you not to give up with your local authorities, the Ministry of Education, or the Ministry of Transport so that your children get everything owing to them. She went on to fight for the rights of young people suffering for psoriatic arthritis – but that is another story.
Talia wanted to be a social worker to right these wrongs. This is the only legacy she left us and we want to carry it out.
Like you, we know how much it costs to give all the extra help detailed in this article to a learning disabled child and realize that so many, many parents in this country cannot afford to give their children this help. To avoid their dropping out of the education system, we set up The Talia Trust for Children to help such children and their families. (www.taliatrust.org)
Our message to you is - be strong, be determined and encourage your children to be the same. That is how they will get “there” in the end and our world will be a much richer place as a result.