When I was in middle school, I hated reading. I wasn’t good at it. My mom would try to take away my PlayStation games to get me to read more often, but it wouldn’t work. Compared to my friends, I scored lower on reading comprehension state assessments. Compared to the rest of the class, I lagged behind.
I distinctly remember reading a chapter of Night by Elie Wiesel for homework one night, coming back to class, and finding out I read the wrong chapter. My English teacher asked me what happened in the chapter I read, and I had no idea.
Of course, the whole episode made me feel like a complete fool: I spent an hour reading the wrong chapter of our book, and then I didn’t understand what I read because my mind was elsewhere.
It made sense I struggled with reading compared to math. English was not my first language. I learned it when I was four. However, one book series ignited the idea that reading could actually be fun, that books could actually be better than movies, that reading wasn’t so bad after all.
It was the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, authored by Rick Riordan. Other kids loved Harry Potter growing up. I loved Percy Jackson. To be clear, it started off as just another book my mom wanted me to read in my free time instead of the endless hours I would spend playing video games. In seventh grade, I got through about 60 pages of the book, then had absolutely no idea what I read, as usual.
But then something clicked. I felt a connection with the characters, primarily the main character Percy, who struggled mightily in school, struggled with reading due to his ADHD but found out he was the son of a Greek god. Percy Jackson was also my introduction into the strange world of Greek mythology and all these crazy characters with cool powers, much like the video games I liked.
Through Percy Jackson, I got introduced to Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, and Hades. It wasn’t like I took a college course into Greek mythology, but I did get a start in terms of passion and interest.
After reading the first book in a week, I read the next four Percy Jackson books in four days. In fact, during those four days, my mom took me on regular trips to the book store, surprised I suddenly loved reading. She was very happy to do it.
I eventually caught up in reading. I would take Advanced Placement courses in English by the time I was in high school. Over the next several years, there were several books I loved reading, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Jane Eyre, and more.
It all started, however, with Percy Jackson.
. . .
Flash forward 11 years later, when I work my current job as a special education teacher in inner-city Baltimore. It’s my second year of teaching special education in the most restrictive setting, where students have moderate and severe settings where they can’t be in the general education setting.
Many of my 9th-grade students read at very low levels. Many are reading under the second-grade level.
I had one student in particular who was reading at the Kindergarten level last year. He worked very hard, but he is dyslexic and had always struggled significantly with reading. However, the student was incredibly savvy with speech-to-text tools to help him write, as well as other accessibility tools to sound out words he did not know how to use.
The student showed up every day even during a pandemic and virtual learning. He made a lot of gains in his reading while I taught him, most of which was his own work and merit, not mine. He eventually got to the 3rd grade level in reading during the middle of the year.
At some point, I asked students what their favorite movie was. He told me his was Percy Jackson.
It was an instant point of connection — I loved Percy Jackson. I asked him if he’d read the books, and he said no.
This, to me, was an utter tragedy — the movies are absolutely terrible (compared to the books). This kid needed to read the Percy Jackson books if he loved the movies, and I was going to make him do it.
I digress, but in all honesty, the Percy Jackson movies were absolutely terrible to me, especially compared to the books. The biggest reason why Percy Jackson does not parallel Harry Potter in popularity is that the Harry Potter movies are fantastic. The Percy Jackson movies are not.
I bought the book, called his mom to confirm their address, and sent it to his house. He read the first one, The Lightning Thief. then I bought him the second book after he finished the first one, A Sea of Monsters.
By the end of the year, he tested on reading again. He tested at the 6th-grade level. I was so proud of him and still brag about him today. Even though I no longer teach the student, he visits me regularly and thanks me for helping him in reading. He asks me to help him with job applications, and I’m very happy to oblige.
. . .
I don’t know how much of the drastic gains and shifts my student and I made in reading could be attributed to Percy Jackson. After all, there are a lot of factors behind why we got better at reading. We went to school, did our work, and read more, obviously.
But passion and interest are also factors we did not have until Percy Jackson. They pushed us to read more often and in our free time.
What I didn’t know until now was Percy Jackson was inspired by author Rick Riordan’s own son’s struggles with learnings. Like me, Riordan was a teacher. He was also writing novels on the side.
Like protagonist Percy Jackson, Rick Riordan’s own son struggled with dyslexia and ADHD. Riordan took his son to the psychologist when his son was seven years old. His son, Haley was very skilled at math but had significant struggles paying attention in school, and significant struggles in reading and writing.
A teacher told Rick Riordan:
This was a gut punch to Riordan, because his son absolutely hated reading. Every word and page his son read “was a minefield” while helping his son with homework. Haley hated being told he should love reading because his father was a teacher and author. Haley often had various escape teachers to avoid reading, including hiding under the table or going up to sharpen the pencil a million times.
Haley would get diagnosed with borderline dyslexia, but the psychologist was more reticent to give an ADHD diagnosis. Still, it was enough to get Haley a reading specialist to assist with reading, while Riordan reflected on his own experiences working with dyslexic and ADHD kids as a teacher. He started to understand how very smart students failed to write a complete sentence — it didn’t mean the children were lazy, but reading was just hard.
Three years later, Haley did get diagnosed with ADHD and get prescribed Ritalin.
One thing Haley did love, however, was Greek myths. He loved when his father would teach him about Greek gods, Minotaurs, monsters, and heroes. Rick Riordan told his son all the stories, but he eventually ran out of stories. Once they were done, Haley still wanted more stories.
“Well, make something up!” his son said.
And so Riordan made up Percy Jackson, a character who, like his son, struggled in school, and had ADHD and dyslexia. The only difference between Percy Jackson and Haley was that Percy Jackson was the son of a Greek god — Poseidon. But in school, Percy was thought of as lazy. He was thought of as a troublemaker. These learning disabilities were actually signs he had the blood of. Greek gods.
First, Riordan told this story to his son. It took three days. After he finished telling the story, Haley told his father he should write the story down.
Riordan did — over the next year, he wrote Percy Jackson and the rest is history. The book would be incredibly popular and a major commercial success. Last month, the books officially sold 180 million copies around the world, and new sequels are still coming
I teach students with disabilities and students with very severe disabilities. A lot of students have ADHD. A lot of students have insecurities around reading and will engage in similar escape behaviors as reading.
But there’s always something behind negative behaviors. And learning about Haley’s struggles makes me think of all the ways we assign labels to students when they struggle in the classroom, academically and behaviorally.
It’s easy to say I don’t do that and am a complete saint, but I’m human too and could always reach my students better. I need to take time to think when I feel completely disrespected by a student, to give the student another chance and try another angle to reach them.
Teaching has been very difficult this year. But I think back to this student. I think back to how much he loved Percy Jackson and what it did for him. I think about what the series did for me.
It made us love reading. And as a teacher, I know not every kid is going to love Percy Jackson.
But I do know I want to find that catalyst for every student — a book that will ignite their love and passion for reading.
This post was previously published on Age of Awareness.
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The post ‘Percy Jackson’ Was Inspired by the Author’s Son’s Struggles With ADHD and Dyslexia appeared first on The Good Men Project.