by Melissa Fales
photos by Crystal Kneeland Photography
Story Monsters Ink, August 2019 issue
Titan Gabrielse may be a little boy, but he has big plans. Recently diagnosed with dyslexia, this 7-year-old has taken his struggles with reading and writing, the extra school work he needs to do, and the weekly private tutoring he requires all in stride. One day, Titan casually told his mother, Tiffanie about an idea he had. “He said, ‘I want to create an army of friends with dyslexia so we can beat up dyslexia together,’” says Tiffanie, who came up with the idea of turning that army into an afterschool club. Thus, the idea for Read with the Titans was born. Now Titan and his family are working to make his vision a reality. “With any luck, Read with the Titans will be functioning by the next new school year,” Tiffanie says.
Titan will be entering second grade at Swansboro Elementary School in North Carolina. Tiffanie recalls the anguish she felt last year watching him struggle to read. “You could tell it was painful for him,” she says. Tiffanie says she was confused but not surprised when she got called into his classroom to talk to the teacher about his below-grade level reading skills.
Fortunately, Titan was diagnosed with dyslexia early. Too often, says Tiffanie, dyslexia is not diagnosed until third grade. “By then, you’re so far behind,” she says. Titan is currently reading at a Kindergarten level, but he’s also participating in an extended school year so he won’t lose any of his progress over the summer. Every week, Titan travels over an hour each way for his lesson with a private tutor who specializes in dyslexia. “He gets motion sickness,” says Tiffanie. “But he doesn’t complain.”
Once the Gabrielse family had the word, “dyslexia,” to describe why Titan was having such a hard time with reading and writing, they started using it often. “I wanted him to own it,” Tiffanie says. “I have dwarfism. I own that. I’m small. The grass is green. The sky is blue. By owning it, you take the shame away from it.” The fact that dyslexia is an invisible learning disability made it a little harder for Titan to understand. “My son doesn’t have a physical disability like I do,” says Tiffanie. “Wrapping your head around something when you can’t see it is hard.”
Titan is already compiling a list of things he’d like to do with his “army” after school, including playing word games and practicing reading and writing through activities such as sending letters to pen pals. Titan has also recently started talking about having his Read with the Titans club create graphic novels since the image-heavy genre helps give the words context for dyslexic readers.
A key component of Read with the Titans will be to encourage self-acceptance among these young people. Dyslexia is hereditary, and Titan’s father, Marine Ssgt. Eric Gabrielse, endured it without ever knowing that there was a word for the issues he was experiencing. "I struggled with my own dyslexia for years as a child,” he says. “I still struggle with it. It's not just the reading and writing, but the thoughts that there's something wrong with you. I saw everyone else read and write easily and I figured I was just stupid.”
Perhaps most importantly, says Tiffanie, she and Titan hope Read with the Titans will spread the word about dyslexia. “October is dyslexia awareness month,” Tiffanie says. “That seems like a good place for us to start.” She believes that even a simple, inexpensive campaign can be effective. “Things like wearing t-shirts,” she says. “Wristbands. Talking about it. Confronting it. Embracing it. You can't have an army if you don't have recruits.”
Titan has expressed concern about dyslexic kids who don’t have the type of loving, supportive family and friends that he has been blessed with. “He said, ‘I don’t want them to be alone and dyslexic,” says Tiffanie. “He is the most sensitive, loving little boy. He’s come so far and he’s worked so hard.”
Titan didn’t choose the name “Read with the Titans” for his club because it’s his name, but because of what it means. “In stories, titans are strong. They have superpowers and they help people,” Titan says. “They are heroes. They have to work hard to be a hero just like other kids like me with dyslexia have to work hard to read and write.”
Tiffanie is beyond proud of her son and all he has gone through. “I think I named Ty correctly,” she says. “He is a true titan because of his ability to persevere … I’m not shocked he wants to help others. It’s who he is. That’s why I want to help his idea come to life any way I can. Especially if that means by doing so, he'll see being dyslexic is nothing to be ashamed of. It's nothing to be embarrassed over. Everyone has something. And dyslexia is certainly nothing that will ever hold him back.”