Wise women have guided me through some of the most difficult journeys of my life. My Ohio State undergraduate mentor and thesis adviser, Susan Huntington, who remains a dear and esteemed friend, is one. Another is Barbara Roman, the attorney who represented me through a more than three-year-long contentious divorce.
But there is a special place in my soul for the woman who immeasurably helped two of my sons.
We lived in central Pennsylvania when my first son, Claude, was old enough to go to school. I enrolled him in the nearby Friends school, which taught the peaceful resolution of conflict alongside reading and math.
The teachers and facility were engaging and warm. There were chicks hatched in classrooms, field trips to farms and a full-time assistant in each kindergarten classroom. And yet my boy didn’t like school. He wasn’t catching on and he was smart enough to know it.
Claude’s peers took to reading the way my second son did three years later — like a switch that flipped. Claude’s teachers told me not to worry. Boys develop slower than girls, they said. He’s bright, they said. He’ll get it in his own time, they said.
But he didn’t. Something wasn’t right. The same boy who could tell me everything about the habitat, habits and life cycle of beavers could not read a flashcard word just seconds after I’d told him the word.
When we moved to Cleveland in January of his kindergarten year, I did not enroll Claude in a school because of his anxiety. Two months later, I filled out an application for him to attend Ruffing Montessori School. After the required evaluation of prospective students by teachers, they rejected Claude because he couldn’t read. Maria Montessori grimaced in her grave.
Claude began first grade at Urban Community Catholic School, which was close to our home and recommended by friends. Once again, he was miserable.
I tried several schools — public, parochial and private. At every school, I asked the educators and administrators, “Why can’t Claude decipher letters and numbers?” They knew, but did not answer truthfully. Private and parochial schools can exclude children who need more help. Public schools saw him as bright and not a behavior problem and, therefore, ignored my concerns.
We ended up at Spring Garden Waldorf School in Copley. I drove my children from downtown Cleveland every school day for over two years before finally moving to Akron.
Claude’s stress evaporated at the Waldorf school, but by the end of second grade, he could barely read. A mother is most concerned about her child with the greatest need and I regularly told myself to focus on my other two children.
The following summer, while on vacation at a Buddhist family camp we’d attended for several years, I met a woman who was a pediatric occupational therapist.
“My son holds his pencil like a violin bow,” I told her.
“You need to get him tested immediately,” she replied, which was something I didn’t know I could do. “Poor pencil grip is a red flag for learning disabilities. And don’t be afraid of diagnoses. Remember, with every diagnosis comes funding for supports.”
Claude was tested the fall of his third grade year and diagnosed as severely dyslexic. I called the local chapter of the American Dyslexic Association and asked for a tutor referral.
“The best person is Pam Kanfer. I’d send my own child to her in a heartbeat,” the woman I spoke with said.
Pam was a teacher at the Lippman Day School and I imagined her country address belonged to a quaint farmhouse. But when we arrived, there was a gate with an intercom pad to request entry. Beyond it was a lengthy driveway that meandered past a pond to a modern mansion.
At the time, Pam tutored students in a home office she shared with her husband, Joe. Many of the books on Joe’s shelves were about Judaism. For my undergraduate degree in religious studies, I was required to study a major Eastern and Western religion. I chose Buddhism and Judaism.
“Is your husband a professor of Jewish studies?” I asked.
“No, Judaism is his avocation. He’s the CEO of GOJO.” My face revealed my ignorance (I’d just moved to Akron), so she told me, “We make Purell hand soaps.”
Within three months of working with Pam, Claude went from not being able to spell his name correctly to devouring early reader chapter books. In 2016, he graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan. Last year, he received his master’s in public policy from Texas A&M and today he is a congressional liaison for the EPA in Washington, D,C.
By the time my third child, Jules, was in kindergarten, I recognized that he, too, was dyslexic. His father, with whom I was in the midst of that long divorce, disagreed. I took Jules to Akron Children’s Hospital for testing. They confirmed what I knew. And yet his father refused to help.
Pam reduced her rate for me and, like Claude before him, saw Jules for several years.
In all, I went to the Kanfer home multiple times a week for the better part of 10 years. I watched her children grow up, get married and have children. Joe and I talked about Judaism, shared books and once he asked me which of a few mock-up hand-sanitizer bottles I preferred.
I sat in their kitchen on Pam’s 60th birthday while Jules was in session. The next day, I gave birth to my fourth son. Around that same time, Pam asked me to write a recommendation letter for her as part of an application to a graduate program in reading remediation. The teacher kept learning.
A woman who worked in the Kanfer home, and with whom I often chatted, was impressed that Pam never reacted in anger. Pam was firm, but not dour. She believed in people and in my mind embodied the Buddhist concept of maitri, or loving kindness.
This past January, just a few weeks shy of her 73rd birthday, Pam left this life after a long battle with cancer.
A saying that is (mis)attributed to several people goes something like: Of all the things you can do with your life, none is more important than helping a child.
Were we all to model ourselves after Pam Lewis Kanfer, nirvana might be obtainable.
This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 19, 2023.