THE Irish educational system is facing its toughest test ever. It is trying to teach my son Mike to read.
He thinks he can read. Reading, as far as he's concerned, is looking at the pictures and making up a story. The strange, dark symbols underneath the pictures have nothing at all to do with the process.
We should have been practising over the summer. Because we didn't, he forgot every letter he ever learned, the sounds they made and, finally, even the existence of the alphabet itself.
They tested his sight at the start of the year and we were told he probably needed glasses. We were shocked. But it turned out they'd tested him with that letters and numbers thing. He hadn't a notion what they were.
Homework has become an endurance test for his parents. We take it in turns, because two straight days is too much for anyone. When I sit down with Mike and his homework, I have one goal, and one goal only. Get through this without firing him across the room.
The second Mike sees me pulling his reading book out of his schoolbag his whole body hunches, his face lengthens and he moans: "I hate this."
And I think: Not half as much as me, dude. But I say: "Come on Mike, you're getting really good at this! You're going to be reading in no time!" This is when he protests that he can already read.
The first word on the first page is 'The'. It appears at least a dozen times in every single one of the books we've slogged through in the past six weeks. When I eventually get him to focus on the word, he scowls deeply and starts sounding out the letters.
"Tuh, huh, eh . . ." He repeats this a few times, running the sounds together faster and faster but, of course, this doesn't help at all.
"No, Mike. You've seen this word before. This is one you can't really sound out. It's 'the'. T H E spells 'the'."
"The," he says. The scowl deepens.
Four words later, here's another 'the'. And as before he starts sounding it out. I stop him again: "No, look, you've already got this one." I point to the first 'the'. "See?"
He shakes his head, as if to dislodge whatever gibberish I've been spouting. It's as if each word passes into his brain and out of it as soon as he says it.
"Tuh, Huh, Eh . . ." he says.
So I correct him again, trying to maintain my holiday-camp voice.
I was talking to a friend of mine, who's in the same boat. He says that when they sit down to try and read, his daughter flings the book from the table, roars 'I hate reading!' and storms off.
"Actually," he says, "what I do is I visualise myself firing her across the room. It helps, believe it or not."
I told my wife I was going to write about Mike's homework this week. She warned against it. "What if he reads the article in 10 years time?" I only hope I'll have that problem.