Eleven-year-old Harrison Pineda doesn’t like to read, but he loves giraffes.
Because of his severe dyslexia, Harrison also doesn’t enjoy writing, but he recently wrote a 12-chapter story about Lewis, the newborn giraffe at Riverbanks Zoo.
Scholars for centuries have taken stabs at explaining why animals inspire people, but Harrison puts it as succinctly as anyone.
“I have no idea whatsoever,” the bubbly youngster said before deciding he likes Lewis because “he’s cute.”
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Tutor Gillian Barclay-Smith has been working one-on-one with Harrison for months, stressing reading and writing with a purpose. Nothing seemed to get through to Harrison until, during a home-school student program at Riverbanks, he heard about Lewis’ recent birth.
“For some reason, Lewis did it,” Barclay-Smith said. “He was the hook. He went places I couldn’t go with Harrison.”
And Harrison’s story takes Lewis places the young giraffe likely never will go — to the zoo’s sea lion pool, to Fort Jackson and high in the air, suspended under a Huey helicopter.
It won’t spoil the suspense to reveal Lewis always ends up smelling like roses, or that the bad guy ends up smelling like elephant poop. (What did you expect? It’s written by an 11-year-old boy.)
Harrison and Barclay-Smith worked through the story for days, with the youngster writing and editing on a dry-erase board. When Harrison finally was satisfied with a section, Barclay-Smith would copy the words on paper.
“He so wanted to tell the story of Lewis that he sweated every word of the story,” Barclay-Smith said.
Harrison has struggled with reading and writing at various schools. In addition to dyslexia, he has severe vision problems. Even after corrective surgery at age 4, he has to wear glasses with thick lenses. Add in attention deficit disorder, and Harrison has plenty of excuses for his learning difficulties.
His parents, Laurie and Hector Pineda of West Columbia, have been praying for a breakthrough. Harrison is a people person. His bright smile and can-do attitude add a spark to his parents’ Wednesday night feed-the-hungry ministry at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. His parents desperately want him to carry that attitude over to the classroom.
“Reading has always been challenging for Harrison, but not very rewarding,” Laurie Pineda said. “He’s determined. If he’s interested in something, he’ll find a way to do it. But he’d never found anything that interested him enough to make him want to read and write.”
Barclay-Smith is a former administrator at Glenforest School planning to start her own small school for dyslexic children in the fall. She began working one-on-one with Harrison a few months ago. The zoo trip provided an unexpected, but delightful, breakthrough, she said.
Satch Krantz, executive director at Riverbanks, frequently hears stories about animals at the zoo inspiring creative people.
“There’s just a magical bond between people and animals,” he said. “I don’t think I’m smart enough to understand it, but there’s something especially about a baby animal that stimulates people.”
Harrison certainly was stimulated. He went from hating to write to looking forward to it for the two weeks he toiled over his Lewis story.
“He didn’t complain one bit,” Laurie Pineda said. “Usually it was like pulling teeth. But he came home after this and said, ‘I’m an author! I’m a writer!’”
Asked how he felt when he finished his story, Harrison thought for a second and replied, “I felt like I could go to the moon and back.”
Reach Holleman at (803) 771-8366.