Friday, December 18, 2009

Rage Against the Machine

Isaac has been at his new school for five weeks.

Earlier this school year, while my son was struggling desperately in public kindergarten, coming home every day exhausted and sullen, crying every morning and begging me not to take him to school, I was careful, very careful, about what I wrote here about my struggle to make things right for him there. So careful, in fact, that I nearly stopped writing here altogether out of fear that my emotions might overcome my logic and cause me to write something I might later regret.

My frustration with the bureaucracy standing between my son and the classroom accommodations and occupational therapy he clearly needed; my anger at a few particular school employees' and district officials' ignorance, ineptitude, lack of compassion toward my son, or lack of respect toward me; my righteous political indignation at the glaring cracks in state and local government regulations that my child with both special needs and a gifted intellect kept falling through again and again; my despair at failing, again and again, despite my best efforts, to surmount these difficulties to help my child: all these overwhelmed me and I longed to use this place as an outlet for my emotions. As a podium for my activism on his behalf. But I thought I could not.

Because I felt I had to work with these people. With this school. With this district. In this county in this state. I did not know whether I would be able to find a suitable private school situation; I did not know whether I would be able to afford an appropriate private school if I found one. I did not know how homeschooling, if we chose that route, would work out— I did not know whether I would have enough time to devote to it while also working, or whether my son, who loves people and enjoys the company of other children, would thrive shut up all day most days in the house just with me. I did not want to burn any bridges. I did not want to cause a group of people who seemed suspicious of my intentions from the moment I first questioned their methods and assumptions to become even more hostile toward me.

And I was also careful because I doubted myself and my emotions. I know teaching children is an extremely difficult job. I know that districts are underfunded and understaffed. I know that, as a mother, I am prone to bias in my child's favor. I know that, as a mother, I am very emotionally wrapped up in my child's day-to-day happiness. I was worried that maybe I was wrong about some things, and these professional educators were right. I was worried that my initial reactions toward the school were overly judgmental.

After seeing the drastic change in my son in this new, more understanding environment, I am beginning to think that before, I was not judgmental enough.

And I don't feel like being careful anymore.

One of the things Isaac finds most challenging about the school environment is all the fine motor activity. He has a documented motor skills delay. He has been diagnosed with serious motor planning problems— meaning he has difficulty thinking through motions ahead of time and telling the different parts of his body where to go— and when we had him tested extensively by the school district's own developmental testing team at the age of three, he scored significantly behind his peers. Now, at the age of five, his fine motor skills are about that of a three-year-old.

He grasps a pencil incorrectly, and colors with his whole arm instead of just moving his wrist. When he uses scissors, he has difficulty keeping them perpendicular to the paper, and often forgets to hold what he is cutting with his other hand. With intensive practice at home and with his private occupational therapist, he has learned to write most letters, but he is still slow at it, and his forms are shaky. Sometimes his numbers come out backwards. He struggles to write his own name.

It's not that he doesn't know what the letters are supposed to look like. He knew his alphabet by one and a half. He read his first word at the age of 21 months (and was reading whole phrases, and, ahem, certain proper names, just a few months later). Now he browses through my college intro planetary science textbook at the dinner table, trying to parse the big words, and asks me things like, "Mommy? What's a therm-o-nuclear explosion?"

(You may think I'm making that up to be funny. I'm not. Lock up your smoke detectors, people.)

But there's a disconnect somewhere in between the perfect image of the letters and numbers in his brain and the signals that tell his hand how to form them. He knows when his writing comes out wrong— he can tell you that he's just written a B backwards, or that he left off the silent E on the end of the word. But his slow hands just can't keep up with his quick brain, and so he inevitably winds up incredibly frustrated.

In public kindergarten, his in-class assignments and homework consisted almost entirely of worksheets that required coloring, cutting, and writing.

Letter recognition worksheets, where he had to color the big A and small a, trace the big A and small a, cut out several tiny paper apples, and paste them in neat order on a tree. Number recognition worksheets, where he had to copy this number, circle that number, draw a line from here to there.

These worksheets took him forever. He had to do them several times a day. He hated them.

Not only were they hard for him, but they were boring. Downright tedious. "They're still doing letter recognition for the kids in class who have never learned to read before," he'd tell me, sighing and rolling his eyes. I would explain to him that every kid is good at some things, and every kid struggles with other things. I would remind him that even though reading is easy for him, writing is hard, and he needed to practice, and this was a good way. I would sit with him, sometimes for an hour or more, at the end of each day, and help him push through homework that was meant to take ten minutes.

And in class, it was even worse— not only was he forced to do work that was simultaneously overwhelmingly difficult and mind-numbingly boring, but he also had a time limit, and was surrounded by distractions.

A child as sensitive to sensory stimuli as Isaac cannot not hear a child across the room whispering or rustling a paper. He can't not see the sudden movement of a another child's elbow out of the corner of his eye. Now imagine twenty children whispering and rustling and moving, all around him.

He has to fight constantly to forget the scent of lunch cooking down the hall or stop feeling the draft from the vent on his face or ignore the vibrations caused by the vacuum passing in the hallway.

So when he would color or write or cut in class, he would hum quietly to himself. Trying to drown out the noise so he could concentrate. He would fidget, trying not to feel the rivets in the back of his chair. He would sometimes get up altogether and walk around the room for a minute, trying to calm down get his mind back on his task.

And his teacher would scold him. And tell him to be quiet and sit still and stay in his seat.

And he would fail to finish his work as quickly as the other students. And be punished by having to sit and finish it while the other kids played at center time.

He was scolded, and punished, daily. When he would come home, he would say terrible things. About himself.

"I'm the slowest."

"I'm the worst."

"I was the only one who couldn't."

"I'm bad at writing."

"I didn't finish."

"I was afraid."

His teacher had access to his records— both the records of the school district, and the medical records I had added to his file. She knew he had a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder. She knew he had a motor skills delay.

I asked her if she could take that into consideration when assigning him activities in class. She told me she didn't think his sensory problems could have anything to do with not wanting to write. She told me thought he just didn't want to do the work.

His teacher knew he could read. She knew he'd gotten advanced letter and number recognition scores and a nearly perfect report card in preschool. She knew his preschool teacher considered him gifted. She knew he had taken a standardized developmental test and received a verbal score in the 99th percentile.

I suggested that perhaps if she offered written work that would be more interesting to him, he might be engaged enough to focus on it despite his difficulties with writing. That if he didn't find his homework boring he might be inspired to finish it even if the fine motor aspect of it was hard.

She told me "We don't want him getting too far ahead of the other children."

When I asked if we could have him tested for the school's gifted program, that would have taken him out of class one day a week to a place with smaller class sizes, more one-on-one attention, and more interesting material, she said, "He would fail the drawing test. I could overrule that, but I'm not sure I would. I'm not sure his IQ is high enough."

Isaac has been at his new school for five weeks. The paper above is a sheet of math homework he did this week. First grade math homework.

He did it in ten minutes.

He did it without complaining.

In fact, he has done not one but two math homework worksheets four nights a week for four weeks now.

He almost never makes a mathematical mistake.

I want to mail his old teacher a copy of every damned page. Screw mailing them, actually. I want to march into her classroom carrying a sheaf of them and slap them down on her desk.

In fact, I want to hand-deliver copies of this homework to every damn person at the school and the district who closed ranks around this teacher and dutifully stood in my way when I dared to challenge her evaluation and treatment of my son.

Yesterday my son asked me if, after winter break, I could ask his new teacher for some multiplication problems to add to his homework. He says addition and subtraction are getting old.

His IQ wasn't high enough for the gifted program, Old Kindergarten Teacher? REALLY?

I don't care what I have to do. I don't care if I have to sell a kidney to keep him in private school for the next several years. I don't care if I have to homeschool. I don't care if I have to sell my house and move. As long as people who want to pound "different" children like mine down until they fit into neat little boxes are in charge, MY CHILD IS NEVER GOING BACK TO HIS OLD SCHOOL.

And when he's a astronomer, or a science teacher, or a Senator, or any of the other things he's been telling me lately he wants to be when he grows up— now that he's no longer so stressed by school that he could barely think about the next day of his life, let alone the next few decades— when he's such a successful adult that no one cares anymore that he sometimes fidgets and sometimes hums and has bad handwriting— his first Kindergarten teacher, the one who could not see past the disability to see the child— she will not be the teacher he will thank.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Isle of Misfit Parents

Two women sit together on a bench in a hallway in a school, chatting animatedly together as they wait for their children to be dismissed from class. With their subtle brown eyeliner and casual lipstick and fashionable-but-not-too-high-for-daytime heels and well-matched jewelry and designer handbags and perfectly highlighted hair they look very much like certain mothers I remember from the exclusive private high school I attended on scholarship, mothers of my friends, who seemed so different from my own mother, my hurried, serious, bespectacled mother in her short hair and khakis and sensible shoes.

I sit apart from them, alone on a chair across the room, like my mother used to sit apart. Despite my own subtle brown eyeliner and fashionable coat and Nine West (on clearance!) purse and cute, if sensible, shoes. All of which I wear like a semi-opaque lacquered sheen that I feel absurdly will crack and fall away the moment I speak.

They are talking about a charity fundraiser; they are talking about their husbands' jobs; and I find myself thinking how suddenly strange it can feel to me, still, after five years, to sit in a room full of mothers and be one of the mothers in that room. How strange it is, still! To think, here I sit, as my mother sat. Past tense.

And there are those mothers, still talking as if no one else were in the room and really, they might as well talk as if no one else were in the room because I am not talking to them, am I? I am instead sitting here alone thinking about how strange I feel sitting here alone thinking. I am a stranger precisely because I am sitting alone feeling strange.

I am sitting frozen in the conviction that if I speak to them I will intrude someplace I am not wanted.

And then one of the other mothers, the well-coiffed, magazine-cover mothers, says, with emotion, "I worry so much about her starting middle school. I mean, how will people treat her? How will she find her way around such a big place? How will she ever play sports? How will she even open her locker?"

And the other nods in sympathy.

And across the room, I do too.

And I realize I fit right in here. We all do.

Everyone raising a Misfit Child is welcome on the Isle of Misfit Parents.

Next time I'll have to say hello.

If you liked this post you'll probably also like Cocoon by Amalah. And no, she didn't pay me to say that.