Monday, May 10, 2010

Learning How to Fight

I was posting yesterday about the hurts from which which you cannot protect your children. That got me thinking back to the time 2 years ago when E was going through a very difficult time. It still pains me to think about it. It was then that I made this little video.

E had a horrible first grade teacher. Horrible for him, anyway. He has always been very bright and creative. And had a love of learning like I had never seen in a child his age. Gradually, he started getting into trouble at school more and more frequently. He would come home with these pink slips where he would have been sent to the office that day, and I trusted the school, and would punish him at home as well, desperate to end the cycle and trying to put on a united front with his teacher. I tried everything. I scheduled meetings with the guidance counselor, the teacher, and anyone else. His teacher kept hinting that we should medicate him, but the change was sudden. Our family had just emerged from my brain tumor, from that horrible ordeal. I was back to work at a new hospital, and there were lots of changes in his life. I was worried he had internalized it more than we knew and this was manifesting itself in his behavior at school. While this was going on, E changed even more. We suddenly found ourselves having to fight to get him to go to school, to do his homework. This was such a change from the little boy who would literally cry if he was sick and had to be absent.

One day, he came home excited about an art project he had done that day. They had used pastels to draw pictures of owls. He said everyone's was the same, but that owls are birds and can fly, so he did his of an owl in flight. He was so proud, as was I. His was different, original, creative, and reflected a knowledge about the animal.

In another effort to intervene, I scheduled another meeting with his teacher. I didn't care what it took. I just wanted to fix my baby. J and I went together, eager to hear the opinion of the educational expert of children E's age. We were very open-minded to what she had to say, even if she pointed a finger at us and told us it was our fault. Just so E got the help he needed. The only suggestion I was opposed to was simply just putting him on medicaton. I believe ADD/ ADHD can be a real problem, but I also believe that it is completely overused in anyone who does not fit a certain mold.

So we went. We sat in the short little chairs across from this woman, and we listened. She had even saved samples of E's schoolwork and samples of his classmates' work to compare. She showed us handwriting samples-E's is as sloppy as his father's. She showed us his math, which was perfect. Then she pulled out a stack of construction paper and started going through pictures of owls. "These," she said, "are what his classmates did." Pictures, one by one, that all looked the same, like cookie-cutter images. "This is what your son did." She said it with pride, like it would seal the deal for us. There, on the paper, was the bird in-flight, like he had described. It was obvious what it was. He even colored in a midnight-blue sky, knowing that owls are nocturnal. And my heart sank. Not because my kid was different, but because I had been backing this teacher at home, trusting her without question, and punishing my baby. It was obvious she didn't understand E at all, or even make an effort. And me? The one ally he was supposed to have, who should have been behind him without fail, had failed him.

She brought up medication again. She offered us free help from the school counseling system. It was a relatively low-income area, and she had assumed we were no different. But I wanted to do this my way. I have insurance and an above-average income. I would handle it. I took E to a very reputable child psychologist. He sat there on the floor with her, building an elaborate city of legos, and told her everything. Articulating to her in a way unheard of in children his age. And it took all I had not to break down in front of him. He spoke of how the other children called him "retard" because he got sent to the office all of the time. How he tried to tell the teacher " like mama said" and the teacher told him she didn't have time for tattlers. He spoke of how he didn't like class trips to the library anymore. He liked books like Harry Potter, and the Judy Blume chapter books, not baby picture books, and his teacher told him he couldn't possibly be able to read those, that they were too hard for him, which fueled more ridicule from his classmates: they called him a liar. (In fact, he had been reading chapter books at home for some time--my fault--I didn't think the way they were teaching him to read was really reading. Sight words. Memorize the way a word looks instead of sounding it out. So I bought him books without pictures so he would have to learn to sound them out on his own.) He spoke of math time in class, of how he would get done with the work and the teacher would just give him more and more of it to do because his classmates weren't finished, and if he acted like he couldn't do it or didn't have enough time, she wouldn't give him so much more than the other children, which wasn't fair. That he likes going to the office because he gets to talk to the grown-ups there.

The psychologist sat me down and told me what is both every parent's dream and every parent's nightmare at the same time. She told me E had a "freakishly high intellect". That my then-6-year-old baby was literally a genius, based on his IQ. That he may have some hyperactivity going on, but it was hard to say if it was rooted in pathology or just boredom. That the school was failing him. That he thinks differently than other children because of his high ability. I cried that night. All parents want their children to be smart. But I didn't want this. I wanted him to fit in, to have friends his age. To be normal. I remembered back to when I was labeled as "gifted" when I was a child. It was horrible. I just never felt at-home with the other kids. I didn't want this with E. So I tried to take this new knowledge to the school, thinking it would help him. Instead it got worse. The teacher almost seemed to have a personal vendetta against my son.

The final stand-off occured over a broken pencil. E's had broken and she had told him to borrow his neighbor's. The pencil got broken. E was sent home for "intentionally damaging others' property". I assumed he had actively broken the pencil in half out of anger. I mean, they sent him home ! So I grounded him to teach him that you cannot do that to someone else's things. Then I found out that he just broken the lead. Just like he had broken the lead of his because his teacher had told him to press harder on the paper. The pencil just needed to be sharpened. That is the day I went to Staples and bought an entire case of yellow no. 2 pencils and took them to the school. In front of the entire office staff, I slammed them on the counter and told them that if pencils are such a rare commodity in their school that they had to torment my son over broken lead, then they could have some on me. And I withdrew E from the school. He is now in a small parochial school. The tuition is killer,but there are only 13 second-graders, total. He has teachers who take the time to know him, to recognize his strengths and weaknesses and play to both. They have the time and ability to keep him with his peers, yet still challenge him by giving him more enriching work. When he goes to the library with his class, they personally escort him to the more challenging selections, and when he finds one on a topic that is particularly interesting, they even allow him independent-research time in the computer lab and he gives the class a lesson on what he's learned.

This is my prime example of how no one will love your child like you will. How there are people out there who will hurt them and you cannot always take it away. E still shows the ill effects of that awful time with the horrible teacher. He doesn't fight us to go to school anymore, and there are no more trips to the office. He shines academically, but still doesn't have the same sparkle in his eyes as he did before. But I, as his mother, learned valuable lessons from it all. I learned how to fight for my son. How to advocate. And from now on, I will protect my children with a fierceness that is unparalleled.


  1. That was such a beautiful video. I'm not into country much but that song was touching, especially along with the photos. The story you told is so sad. You never want to believe that a teacher is actually causing your child pain, and being a teacher I hate to admit that other teachers can be at fault, but I was a student once and I know it to be true.

  2. Yeah, I know. I trusted her blindly. I have always treasured his teachers-overworked and underpaid. But just like any profession, there are good and bad. She left him broken in a way. Crushed his spirit.

    FYI--I didn't like country either, then I married a southern boy. LOL