Continued from Part Four…
Arnie didn’t agree that Drew’s classroom situation was that dire, even after Drew came home saying he had to flip his card to “yellow” (green= good, yellow= warning, red= big trouble) for talking out of turn…. on the second day. In his new teacher’s classroom there is only negative reinforcement, no treasure box at the end of the week, no warm fuzzies. Arnie’s theory was maybe this is the type of teacher Drew needed- someone who didn’t “take any mess”, someone who would teach Drew the proper way to behave in public school. A relative of Arnie’s had trouble in his youth and before he got kicked out of college, joined the military. It put his life in order and from then on he has been a very responsible, productive member of society. Because of this, Arnie thought maybe, because this teacher was somewhat of a drill sergeant, she was going to be good for Drew. I wasn’t convinced. And after he came home a couple of days later saying he was on yellow again, his teacher made him cry and then subsequently yelled at him to stop, I was livid. We had all worked too long and too hard to get Drew to where he currently was, especially Drew himself. Nobody was going to come along and undo all of that and make us go back to square one. Drew was a confident, happy, dare I say well-adjusted boy, and I’ll be damned if some shrew who was two steps away from retirement was going to hone her Marine-like skill of tearing down elementary kids to bend them to her will on him. These were the thoughts in my head. Of course, as I requested a meeting with her, I was considerably more polite. My mother taught me what hers obviously hadn’t, to treat others the way you want to be treated.
The next day I showed up for my appointment with the woman. Only, instead of meeting in the classroom as we originally agreed to, she told me we’d just talk outside on the playground. I used to work for a woman who played control games. I know them well and if she thought making me stand out in the sweltering July heat with screaming kids running all around was going to make me uncomfortable, she underestimated me. I started out by giving her a bit of background on what we had been through the past two years. Heretofore, she had been unwilling to listen to any of it and even denied Drew’s LD teachers when they offered to e-mail her some strategies that they had found to work. I understand being territorial and on more than one occasion she let me know that “it won’t take long for (her) to figure it out, (she) had done this a time or two”. True, but what’s the harm in taking a few pointers from people who had been there, done that with this particular child? If he had a current IEP all of those strategies would have been there in writing and she would have been legally obligated to follow them. Since we didn’t have that yet, it was up to me to make her listen this time. I kept it short and sweet and basically told her the following: Of course we want Drew to behave in class. By all means, if he isn’t following the rules there should be consequences. But if he feels like you don’t like him, his bad behavior is only going to get worse and would spiral out of control. He’ll be anxious every day about screwing up, about your displeasure and our disappointment and it will become a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy. I told her that if she took the time to bond in a positive way with Drew, he would do ANYTHING to please her and would most likely be her best student. I let her know that I had no doubt he would learn how to be a “good school boy” in her classroom, but what we also needed was for him to finish first grade with his self-esteem intact.
As we stood toe to toe in the sand, I was waiting for a random tumbleweed to pass by and the western music to start to swell. What happened was she took the constructive criticism reluctantly and got a jab in there about how I was an overprotective mother and probably just needed to chill. I let her have that. It was most likely true and I could see myself from her perspective. She probably wasn’t used to mothers getting up in her face on the 5th day of school. Before I left I extended an olive branch, an offer to volunteer or do whatever I could to help her in the classroom. The purpose was two fold- the first was that I really wanted to be helpful. I have a lot of friends who are teachers and I know their jobs entail a lot more than standing up in front of the kids explaining addition. If I can make their job easier, that leaves more time for them to focus on teaching my child. The other motive was of course to keep an eye on the classroom and keep my face fresh in her mind. We made arrangements for me to come in the following week. I left our meeting with my head held high. I made my points and felt like we had come to an understanding. I tried to be optimistic.
The next week I was encouraged to hear Drew talk about how funny his teacher was. She apparently also had taken up the habit of patting him on the head when he did something good. She seemed to be making an effort anyway and Drew was responding- he had stayed on “green” all week. I went in at my appointed time to volunteer. When I walked into the classroom, the children were quiet and Drew’s teacher motioned for me to come to her desk. She began showing me some of Drew’s work, openly praising him and his efforts in class. I glanced at Drew. He couldn’t have been more proud. Neither could I, I didn’t think. And then, after I asked about his conduct, she whispered this, “Oh no, his behavior is not a factor in the classroom at all.” I didn’t know what to say. There was a time when I never, EVER thought I would hear a teacher say that about my son. All the parent/teacher conferences from pre-school flashed in my mind, the Wake Co. IEP team telling me they rarely hold kids back for behavior issues, the thought that we might have to medicate Drew or put him in a cross-categorical class with other special needs students because he couldn’t control himself. I had prayed for a moment like this and here it was being delivered by someone I viewed as “Enemy #1”. I thanked the teacher, got my assignment, and went over to give Drew a big hug- just another boy sitting at his desk, doing his work like he was supposed to. But he was happy. And so was I.
However, the IEP issue was still unresolved. Drew’s teacher told me that she was going to have him tested to see if he qualified for specialized reading help. I felt sure that he would. The LD Center didn’t focus much on academics and I knew he was lacking. We had tried our best at home and Drew could read the heck out of a Dick and Jane book but something wasn’t clicking. This was part of the reason we had put him into first grade. Even with a summer birthday, at 7 years-old, he was technically supposed to be in second grade. But we felt like he had really missed out not only on a lot of material, but also the experience of being in a public school with so many rules and things to remember. We didn’t want him to be overwhelmed and figured his best chance as success would come in first grade. Around the time Drew was tested for reading help, word came that he would have to be retested for his IEP. We got the results of his reading test first- he did qualify for help and would be pulled out of the classroom 3 times a week and taught with a small group of children (mostly other boys).
The other testing was completed and our IEP meeting was scheduled. Arnie and I showed up and were escorted into a conference room. In attendance were Drew’s teacher, a special education team member, the school psychologist, the speech therapist, and an assistant vice-principal. We sat around a huge table and looked at Drew’s test results. Compared to two and half years ago, the numbers on the paper didn’t even look like they could have come from the same kid. There were obviously many improvements, but also areas that needed work. In addition to reading help, he qualified for speech therapy- FINALLY! No special education consult was necessary but we demanded to have some classroom modifications included in the plan. Drew had been in school for almost 8 weeks at this point and his teacher had in fact learned pretty quickly what worked for him and what he needed. I wanted it in writing so we didn’t have to go through it all over again with a new teacher the next year. The modifications Drew needed weren’t really all that tough, although his teacher did kind of make it seem like a total inconvenience to her. I know she’s busy and she has 24 children she has to teach. But, sitting him close to her, making sure you repeat instructions for him and redirecting him once or twice during the day to make sure he stays on task warrants a big “SO WHAT?” from me.
And this is where I am right now with “special needs” children and “mainstream” classrooms. Drew is amazingly smart. I would LOVE to know how his mind works. You’ve read the anatomy textbooks that talk about synapses and making connections in your brain but to see it actually happen in real-time before your eyes is an incredible gift. Remember back in part one where I said at three (almost four) years-old Drew couldn’t count to five? For as long as I live I will never forget the day he counted past five. We were in our playroom and Drew had been playing with his train set. The time came to clean up so I got out the bin and we started picking up tracks. I heard Drew mumble something each time he threw a track in the bucket. I listened closely and was startled to realize he was counting- and he was already in the 20s. There were 138 pieces of track and that day he counted every one. He must have wondered why his mommy was sitting there crying and hugging him so tightly!
That’s the way it’s been ever since. You know something is brewing underneath that skull. You can see him trying to work it out. It may not happen right away, or even very soon, but once Drew gets it (whatever “it” happens to be), he gets it better than anybody and takes it further than it’s been explained. Such was the case with the reading help. He started with the literacy coach before our track-out in October and maybe had two or three sessions. The regular schedule resumed in November and at our Christmas break, I was delighted to find the following note in his literacy folder:
Dear Drew’s Parents,
Just wanted to let you know that it has been a pleasure (underlined) working with Drew this year! He has made incredible progress! He is meeting reading benchmarks very successfully- he doesn’t need me anymore! Today will be Drew’s last day in the ALP Literacy program. What a success story!
It’s currently still on my refrigerator and I look at it every day to remind myself how far Drew has come and what he’s capable of. He is doing a wonderful job in school academically and behaviorally. He has yet to bring home anything less than 100% on his weekly spelling tests and sometimes math work gets sent home marked in red- not because it’s incorrect, but because he has provided a more sophisticated answer than they’ve learned in class. His teacher says Drew frequently raises his hand to answer questions that leave the other children scratching their heads. Behaviorally, he’s doing just fine. He stays on “green” most days. The days he does get on “yellow” it’s for infractions like talking too loud in the cafeteria or chasing a ball on the playground and going outside of the designated area. I can live with that.
All of these things are gold coins we can put in the bank, strengths to draw upon. I know we’ll have to fight this fight every year, no matter what his IEP says. I know that as he gets older and expected to be more independent his need to be reassured to calm his anxiety or redirected to stay focused will be less and less acceptable. And then where will that leave him? It seems like there’s a whole population of kids out there who are perfectly able to do the work, could excel even, they just need a little more guidance than most other children. They are misunderstood and mislabeled, prejudged and underestimated. These are the kids who are falling through the cracks. There is a place in schools for special needs and learning disabled. What about special needs and academically gifted? It is possible to be both. Is there not a place in the world for these children?
Why can’t there be a place in school for the child who might need to be reminded every day where his homework goes? Or for the child who has to hum when he takes a test? What about a child, like Drew, who sometimes has to spin when he reads a book? He’s reading the book. He’s learning the material. Does his method make the end result less valid? No, just inconvenient. Well, too bad I say. My child is not a robot. He has never done anything the way it’s “supposed” to be done- EVER. But who are we to say that’s wrong? How his brain works and what he does sometimes doesn’t make sense to us. The other way to look at it is that I’m sure what we do doesn’t make sense to him either. Demanding that he sit still and never fidget while he’s doing his homework is probably like telling Tom that he has to be best friends with Jerry. It just doesn’t work that way. What the public school system as a whole needs to realize (in my opinion, of course) is that these aren’t bad kids. They aren’t misbehaving on purpose. They don’t WANT to get into trouble. They are complicated, smart, sensitive and have many, many gifts they would love to share. It’s a complete disservice to tell them that they are a round peg and don’t fit into a square hole. Adaptability has to be part of the equation for BOTH sides.
I shudder to think of how many van Goghs or Einsteins we’ve missed out on simply because they couldn’t toe the line in an overcrowded classroom and didn’t have anybody in their corner to advocate for them or look past the inappropriate behavior and see the promise waiting there to be nurtured. I don’t know what the future will hold for Drew- what type of person he’ll become or what he’ll do with his life. But I do know it’ll be one hell of a ride and we’ll always feel blessed for the gift that he is.
“Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer. Every day in every way it’s getting better and better. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy.” ~ John Lennon