So, let's say you have a sweet little girl, a little girl who has always been quirky and different and in possession of a great deal of sparkle. Let's say you send her off to kindergarten to a really promising charter school with an arts emphasis. She loves art! The school is funky and non-traditional and specializes in learning differentiation. Let's do this! With the help of an amazing couple of teachers, kindergarten is super.
Then, that sweet little girl starts first grade and along with first grade comes a different teacher. Even though you have been a life-long fan of teachers, even though you loved school and your teachers and every damn bit of grade-school busy work, you do not like this teacher. She is not the right teacher for your kid. You know it in your gut when you meet her for the first time, but you squelch that impulse because you don't want to be high-maintenance. (Your husband thinks you were a teacher's pet as a kid, and he might be right.) Even though there is yelling and impatience and whistle-blowing (literal whistles, not the watchdog kind) in this teacher's classroom, you give it a chance.
Your sweet little girl begins to hate school. She tells you that she's not smart enough for school, that she just can't learn, that she wants to stay home. She's lost ground since kindergarten. She can't read and doesn't want to read. She hates writing. Numbers are even trickier. She hates being told a million times a day to change the grip on her pencil. (This is preventing what? Her growing into a serial killer with an improper pencil grip?)
She retreats further into her rich inner space of unicorns, rainbows, and giant squid and doesn't even seem present in the classroom. She isn't there. Watching her in the classroom is heartbreaking and all of her sparkle seems to be dimming.
(It is important to point out that, while all this happening, everyone you know is raising a school superstar. It's true. While you're laboring over basic number recognition and fighting for every syllable, every other kid you know is reading on a college level while doing backflips. This will be discouraging even though you know it shouldn't be so. Keeping your chin up and your nose down at the same time is impossible. Your friends are wonderful, but now is the time to go find a friend with a child who is faces similar challenges. It's not tokenism; it's survival.)
During a discussion with your little girl's teacher, you discover that the teacher is really frustrated with your little girl and feels that she isn't listening on purpose. Because she needs "constant reminders" to pay attention, your child has been placed at a special table between two children with very profound special needs so that the aide for one of these children can remind your little girl to pay attention. You thought she was at the special table because she's awesome, kind, and friendly to everyone. Shows what you know, Pollyanna.
You know that something is going on, that your child is bright and creative and full of ideas, and that she is turning into a different child in the classroom. Something is wrong, you insist. The teacher will kind of half-heartedly pitch the notion that your kid has ADD. Maybe autism? She doesn't actually know your kid at all.
After another crazy-making teacher meeting, you call the director and the special services coordinator to complain a bit more loudly and ask for some preliminary screening for your kid. The coordinator has seen your kid in action and kind of feels that she might be a "late bloomer, someone who catches up in high school." Um, OK? And you are told, politely as possible, that she is "just a little girl who's not yet ready to learn." You are so mad when you get off the phone that you pull the car over and cry hot, angry tears in a parking lot. WHO SAYS THAT? WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? You are kind of furious now.
There is a meeting with everyone involved, and it suggested at this meeting that you and your husband might need to adjust your expectations for your little girl. You insist that she is a different child in the classroom and are dismissively told that every child behaves differently at school. Hilarity ensues, wherein "hilarity" equals "more angry crying in parked cars." You feel desperately alone in your fight for an appropriate education for your kid.
Because no one at the school will help your kid or listen to a damn word you're saying, you explore other avenues. You check out a local non-profit that does excellent work with the diagnosis of and help with learning differences. You watch your little girl on the other side of a one-way glass for several snowy mornings as she is given a battery of tests. During the interviews and testing, you can see with alarming clarity all the ways that she is a bright bundle of non-linear thinking and all the ways that she is struggling. (Her interpersonal skills are the best. The clinical director asks for a definition of "sharp" and your six-year-old kid says, "Well, you're looking really sharp today." You resist the urge to break through the one-way mirror and eat her up.)
You know these strengths and these struggles are just two sides of the same coin, and you must never forget that.
You get the report back from the testing center, results that show that your child has perfectly excellent cognitive abilities and great things going on in her head, but is having some serious challenges with input/output and considerable working-memory deficits. (They resist using the term "learning disability" which is good, because that's not really helpful at all, is it?) Basically, there is a giant discrepancy between her ability and demonstrated performance AND ISN'T THAT WHAT YOU WERE SAYING BEFORE?
You resist the urge to roll up these results in your fist and cram them up a certain person's certain part. Someone asks you if you find the results upsetting, and you reply, "There is not a single thing in there that I didn't know about my kid. But now I have a really excellent written explanation." It is time for another meeting.
This meeting is better in that the school is listening to you and taking you seriously now because you have An Official Report. Another bonus: the school is doing a weird high-stepping, smiling, solicitous thing that makes you think they're worried about litigation. This is perversely satisfying, which is awful of you. There is talk of moving classes and increased accommodations and other good things, but your kid has lost half a year and is still struggling.
Eventually, you and your husband say, "Eff this, we're done," and pull the kid out of school. It is a hard decision, but it is the right one. Sometimes being a champion for your kid will make you seem like a complete loon. (And, by the way, this entire exercise will make you much less judgmental of other parents who seem to be acting like loons.)
Your little girl seems relieved. She comes home in February and you are all just so relieved.
You start homeschooling, which is pretty great. The sparkle is coming back. And then.
(Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment of "2011: All This Stuff.")