Dyslexia

The Inchworm in the 200 Meter

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On your mark

Our oldest son, a high school freshman, joined the track team last month. For most people, having their child participate in an extra-curricular sport is no big deal. But our kids, while not being completely unusual (well, except for Joe’s inexplicable obsession with K-pop), have struggled with sports. We provided and paid plenty for opportunities in activities like swimming, baseball, soccer, and golf, but nothing has stuck. I decided to accept that they were geeks, and sports were not their passion.

As winter gave way to spring this year, Joe expressed an interest in joining either baseball or track. We had been trying since the fall to steer Joe toward running for two reasons. First, he has these crazy long legs (he’s five inches shorter than his father right now but has the same inseam). Second, baseball requires mad hand-eye coordination while running requires, well, legs. We felt track would be a much better fit as a first sport for him, but no kid wants to be told what to do by his lame parents so he had been resistant. When he told me he was set on baseball, I gently reminded him that track is a co-ed sport where the uniforms are tank tops and short shorts. Ding. Ding. Ding. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! We were suddenly track parents.

I had no idea what that entailed, honestly. If I had known that track was going to require Saturday morning alarms set for 6 a.m. and meets in distant towns that ran from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in unpredictable and often downright cold spring weather, I might have given baseball a second thought. Still, a couple weeks ago we headed out for his first track meet and got to be spectators as our child participated in something.

Joe is our little inchworm. With his ADHD and his sensory issues and learning disabilities, he’s been a bit behind the pack from the beginning. His growth and development in most areas has been slow, steadily moving an inch at a time while other kids leapt forward in great strides. Joe approached the meet with the laissez-faire attitude and lack of competitive spirit he’s always shown knowing himself to be that inchworm. He ran his three events and finished last in each heat. We decided to count our blessings as they were. He was attending daily practices, taking responsibility for his uniform and gear, talking to different students, and committing to weekend events that encroached on his precious free time. Those are impressive feats for a teenager whose typical weekend events include marathon texting sessions, non-stop You Tube video viewing, and competitive carbohydrate consumption.

Toward the end of the meet, a fellow teammate backed out of the Men’s 200 Meter. The coach dropped Joe into the event in his stead. We had planned on cutting out a bit early, but bellied up to the fence to witness his last race. The starting gun popped and he was off. It looked like we were headed for another participation-ribbon run but, as he rounded the last turn, something clicked. Maybe he was tired of finishing last. Maybe he just wanted to be done more quickly. But, for whatever reason, he turned it on. We watched and cheered as he passed two other runners to finish 6th out of 8. It might not seem like much, but to me it was everything. I was teary eyed. He blew me away. I could not have been more proud if he had placed first in the fastest heat against the best runners at the event. It didn’t matter. He had progressed before my eyes, and it was beautiful.

After that race, I caught up with him. He was tired, but I had to ask. What was behind the change in that last 100 meters in his last race at the end of a long day? What was up with the afterburners? He told me he just decided to push himself and see what happened. He had his answer. His swagger had increased tenfold. He had found his motivation. Running with people is fun. Passing people every once in a while while doing it is more fun.

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Not in 8th anymore

Since that first meet, Joe has made continual improvements. His coaches have him working on his stride and pacing. He’s learning to use his upper body to add momentum. He’s using the starting blocks to his best advantage. He’s finished heats in second place, not eighth, and he’s done well enough to advance to more difficult heats where he is now finishing in the middle of the pack. My kid, who a few weeks ago told me he would finish out the season but didn’t think this was his thing, told me yesterday that he may do track and cross-country next year. I smiled inside but didn’t let on because, well, I wasn’t born yesterday and am not stupid.

Full disclosure. There have been times in Joe’s almost sixteen years when I wished he would hurry up and reach his stride. When would our inchworm start moving a little more quickly? I reasoned that at some point he would have to go at breakneck speed to catch up. Well, he’s running now, but he’s still an inchworm. He’s making incremental gains in his own time on his own schedule because an inchworm moves the only way he can, the way he does it best, slowly. He’ll never be a jackrabbit or a cheetah. It’s not his deal. I’ll never be able to speed Joe up to reach the milestones I had met by his age. It’s not happening. Instead, he’s teaching me to slow down, to be patient, and to trust that everything will work out as it should. I believe the world gives you what you need. I’ve spent most of my life running around without purpose in large circles and getting nowhere. It took an inchworm who runs track to show me how to gain ground with intention.

The Book Without Pictures

ImageFew things are as burdensome to a child with dyslexia as required reading. At least, this is what I have discerned over years of working with Luke and watching him battle with text. Because the only way out is through, Luke has to work twice as hard as typical children to make half the progress in reading. With a couple years of personalized instruction in decoding (phonics for children with dyslexia) and comprehension, he has made huge strides. He has jumped four grade levels in reading in two years. He is now a sixth grader reading at fifth-grade level. Things are getting easier, but they are still not easy.

And so, reading continues to be Luke’s least favorite activity. It’s the last bit of homework he chooses to attack each night. On the rare occasions that I can convince him to read aloud so I can track his progress, I swear the process is more difficult for me than it is for him. He is painfully slow, stumbling over words most children his age would not blink twice at. He continues to interchange “what” with “that” and “why” with “who” often enough that I find myself unable to follow along with the story in places. But, along he plugs, undaunted, while I do my own decoding to keep up.

For a couple months now, I’ve watched Luke carrying around this hardback book and pulling it out during his reading period. I never really thought about it much. I knew the title, had a vague idea what the story was about and that his teacher had chosen it for him, and that was where my brain came to rest on it. It was a book about a soldier in Afghanistan who felt compelled to save the stray dogs he found there. And it combined two of Luke’s favorite topics: war and puppies.

The other day, a little disheartened to see him still lugging around and reading the same book, I asked him about it.

“Luke…how many pages do you have left in that book? It seems like you have been reading it forever,” I said.

“About fifty, I think,” he replied easily.

“How long have you been reading that book now?” I asked.

“Since October sometime, I think. I can’t remember.”

“What page are you on?” I inquired.

“249” came the reply.

I sat with this number for a while, letting it slowly seep its way into my understanding like water filtering into sand. Two hundred forty-nine pages. Two hundred. Plus forty. Plus nine. Holy crap. That is a lot of pages for Luke.

“Can I take a look at it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, handing me Pen Farthing’s One Dog at a Time. All 308 pages of it. I flipped to the book’s center expecting to see a slew of photographs. There were none. Next, I paged carefully through the book. Twenty five chapters. Twelve point font. No drawings. No graphics. Adult vocabulary. War theme. Full of acronyms, foreign place names, and soldier-driven terminology. Then, it hit me. My eyes grew wide. This is a grown up’s book.

“Luke, this is a serious book. I’m really proud of you for sticking with it,” I praised.

“I’ve been going extra slowly because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything,” he told me.

“If you’re going to have this book at home over Christmas Break, I’d like to read it,” I told him. “I’m thinking we can share it and then when we’re both done we can have a book club meeting about it. Maybe we can go to Red Robin, just the two of us, and talk about it?”

“Sure,” he said. “It might take me a little longer to finish it, though,” he acknowledged.
“No worries,” I replied as I handed the book back to him so he could finish up his required twenty minutes of painstaking work.

I stood there, watching him for a few minutes, reveling in how tough he is. He is a warrior. Every day as a student he goes into battle, fighting to size up, outmaneuver, and slay the beasts that would diminish his opportunities for success. He knows more about himself and about what he can and cannot do than most adults I know. He struggles. He problem solves. He strategizes. He adjusts. And, most importantly, he perseveres. While reading a 300-page book at 12 might not be a tremendous effort for many children, it’s a Herculean task for Luke. So, I hope you’ll excuse me if I appear to zone out while you remind me again about your child’s sixth consecutive semester on the Dean’s List. I mean, that’s great and all, but my dyslexic son is nearly finished reading a three-hundred page book without pictures. Clearly, I win.

Check This Box

Cutest note ever

Spring is in the air. The songbirds have returned to my bird-feeder welfare state. Tulips are in blooming underneath our spring snow. The flowering trees have kicked my allergies into overdrive. We’re solidly entrenched in the season of new beginnings and hope, which is why I was not at all surprised when the other day my youngest climbed into my car after school smiling quite sheepishly, holding in his hand a folded paper note with a smiley face painted on the outside.

He was whispering rather excitedly to his brother and his brother, in turn, was whispering back. Their hushed conversation was both animated and intense. I had a good idea what was going on based on conversations we’d been having for weeks, but I waited to be included. Finally, Joe’s excitement spilled over.

“Luke got a note from Maddy,” he gushed. Then he added, “It’s depressing.”

“How is it depressing exactly?”

“It just highlights my many failed attempts with girls,” Joe said.

“How many attempts?” I asked. This was all news to me.

“Eight,” he replied instantly with complete assurity.

“Okay. Can we talk about that in a minute? This isn’t about you. It’s about Luke. Let him tell his own story,” I chided. “What’s going on, Luke?”

“Well, after school I found this note in my locker,” he replied, handing me the piece of paper.

It was your garden variety, grade-school note. With carefully chosen words, the author was attempting to ascertain Luke’s level of interest in her. The innocence of the note made me smile. Any note with a “check this box” format wins my heart every time, and this note had two different questions with corresponding boxes. Add to it the charming spelling irregularities of dyslexia and you’ve got about the sweetest correspondence ever. I handed it back to Luke.

“So, how are you going to respond?” I asked

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“I thought you like Maddy,” I replied.

“I do. I’m just nervous. What if I tell her I like her and she doesn’t like me?”

“She wouldn’t have bothered to write the note if she didn’t like you,” I told him. “Girls generally don’t bother with guys they don’t like. We try to avoid them. Trust me.”

“Well, then, I think I will answer yes to the liking her question. But I don’t know what to say about the question of if I have a girlfriend,” he said.

Do you have a girlfriend?” I inquired knowing full well the answer.

“No, but…,” he paused.

“You are afraid to put yourself out there?” I asked.

“Kind of,” he said.

“I can tell you this. If you like her, you shouldn’t play games. Be honest.”

“Okay. I will tell her I don’t have a girlfriend then.”

“Or…or you could make a third box to check that says Not Yet. That would let her know you’re hoping she will be your girlfriend,” I suggested, digging way back into my memories of flirting protocol. “That puts the ball back in her court,” I said, “but still keeps you safe because it’s not a definitive answer.”

“Yes. I like that,” he replied with clear relief that there was a way to respond that didn’t leave him completely vulnerable.

He folded up the note, put it away, and Joe used the opportunity to begin his lamentation about his 12-year-old brother’s third success in dating while he still only had one success, way back in kindergarten, and he’s almost fourteen. It’s hard to be Joe.

I’m grateful that my sons are willing to talk to me about girls, at least thus far. The world of interpersonal relationships is a minefield. I hope to keep the lines of communication open with them as they negotiate their way through it. They know I am an old lady, but they also know I dated plenty before I married their dad. I have shared some of my stories of heartbreak, embarrassment, rejection, and shame so they know I have been there and can commiserate. It will be difficult to stand by during the tragedy of their first broken heart but, for now, I’m enjoying the check-this-box phase of newly sprung love or, in this case, like.

A Belated Holiday Letter For All The Late Bloomers

On their way to becoming awesome…someday

On their way to becoming awesome…someday

I was rifling through a stack of papers on the counter yesterday and came across a holiday letter that arrived in a card from some friends of ours around Christmas. Okay. I feel your sneer of judgment. Yes. I still have holiday mail on our kitchen counter. Guess what? We still have a broken, faux Christmas tree lying on the floor in the rec room too. I’m leaving it there at least until Easter to prove how very zen I can be in the face of ridiculous things. So there. Anyway, I opened the letter and reread it. It was, as most family holiday letters are, a beautifully composed, loving tribute to our friends’ apparently flawless, exceptional, decorous, loving children. I’m a natural skeptic, so I’ve always assumed children like the ones outlined in those letters are figments of fantasy, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and men who multitask…a charming idea, but a complete fabrication. Still, we get many letters just like that one every year, rife with phrases like Eagle Scoutstraight A honor studentVarsity letter, State championships, class president, volunteer hours, and first place, which are aimed at making me believe that children like this exist in families all across this nation. It must be reality for some people.

Friends have asked me why I do not send out a letter with our Christmas cards. They figure that a writer should be at the top of the list of Persons Most Likely To Write A Holiday Letter. But I don’t because comparison is an ugly thing. We don’t have the kind of children who look good on paper. They’re off schedule and complicated and not in line with many other children their ages. In terms of learning, our children are classified as “atypical” and that doesn’t play well without lengthy and exhausting explanations. Even though we don’t write holiday letters, we think they’re awesome. We’ve just accepted that their beauty sometimes gets lost in the comparison game.

If I were to write a holiday letter, it realistically might contain paragraphs that read something like this:

Joe is thirteen and in seventh grade this year. He’s completely immersed in Pokémon and adores Japanese culture. He keeps asking when we can go to Tokyo. He used most of his Christmas money to buy Pokémon plush toys that he and his brother use in elaborate stop-motion video stories they are creating for their YouTube channel. Despite his ADHD and dyslexia, he’s making great progress at school. We are so proud that he’s using capitals and periods in his schoolwork on a more consistent basis these days. He’s still reversing his Bs and Ds, but we are hoping that he’ll have that mostly figured out by the time he’s writing college entrance essays. Joe has finally mastered the coordination and multiple steps to tie his own shoes now, which has taken one thing off my plate. He uses about 400 knots to make sure they don’t come untied, though, and that has created a different hassle as I now have to unknot his shoes each morning. Be careful what you wish for! After two years of private ski lessons, his core strength and coordination have improved enough that he has a mastery of most beginner slopes. We hope to have him exclusively skiing intermediate slopes by the end of next season. His favorite books are graphic novels, his favorite food is pasta, and his classmates call him “Puppy.” He never misses his nightly spa time, which mainly involves sitting in the bathtub while watching a continuing stream of Netflix videos on his iPad from across the room. Thank heavens he was gifted with great eyesight and the brains to know not to bring the iPad into the tub with him.

Luke is eleven now and in fifth grade. He is a talkative, class clown, and his teachers have initiated a rewards system to keep him reined in during class. So far it seems to be working because our last parent/teacher conference went off without tears. This year his decoding skills have gone off the charts and he is reading at a beginning of fourth grade level. He’s still struggling with fine motor skills and his pencil grip is downright bizarre, but his handwriting is bafflingly lovely. He loves to draw, write stories, build Legos, and watch episodes of Parks and Recreation. And, this year he began catching footballs successfully. He’s still two inches shy of being tall enough to ditch the booster seat in the car, but he’s getting there! His latest career aspiration is to be an entrepreneur/architect/engineer, but he’s planning to author books in his free time, which we think will make him quite well balanced. His sensory issues force him to sleep in a nest of blankets, pillows, and plushes, but he showers regularly, doesn’t eat in bed, and sleeps on the top bunk so we are reasonably sure there are no rodents up there with him.  All is well and we are grateful. 

Now, this holiday letter fodder might seem a bit hyperbolic, but overall it’s an accurate account of life with our exceptional sons. They are not straight A students. They are not athletes. They are not overachievers. They’re not on the Dean’s List. They’re not first chair in orchestra. They struggle a lot, work hard to catch up with other kids their age, and keep plugging away. They are, in every way I can see, damn near perfect human beings, emphasis on the human part. And I may never be able to write a holiday letter extolling the impressive scholastic or athletic achievements of their youth, but I could not be more proud of my young men.

I don’t begrudge any of our friends the joys of having children who are achieving at a high level already. After all, it’s a lot of work being a parent, and a smart, capable child who is excelling in many things can only do so with personal support and chauffeur services. My friends have earned the right to brag about their offspring. As for our boys, I suspect they are simply late bloomers. Sooner or later, all their hard work and dedication will pay off. And someday I’ll send out a holiday letter to share how far they have come. Our Christmas card with personal letter in 2035 might just blow your socks off.

I Got My Report Card

So proud of these little monkeys

So proud of these little monkeys

A bunny can only learn what he has the humility to admit he doesn’t know. ~Bunny Buddhism

About five days ago we received a large and rather heavy envelope from the Havern School. From the cumbersome nature of the package, I sort of figured it was something dull (like an Annual Report) and I have no energy to deal with things like that. I’m lucky if I read all the way through the weekly email newsletters that have information I need to know (the same information, incidentally, that gets printed out and sent home in our sons’ backpacks but that I don’t get for three months because they forget to share anything that’s not a cold, a booger, or a piece of trash ). On the counter that large envelope sat while I went about my usual routine of ignoring the mail until it overwhelms the space and I am forced to reckon with it. Last night I finally opened that bad boy. Lo and behold, it was an annual report of sorts. It was the boys’ annual Academic and Therapy Reports.

As I’ve mentioned before, the boys’ school doesn’t provide traditional letter grades because students with learning disabilities typically struggle with standard assessments. Included in this large envelope was a cover letter from the Head of School explaining that “the faculty at Havern takes delight in the many other ways we observe and experience a student’s growth during the year — academically, emotionally, and socially.” In place of an online report card comprised of impersonal and mostly comment-free letter grades, I held 58 printed pages of precise information on my sons, what they have been studying, their strengths, their struggles, strategies that have helped them to improve, and recommendations on what we can work with them on over the summer. Fifty-eight frigging pages. I started to imagine that perhaps their school knows them better now than we do.

This was the first report card that reflected our sons back to me. Sure. Letter grades can offer a sense of a child’s success, but they can also mask problems. Luke had mostly A and B grades last year despite the fact that he was in third grade and had tested somewhere around a first grade reading level. These new reports, while overwhelming at first glance, provide an accurate picture of how far they’ve come and what’s next for us to tackle. The Havern School prides itself on seeing the whole child and, after flipping through the report pages, there is no doubt that the boys’ teachers, speech therapists, and occupational therapists understand and appreciate them as individuals. If you’re lucky, this is what a private education affords you.

For years while our boys were struggling and coming home with less than stellar grades, I felt like I was failing too. I mean, this is my job. I don’t work outside the home. I have no paying job. The boys are my job and, dammit, I take my job seriously. Letter grades don’t accurately reflect the amount of effort a parent puts into raising their child. Last night, though, as I leafed through the pages of the boys’ reports, I felt some validation because in with the information about how our boys are doing were words about who they are: respectful, well-mannered, reliable, hard-working, good sport, and conscientious. Admittedly, there were also some things in the reports to have a good giggle at. Luke’s report, in particular, mentioned his “enthusiasm” quite a bit. Enthusiasm is a teacher euphemism for talks-too-much-and-can’t-sit-still. And I had to smile at Joe’s occupational therapist’s mention of his  “mild gravitational insecurity” when it came to climbing the school’s rock wall at the beginning of the school year. I too suffer from mild gravitational insecurity. Joe’s classroom teachers mentioned what a deep thinking young man he is. Luke’s teachers mentioned his affinity for “cute, fluffy puppies” and his tendency toward being too hard on himself.

While I may not possess the unique neurological differences that our sons have, after reading the reports there’s no mistaking that these apples fell right under their family tree. I’ve often felt sorry for our boys. Having a hyper-critical, tough-minded, perfectionist mother when you’re struggling with dyslexia probably seems like a cruel joke. I see now, though, that my drive and determination to conquer whatever I attempt has filtered into my children in a way that might actually help them in the long run. These days, I make accommodations for my sons when they reach their threshold with school work, but along the way our boys learned from me that their issues are not an excuse for lack of effort or a bad attitude. I’m beyond proud of them for coming as far as they have this school year. It seems like just yesterday I left them on the school steps in August and crossed my fingers. All year I’ve been telling them to work hard and to believe in themselves and they will land squarely where they need to be. Turns out I should have taken my own advice.

I got my report card this year and I finally believe it’s one worth celebrating.

 

A Mile In Their Bunny Feet

This is what it's like to struggle with number formation. Go ahead and tell me I need to come in over recess.

This is what it’s like to struggle with number formation at 46. Go ahead and tell me I need to come in over recess. I may cry.

Today my husband and I received a priceless gift. We were able to experience to some degree what having dyslexia is like for our sons. The Rocky Mountain Branch of the International Dyslexia Association staged a learning seminar for parents and educators, and for an hour we were put in situations designed to recreate the frustrations dyslexics experience in the classroom. One of the greatest difficulties in parenting a child with learning disabilities when you do not have them yourself is the inability to understand exactly where they’re coming from. This disconnect has caused innumerable negative interactions with our sons over the years. When you have a bright, articulate child who shows great understanding about the world and can recite for you entire passages from a variety of Star Wars films but who can’t write a simple, grammatically correct sentence at age 11 or who can read the word phenomenal but consistently confuses the words that and what at age 10, it makes you want to tear your hair out. Things that are for you quite simple seem an insurmountable challenge to them. You just don’t get it.

Today’s event provided six opportunities to experience how difficult those simple tasks are when you have dyslexia. There were two stations for writing, two for reading and comprehension, and two for listening skills. The stations were all led by an instructor who served as our classroom teacher. She facilitated the activity, providing constant feedback (mostly in the form of well-meaning, but potentially disheartening, critiques) as we did our work. In our first station, we were given a timed test. We were only allowed to write with the hand we don’t normally use. None of us could complete the tasks in the allotted time, and our handwriting was abysmal. At the next station we wore headphones and listened to a dictated spelling test. The list was read at an average speed, but the volume was varied and the amount of background noise on the recording and in the room in general made it virtually impossible to understand the words. The “teacher” made us correct each others’ papers. For the eight of us in the group, all but one of us missed every single word out of the first six. At that point the teacher told us that we had all failed and would need to do extra work during recess. The next activity was a learn-to-read activity where the words appeared in symbolic code. We were each asked to read aloud words that had no direct correlation to anything we understood. While we struggled, the teacher constantly reminded us that our reading needed to be fluid, embarrassing us with her guidance. Next was another listening activity where we heard four teachers speaking at one time, as if we were on a field trip. We had to correctly copy down what our specific teacher was telling us, filtering out the speech of the others. Most of us missed entire sections on the worksheet. In the fifth activity, we were allowed to use our dominant hand to write but we could not look directly at our paper. Instead, we used a mirror as a guide to write words and trace lines on our paper. I could not get my hand to form the letters and numbers. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I could not make it work. I giggled uncomfortably to myself as I worked and ended with a page was full of scribbles despite my best efforts to be successful. The final activity was another read-aloud session. The text was in an unusual font and far too light, the words were written backwards, and we were asked to read from right to left. After correctly naming our alphabet prior to reading the text (the only success many of us had all hour), we all screwed up our letters while reading, reversing b and d and p and q. Afterward, we were asked to answer comprehension questions. How on earth are you supposed to answer questions about content when you spent 10-15 seconds simply trying to decode one word?

When we’d rotated through all the stations, I began taking notes on the experience. Quite a few times during the discussion after each activity, participants would tear up while explaining how frustrating it had been. We found ourselves behaving much like our children. We checked out and gave up when it got overwhelming, refusing to complete activities. Our stress took over and we became emotional, either making jokes to deflect our frustration or berating ourselves for not being better at the activity. Our hands became tired and our penmanship got worse, and we were annoyed when our teachers told us our work was sloppy and we’d have to do it again. We used strategies to compensate for our difficulties, including looking at other students’ papers to try to figure out what number we were on or what we were supposed to be doing. The entire hour was a continuous light bulb moment. I thought about my boys and some of the destructive arguments we’ve had over homework (one just this last week with Joe over paragraph writing, as a matter of fact), and my heart sank as I understood how much my words and attitude have contributed to their struggles. I felt like crap.

When we got home, we talked with our boys about our experience. We told them that we finally at least partially understood how hard things have been and continue to be for them. We told them what we had done at the seminar and how dang hard it was for us. Joe, especially, seemed thrilled to feel some true understanding from us. I know hindsight is 20/20, and you can’t go back and undo the past, but I wish I would have had this experience about five years ago. It would have saved me and my sons from some insane tantrums (mostly mine) and tears (mostly theirs).

Tonight, seeking some solace from self-loathing regarding how long I’ve been adding to my boys’ frustration about school, I found this quote in my Bunny Buddhism book:

When a bunny finds light, it does not matter how long he has been in the darkness.

I can’t go back and undo the unwitting damage caused by my naive assumptions and over reactions, but I can go forward with a more compassionate heart for both myself and my boys. Beating myself up over things I did not understand will help no one. I will never look at their issues the same way again. I’ve walked a mile in their large, fluffy bunny feet and, in doing so, I’ve stepped out of the darkness. We’re making progress, my boys and I. I’m excited that going forward we’ll be hopping along together in much better light.

Our Perpetual Lady of Slow Learners

Lovely couple of kids

Lovely couple of kids

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my journey as a parent, it’s that expectations can be your undoing. In terms of expectations, mothers are doomed from the start. From the day we pee on a stick and see pink lines, we are an expectant mother. Our pregnancy bible is entitled What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and we devour the information between its covers because pregnancy is so new and different and impending parenthood is equal parts exhilaration and terror. We want to be prepared…as much as anyone can be prepared for the arrival of something so much a part of oneself and yet totally unlike anything anywhere else. While our children begin their lives unencumbered by the existence of expectations, we embark on our parental career ready to measure them against the rubric of the typical. And that’s the point when we make our first big mistake.

I knew fairly early on that our sons were not typical. They did not follow growth and development charts. They were on their own schedules. Things their peers were readily learning, our sons could not. They skipped letters in the alphabet  and struggled to write their own names. They were uncoordinated with sports and were unable catch a ball or skip or follow rhythm. Physicians noted their shortfalls while reassuring us that they were fine. In school, they displayed obvious intellect while retelling stories or playing creatively, but rote memorization of math facts escaped them. They began to get poor marks on tests science and social studies tests despite knowing the answers when asked orally. We were frustrated. We knew they were intelligent, but their grades didn’t reflect it. Teachers told me they weren’t trying, but I knew how hard they worked. I could see their constant struggle to keep up and fit in with expectations they now innately understood by watching their classmates and receiving their report cards. When we finally realized that they had learning disabilities, the damage had been done. Our sons no longer believed they could be successful. Expectations were crushing them.

This year we pulled them out of traditional school and did what we swore we would not. We put them into a special school, a school for children who think differently, a school for the atypical. We’d been hesitant to take this route, fearful of pointing out to them and to others that they weren’t measuring up in regular schools. But the time for denial being a river in Egypt was over. They needed help…no matter what that help looked like. Their new school was a big adjustment for me. You see, there are no grades there. None. Kids aren’t in 4th grade and they don’t earn letter grades. They’re not evaluated that way, and teachers and students don’t discuss grades. They discuss progress. They discuss solutions to struggles. While the kids are evaluated regularly, they are assessed solely on improvement. If they’re improving, they’re on the right track. If they’re not improving, it’s time to re-evaluate how they might learn better and pursue a different route. It’s so simple it’s scary.

And, honestly, this new system of analysis did scare me. I was so tied to our traditional conventions that the variation seemed dubious. As a culture, we subsist on numbers and quantitative results. Our conversations with other parents about our children often revolve around concrete standards. Bobby came in First at State. Jimmy has a 4.0. Sue got a 1300 on her SATs. Hey. I get it. It’s an accomplishment and a feather in our caps when our child is successful in a way that we can readily point out. I know from personal experience, though, the other side of that equation. When our sons were earning C and D grades, I perpetually feared having someone ask me about their report cards. I knew that based on their grades our boys would be marked as sub par by others, and that was frightening. And now when they’re getting no grades, well that’s even scarier. When you tell someone your son is “around the 4th grade level and is a consistently improving student,” they look at you as if you’re sporting three heads. No one is up for flexible standards of personal success although that is the only type of personal success there is…the personal kind.

If we’re going to live by expectations (which we seem bound by human nature to do), perhaps we could be a bit more flexible with our assessment of others? We could accept steady improvement as our rubric. We could value overall forward progress over typical milestones because the truth is that not everyone is typical in every way. Our sons are slow learners because their brains process information differently than the majority. So what? It’s taken me almost 46 years to believe that a piece of paper doesn’t prove wisdom and all the outward success in the world doesn’t make you a better person than the next guy, and that makes me a pretty slow learner too. I’m learning to let go of expectations and becoming more patient with myself and with others. It might be two steps forward and one step back, but I’m making progress just like my sons. By the end of my life, I like to think I will have evolved not just to standards but beyond them in ways that are immeasurable.

I threw away the books that told me how my children should be. I now appreciate them for how they are.