Our Lady of Perpetual 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 subpar 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.

You’re Unique…Just Like Everyone Else

My "different" children
My “different” children

“Always remember you’re unique…just like everyone else.”

One of the biggest challenges being a kid with a learning difficulty is feeling different. I’ve watched both my sons as they tried to acclimate themselves to their differences at school and, by far, the biggest stress they faced was worrying about what the other kids would think of them. Joe, for about a year, did not tell anyone about his ADHD. He simply was not comfortable. He worked hard to try to fit in and that was how he wanted to deal with it. Eventually, he told a few friends who handled it just as I expected they would. They did not care. They attend a small school, and this group of 13 children have been together for 5 years. To his classmates, Joe is just Joe and knowing about his ADHD didn’t make him any different. When Luke was diagnosed with dyslexia in November, he also was adamant that he did not want anyone to know. I didn’t push him into telling anyone because I respected his apprehension, but I did mention to him (with permission) that his friend Annie Oakley (not her real name) also had struggles. I suggested that it might be good if both of them could talk to each other about their difficulties. He looked at me dubiously and took my counsel under advisement.

Early this past week, out of nowhere, Luke announced to most of his classmates that he had dyslexia. Like Joe’s classmates, they looked at him with a quizzical so-what attitude and moved on. No one understood or cared or asked questions. It was no big deal…with one exception. His partner in crime and fellow horse-lover friend, Annie, immediately glommed onto him, happy to have someone with whom to share her differences. Right after Luke’s confession, he got into the car and declared that he and Annie needed to have a play date (I love that he still uses that term) soon so they could “talk.” I thought that was about the cutest thing ever, so I set up a time for Annie to come to our house on Friday and stay for play time and dinner. The two of them were so excited they could barely focus at all at school before the play date. As proof, I offer up Luke’s spelling test grade, which has never been great but this week hit an all time low of 52% on a list that was not the toughest one he’s ever faced. Their palpable excitement would have been amusing if it weren’t exhausting me.

We had scarcely gotten everyone settled in the car Friday afternoon and weren’t even out of the school parking lot when Luke piped up.

“Okay. So, let’s talk about this ADHD and dyslexia thing.”

Instantly, Annie opened up. She told our boys about how she found out about her ADD and how her life has changed since her parents told her. She and Joe talked about attention-deficit with each other, and she and Luke talked about how hard it was needing special accommodations at school. They all talked about how demanding school was and how much they grappled with reading and timed tests. They talked about it non-stop for 20 minutes on the ride home, sharing stories, successes, and tips. They all felt comfortable about their differences because for those 20 minutes they weren’t different at all. It was, by far, the best 20 minutes I have ever spent in a car with children who weren’t sleeping. I was a fly on the wall for the most genuinely sincere conversation my boys have shared about their trials. Listening to them open up and, above all, be at peace with themselves was the greatest gift I’ve received since learning about their amazing brains.

The rest of the play date was a rousing success. The three of them had a blast being the funny and ingenious kids they are. They took turns making videos with Luke’s iPad as they pretended to be news reporters, fashion icons, and pop stars. Luke hammed it up for the camera with long, improvisational monologues that kept the others in stitches. At one point, Joe was wearing one of my dresses over his jeans and t-shirt and was topped off with a tangled mullet wig as he sang into a magic marker. My sons may not be A students, but their creativity knows no bounds. And Annie, who I have always regarded as very bright and sweet, met them as an equal the entire time. Hubby made his famous chicken nuggets and handcrafted milkshakes for them and that was the only time they were still and semi-quiet all afternoon.

When they were young and I had no experience with children, I had a hard time recognizing that our boys didn’t fit in with their peers, mostly likely because I didn’t want to admit it. Even when their teachers made reference to slower progress, I reasoned it away as late-bloomer syndrome. I subjected them repeatedly to age-appropriate activities that the books said they should be able to do but at which they continued to flounder. I could not understand why school was so difficult for them when they were creative problem solvers who made connections between disparate topics with ease. I grew increasingly frustrated when by age 8 they could not yet ride a bicycle or tie their shoes despite constant instruction. When it was spelled out to me by professionals that my children had actual, brain-related differences from other children, I was heartbroken. This was not what I expected when I signed up for parenthood. I thought we would have children who sailed through school like hubby and I did. No one wants their child to be “different” because “different” kids get beaten up. Eventually, though, to help them come to terms with their differences I had to make my peace with them. I stopped looking at my sons through the eyes of the struggles I knew they would have and instead allowed myself to see the benefits their unique brains would provide them. Sometimes thinking differently can make you highly successful. You need look no further than Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, or Ted Turner to recognize that. The other day, though, I have to admit that it felt pretty good to see them play in a group and feel for a while just like everyone else.

My Kids Aren’t Cheap Circus Ponies

Portrait of our family
Portrait of our family

This past Thursday, prompted by recommendations from not one but two special education professionals, we trekked to Children’s Hospital so Luke and I could visit with a psychologist and determine whether he might (like his brother) have ADHD. Honestly, neither hubby nor myself were 100% convinced that Luke would be diagnosed. We thought that if he perhaps did have some of the markers, his symptoms at this point were mild. But, when we learned that ADHD and dyslexia occur together up to 25% of the time, we decided it was best to cover our bases.

During the course of the hour and a half we spent talking with the psychologist, she asked innumerable questions. Most of them were about Luke, but some were about our family life. When she asked me about how we discipline our boys, the strangest thing happened. I drew a blank. The more I sat there searching for an answer, the more shocked I was to realize that we don’t discipline our boys very often. I couldn’t decide where to go with that realization in terms of answering the psychologist’s question. I decided to come clean.

“This is going to sound strange, but we don’t discipline our sons very often. We set clear, realistic expectations, and our boys most often meet them.”

“Well, when you do have to discipline, what kind of discipline do you use?” she inquired.

“Most often we take things away from them…their iPads and video games, opportunities to play with friends, that sort of thing. But we’ve never done it for more than a day or two. They respond to that type of punishment fairly well and typically avoid having to repeat it,” I told her.

She seemed appeased by my answer and moved onto another question. Quietly, though, I wondered if she thought I was either a) lying to make our boys sound better than they are or b) simply another overindulgent parent with little control over her children. The test came when she asked our boys to sit on the floor across the hallway from her office while she asked me some questions. She told them it would be 10 minutes and that they needed to be quiet. At one point during the interview I started to become uncomfortable because it had been too long and they had been far too quiet. When she finally opened the door, I checked the time. They’d been out there for 20 minutes. I peered my head around the corner to see that Luke was shutting down the Dragonvale app he had been playing on my iPhone and Joe was putting his homework back into its folder. I felt vindicated. My 9 and 11 year old sons had sat alone quietly on the floor in a dull hallway without any adult supervision for upwards of 20 minutes without incident. See. They are good kids, just like I said.

Maybe it’s because our boys struggle so much with their issues that we go easy on them with other things. Their rooms are messy. The number of chores they’re asked to complete is minimal. As they’ve gotten older, we’ve chosen to let go of some things so that they can be kids. Their school work takes such an enormous amount of effort that we cut them slack in other areas; it’s not right when they break down in tears because they’re overwhelmed and miss their friends. We do expect things of them. We expect their best effort on their school work, but not A or B grades. We expect them to be polite, most of the time. We expect them to be kind and to try to get along with others. We expect them to work out their own differences and to recognize their own responsibility in a disagreement. We admonish them if we feel disrespected. In exchange for these things, though, we’ve given them a voice in our house and our trust. We ask their opinions. We let them make choices. And, yes, we pick our battles. We’ve decided that it’s better to give in on the things that don’t really matter so that when we ask them to yield on the things that truly do matter to us we’ll have the backing to gain their easy compliance. They understand that as part of a family sometimes they get what they want. Sometimes they don’t.

I don’t expect that our boys will never need more serious discipline. They’re boys. They’re getting older. They’re going to make bad choices. We all do. When I make mistakes with my sons (which happens far more often than I wish it did), I openly apologize to them. I show remorse. I make amends. I am not the Queen of Do-As-I-Say-Not-As-I-Do. I’m the Duchess of I-Try-To-Set-A-Good-Example. I told our boys the other day that my job is to make sure that they grow up to be the kind of men I still will want to spend time with, the kind I will invite into my home again once they’ve vacated. Discipline is important. My actual job as Mom, though, is to make sure they feel unique, important, and unconditionally loved, and not to ride them like cheap circus ponies. Just don’t tell them I said that. I’ll lose my edge.

Yep…They’re Special All Right

Definitely our special kids!

A couple days ago I had to do something I’ve been dreading doing for a while now. I had to visit the principal at the boys’ small, private school and tell her that it’s likely that our boys won’t be returning next year. I had to tell her this now, months in advance of fall registration, because I need to pass along some evaluation requests about our boys from the school in which we’re hoping to enroll them next year. I wasn’t dreading this conversation because I thought I would get grief or because I eschew conflict (which I truly do). I was anxious about this conversation because for the past eight years this school has been a safe haven for our boys, a place where they felt loved even though they knew they weren’t exactly like all the other kids. It’s been a place where they’ve always felt special.

When Steve and I first received Joe’s ADHD diagnosis, the psychologist told us he might benefit from a more specialized learning environment or, at the very least, a school with special education services. We looked at our bright, articulate son and couldn’t even begin to imagine him at a special school because the term special somehow implied slow. Jokes from our childhood about the short bus began driving through our head. We considered switching him to a public school but, after talking with several special ed professionals, we determined that Joe might not even qualify for special ed assistance in a public school because the need is so great. I couldn’t imagine transferring him to our local public school, where the class size would be double the class size at the private school he was in, on the off chance that he’d receive enough services to make up for the deficit in personal teacher attention. So, we kept him where he was because at least there we knew they would accommodate his needs, and we knew he felt comfortable.

Turns out, though, that his comfort level isn’t enough of a reason to keep him at the school he’s always known. He and Luke, we’ve discovered, will benefit greatly from placement at a school that specializes in teaching students with learning differences. I recently read that 1 in 7 people have some type of learning difference. These type of issues often run in families. They are not indicative of lower intelligence, although most people seem to think they are. The truth is that a learning difference is just that, a different way the brain processes information. Because schools have to cater to the majority, most teaching is done in the systematic way that works best for most students. Our sons are not in the most category. It’s taken us a while to accept that they’re different. It’s taken us even longer to acknowledge that putting them in a special school doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them.

So, we’ve at last arrived at the place where we’re ready to make a big leap and switch them to a special school. As parents we’re finally able to admit that our boys are different and to believe that, although their differences are difficulties now, someday those differences will be valued as strengths. When I began to explain to the boys why they struggle the way they do, I wanted to put a positive spin on it for them. So, I did some research. I told them about Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, and Steven Spielberg. I told them how thinking differently made those men special in a good way and how their differences made them successful. I told them that while they may struggle greatly on the front end learning a new task, in the long run they may be better off for the unique perspective. Funny how the more I did research to try to help my boys feel better about themselves, the more I found myself feeling better about them and their potential. I no longer look at dyslexia as a life sentence (although Luke will have it for life), nor do I look at ADHD as an impenetrable road block. Do they make things a bit more difficult for my guys? Absolutely. But, as Luke told me after we watched The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia with them a few weeks ago, maybe true success requires a special brain, the kind of brain he knows he has. Go ahead. Call my kid special. I dare you. He’s just different enough to understand it’s a compliment.

My Boys: Like The X-Men Only Not

I asked them to create their own X-Men/superhero character. This is what I got. Monkey-cat man and a pants-less king/robber dude. I’m at a loss. 

After school today, I had to stop to talk to Luke’s teacher about some accommodations we need to get in place for him for his schoolwork while we begin his tutoring for dyslexia. On the way home after my conversation, the boys and I were talking about how much they dislike having people know that they’re struggling. They don’t want to feel different than their classmates and they don’t want their classmates looking at them differently. Luke hadn’t even wanted me to talk to his teacher, but I convinced him that she needed to understand his difficulties so she could help him. Even at that, he was insistent that we find a way to help him in which no one in his class need ever find out about his dyslexia. Since I just last night wrote about the boys and how grateful I am that their struggles are occurring earlier in their lives rather than later, I thought I would take the opportunity to reinforce my thoughts on the subject by talking to them about it.

“You need to step back and look at the bigger picture on this, Luke. You’re having some difficulties on the front end, but these things you’re going through will just make you stronger in the long run.”

“I just don’t want any of my classmates to know I’m different,” he replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m afraid they’ll think I’m weird,” he said.

“They already think you’re weird,” I added.

“I don’t want this to make me unpopular,” Luke continued, unabated in his concern for his reputation as class clown.

Unpopular? Seriously? The kid is 9 years old. Is he already planning on being Homecoming King?

“Seriously, Luke?” Joe asked. “Everyone loves you because you’re so cute and funny. I don’t think they’ll stop liking you because you can’t read. I told my classmates about my ADHD and they don’t even get what it is. I don’t think your classmates will care.”

“I don’t want them to know,” Luke insisted.

“Luke, sweetie, you’re looking at this all wrong,” I tried again. “All these struggles you’re having now are going to help you later in life. You’re going to be able to face anything because you’ve had to be so brave and dedicated through all this. Dyslexia is not a problem. It’s a gift.”

“It’s not a gift,” he whined. “It’s a curse.”

It got quiet while I tried to figure out how to convince Luke that his embarrassment now at not being able to read as well as the other kids is actually a good thing for him. Then, out of nowhere, Joe piped up.

“Luke…it’s like the X-Men. They have powers and abilities that other people don’t have. They want to keep them a secret because they feel like freaks. Some of them think their powers are a curse. But, they’re not. Their powers make them special. They’re different and it’s not bad. They can use their special abilities to do all kinds of things.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “What Joe said.”

Okay. Okay. So, my boys aren’t exactly the X-Men. I mean, they’re not telepathic, they can’t shoot people with a high-powered optic lasers, and they’re not exactly conjuring up storms to smash their enemies. On the flip side, though, they are special in their own right. They may wish now that they were just “normal” like other people. But, I hold out hope that someday they’ll see that the challenges of being different have been a gift and not a curse. Maybe someday they’ll be proud of their own accomplishments and maybe they’ll even think they’re cool, even if they don’t have retractable, razor-sharp claws like Wolverine.



I Hate It When The Talking Heads Are Right

Luke back when life was all do-rags and cream puffs.

A little less than two weeks ago, I wrote about a terrible nightmare I had about my boys. That nightmare, similar to another one I had a couple years ago, highlighted some underlying guilt I have about not having devoted as much time and attention to my youngest son as I have to my oldest. My oldest son, diagnosed as ADHD three years ago, required a lot of extra time and effort from me. I felt incredibly grateful that Luke was an easy child who was plugging along in school and appeared to be relatively average. That was until the bottom dropped out.

Luke had a delay with his reading skills, but he was holding his own. While not reading at the same level as his classmates, his teachers had seen some progress. We had too. His school grades were decent. All was fine as far as we could tell. Then, with the start of this school year, I noticed that my son who had gotten mostly A and B grades in spelling was suddenly unable to pass his spelling tests. Something seemed off, so we paid a school psychologist to test him for possible learning difficulties. After reviewing his school work and spending six hours testing and observing him she told us that she suspects he is dyslexic and most likely ADHD like his brother. She suggested we immediately get him into intensive tutoring with a dyslexia specialist.

Today, Luke started that tutoring. Mrs. B spent an hour with Luke in our kitchen. I could hear bits and pieces of the session, but I stayed away so as not to be a distraction to my son who is already somewhat easily distracted. When the session was over, Luke ran upstairs and I went down to speak with the tutor. When she asked me to sit down, I should have known I was in for it. She told me that not only was she sure he’s dyslexic but she believes he has “severe” dyslexia and dysgraphia. In other words, not only does he struggle with reading but his writing is also a problem. She spent about a half an hour with me, scrawling information on a lined piece of notebook paper about holistic treatments, dietary changes, dyslexia support groups, books I should read, a summer camp Luke should attend, and specialized schools we should look at getting Luke into as soon as humanly possible. I was dumbfounded. I did not see this coming at all. She put her hand on mine and told me (as a fellow parent of a dyslexic child) to “have a glass of wine and a good cry.” Seriously? Thanks, lady.

I took her advice, though, and was crying as I locked the door behind her. My first stop was the basement where through clouded eyes I spied a shiraz, pulled it from its storage space, and cradled it lovingly as I ascended the stairs. I was uncorking the wine when hubby came through the door and I was able to share the news with him. I’m an introvert. I need time to process things. I don’t think quickly on my feet. As the tutor was being straight with me (something I am grateful for even though what she said sucked harder than my Dyson), my brain shut off. It took me a good hour to get my bearings again, to stop feeling sorry for myself, and come back to the place where I usually live, where I know that my sons are gifted in their own way and will be just fine.

Still, I can’t help but think back to those dreams…the ones where I have so much guilt for not being there for Luke. Someone or something in the universe heard my complaints and my concerns. I’m being afforded the opportunity to make up for what I’ve been lax about. Luke gets to be my focus for a while. I get to spend some time making sure he is getting the help he needs to be successful. I will get to learn an entirely new vocabulary to help me deal with his learning differences. I will start using phrases like IEP and 504. I will get to spend hours at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado again, devoting my energy to Luke. Luke will no longer be neglected. This is the universe’s way of correcting the slight I noticed. I sincerely hope this means those horrific nightmares will become a thing of the past. There had better be some payout from this, right?

As I sit here tonight, a catchy Talking Heads song keeps playing in my brain…”Watch out, you might get what you’re after.”

The Best Brother In The World

Two peas in a pod

So this morning we had an actual face-to-face meeting with the school psychologist who did the testing on our youngest to determine if he has a learning disability. As she mentioned in her earlier phone conversation with me, her test results point to Luke having markers for dyslexia. Her report suggests Luke begin intensive tutoring with a dyslexia specialist, which he will start tomorrow. Two days a week for an hour he will be participating in remedial reading lessons. These will either help him fill in the gaps in his reading skills, which will prove he’s not dyslexic, or they help but not significantly, which will prove he is. In addition to this, she has also suggested that we have Luke tested for ADHD as she suspects he may have some of those issues as well.

I haven’t decided how I feel about this whole assessment. While I’m certainly not happy about either diagnosis, neither dyslexia nor ADHD are cancer or some other life-threatening condition. Things could most definitely be worse. Still, the thought of Luke struggling the way Joe struggles sucks. And, because of the joint issues of both boys, we may need to consider a different school for them. It’s a lot to take in. And, I suspect that I’m holding it together on the surface right now because I know it’s not about me. Having a mini-meltdown about the situation will not make Luke accept it with any greater ease. A mini-meltdown will not accomplish anything other than perhaps keeping me from needing a glass of wine and what kind of consolation is that?

As I’ve been working through all this in my brain, one positive thing did occur to me about it. Joe has, for three years now, felt bad that he is a stand-alone in this family in terms of needing extra support on things. That is no longer the case. Now, Luke will also have special needs that must be met. Joe has gone through tutoring and now Luke will endure the same. And, if Luke receives an ADHD diagnosis, whether or not we put him on medication, the two boys will have that in common as well. Joe will no longer feel like the odd man out.

This past summer, when Joe was taking a break from his medication, I had to have several conversations with Luke about how he needs to be patient with Joe because Joe struggles to do basic things Luke takes for granted. I told Luke that we all need to cut each other some slack. Today I had the occasion to have a long talk with Joe about Luke and his reading. I told him that he cannot make fun of Luke’s reading skills. I told him that we all have our issues, and reading is Luke’s. Joe is not allowed to ask Luke to read anything or to tease him when he gets something wrong. He’s not permitted to compare his reading skills to his brother’s skills. Reading will never be Luke’s strength, and the best thing we can do as his family is to reassure him that his difficulty with reading in no way diminishes his intelligence or makes us love him any less.

I am fortunate to have the boys I have. They adore each other. They always have. Luke has always stood up for Joe and Joe has always looked out for Luke. I know that although it’s a mixed blessing, having two boys with differences is still a blessing because they will better be able to understand and relate to each other. This is simply another thing they have in common, another thing that will draw them together. I may not be 100% certain about how I will be able to handle this new situation, but I have no doubt that my boys will be fine. They’re both bright. They’re both capable. And, they both have the best brother in the world.

Nobody Puts Joe In A Corner

Who stands in a corner voluntarily? Joe does.

I swear, I’d really like to believe my boys are exceptionally bright but sometimes they make me think I should set my expectations a wee bit lower. This evening I was sitting on the sofa helping Joe practice his words for his spelling test tomorrow. Spelling has never been an easy subject for Joe, but even as the words have increased in difficulty during his fifth grade year, he has been doing a bit better with spelling this year than he did last year. (Yes. I was, in fact, simultaneously knocking on wood and typing just then.) I’ve begun to see a light at the end of the tunnel, as if his hard work is paying off and things are finally starting to take root in his brain. He didn’t struggle at all with hemisphere and he breezed right through isthmus. He was even able to give me the correct spelling and a word-for-word definition for archipelago. Then, just when I was starting to get a bit cocky thinking that all the time and effort I’ve put into being a stay-at-home caregiver was at long last yielding measurable results, he said something that really confused me.

“Okay, Joe. Spell tributary.”

“Mom…wait. Wait. I have to tell you something first,” he pleaded.

All too familiar with his stall tactics, I pressed on.

“Spell tributary and then you can tell me,” I replied.

T-r-i-b-u-t-a-r-y,” he spit out. Then, as quick as lightning without a pause for breath in between his words he spewed forth, “Mom-today-I-stuck-my-nose-in-the-corner-of-the-dining-room-by-the-magnetic-board.”

He said it so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to catch half the words. Still, he was looking at me expectantly as if he’d just divulged the magic fix-it solution for the holes in the ozone layer.

“What?” was all I could muster. Well…that and a quizzical scrunching of my eyebrows.

“I-stuck-my-nose-in-the-corner-of-the-dining-room-by-the-magnetic-board,” he said again, slightly more slowly but still in a barely intelligible way.

“Okay,” I said with brows still furrowed, “that time I got corner and magnetic board. What corner?”

“UGH!” he was getting frustrated with my slow-uptake skills. “The corner in the dining room by the magnetic board.”

“Yeah? What about it?” I asked.

“Today, I stuck my nose in the corner of the dining room over by the magnetic board,” he repeated, trying very hard to be kind to his old and clearly mentally impaired mother.

“What? When did you do this?”

“When I was working on my math homework,” he replied.

Okay. This was starting to make some sense. It’s not unusual for any child to seek a break from his math homework. It’s even less surprising when your ADHD child becomes distracted from the process of long division.

“The next question, I guess, is WHY?” I asked, drawing out the end of that interrogative word hoping it would help him to understand how truly bizarre what he had just disclosed was.

“Because I’ve never done that before. I’ve never seen the house from that angle,” he replied with a tone that told me he was making perfect sense and I was an idiot not to understand it without explanation.

“Wow, Joe,” I said, trying my best not to look concerned about his mental faculties. “That’s an interesting reason to subject yourself to voluntary time in the corner.”

“I was curious,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Then, as quickly as the conversation started it was over. “What’s the next word?” he asked.

Later, I was retelling the story to hubby who had been out with his parents this evening. After laughing about it for a bit, we started thinking about how differently Joe views the world. We’ve never been able to enter into how his ADHD mind works. We continue to try, but without firsthand knowledge and experience, we’re befuddled. We began to wonder if perhaps Joe knows something we don’t about the world. Maybe there’s something we’re missing? Simultaneously, we went and stood in separate corners in the dining room to see for a moment the world through Joe’s filter.

“I’ve never done this before,” Steve said.

“Me either. Ten years in this house and I’ve never once had my nose in a corner,” I replied.

“Does your nose touch the actual corner of the wall?” Steve inquired from the other corner of the dining room.

“Well, the magnetic board is blocking me at my height, but if I scrunch down a bit let’s see. Yep. Yes it does. It fits right into the corner,” I told him.

“Huh,” he said.

“Why? Does yours?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Who knew?”

Now, you could think we’re a little nutty for sticking our noses into the corner the way our son did, but after 11 years of grasping at straws trying to find a passage into Joe’s ADHD brain we will try anything. We desperately want to understand him better. Any hints at all would be welcome. The funny thing is that I started out thinking my son was crazy for choosing to stick his nose into the corner of the dining room, but the more I thought about it the better I felt about it. While most people take things for granted, Joe investigates. He theorizes. He experiments. He doesn’t accept things at face value. He is deeply curious, and there are far worse things you can be in this world. So, I take it back. I am totally okay if my son, by conventional standards, doesn’t appear to be exceptionally bright. If some people choose to think he’s exceptionally weird, that’s okay by me too. The bottom line is that he’s exceptional, and that’s pretty freaking fantastic.



Never Too Late To Turn Around

Me and my Joe 8 years ago

This morning in the car, my oldest son and I were discussing a potential switch of schools for him next year. If he were in public school, he would already be switching schools next year as he heads into middle school. As it is now, though, he goes to a private, K-8 school. His father and I have been wondering lately, though, if he would be better off in a public charter school where he would have access to special ed teachers and where he would have an IEP in place that would help him have greater success in his studies. His current school has very high academic standards and, while they do make accommodations for him, it’s recently occurred to us that we’re asking our ADHD son to work at a level that is a challenge for children with normal cognitive function. While we never wanted Joe to think he could use his ADHD as an excuse not to strive for the highest end, we also never wanted to set him up for failure either. Joe is a bit tentative about switching schools because of the big change it will be. So, we’ve been talking about it as a family, trying to make the right decision. Today, though, our discussion lingered the entire course of the ride to school.

When we got there, Joe remembered he was supposed to be using that time to review for a test he has today. In his 5th grade class this week, they’ve been asked to memorize the names of all 66 books of the Bible and to know the correct spellings for these books. I can’t stress enough what a Herculean task this is for Joe. The memorization part is work but not impossible, but his spelling is not strong. Asking him to spell 66 names that many adults could not tackle (Habakkuk is not exactly a household word) seems a bit much for 10 and 11 year old children. But, this was his task this week for Bible and spelling.

“I was supposed to be studying this,” he said when we got there, pointing to a bookmark he’d been using to review the names and spellings.

“Well, take it with you,” I said. “Maybe you’ll have some time to review a bit before the test.”

“I won’t have time,” he said, tossing the bookmark onto the back seat. I picked it up and handed it back to him.

“Take it,” I insisted.

“I won’t have time,” he insisted back.

“Take it!” I said, becoming increasingly annoyed.

“I’ll just leave it here,” he said as he tucked it into a car door pocket and began to close the door.

Then, before I could stop myself, in my total annoyance I uttered these words:

“Well, fine. Now I’m mad at you.”

He looked at me and closed the door. At that moment, I wanted to staple my mouth shut. What the hell is wrong with you? I watched him walk off toward his best buddy. I pulled away. I got as far as the right turn lane at the end of the school driveway before the tears came. How could I do that to my sensitive and sweet boy? How could I let him go into school with the words “I”m mad at you” repeating in his head all day? What kind of a creep does that? I was sick to my stomach. How could I leave things that way with my beautiful son who means everything to me?

I pulled out of the lot, made a u-turn at the first available spot, and headed back to the school. A minute after I had left I was back in the lot. I parked my car and approached him and his friends. Having your mom approach you when you’re in 5th grade is highly embarrassing, so he walked closer to meet me away from his friends. He looked nervous and sad. I pulled him to me by his shoulders and leaned in so that my forehead was resting on his.

“I am so sorry, sweetie. I’m not really mad at you. I don’t want you to think that. I love  you,” I said.

He looked into my eyes, muttered a quick “I love you too,” and I let him run back to his friends before the horror of having a personal moment with his mom in front of God and the world sunk in.

As I walked back to the car, I felt a bit better, not in a great mom kind of way but at least I was no longer miserable. I mean, a great mom would have kept her patience and held her tongue, right? I’m not exactly gifted in that area. I’m a passionate and excitable person. I get frustrated and have a tendency to run off at the mouth even as I know what I’m saying is absolute crap. One thing I am getting better at all the time, though, is apologizing for my temporary insanity. If I know I am wrong, I can admit it. I might not admit it immediately, but I will admit it as soon as I’m able to recognize it. Luckily, my skill at recognizing my idiotic behavior is improving all the time. (Probably because I give myself ample practice.)

When I got home, I saw this quote by Doe Zantamata on Facebook as if it were a sign: “It’s never too late to turn it all around. Be honest with yourself and others. If anything you’re doing in life  is not what you should be doing…stop. Life is way too short to continue in the wrong direction, but the longer that you do, the less time you will have to travel in the right direction.” This morning I could have driven off and left things the way they were with my son, but I didn’t. I turned the car around and tried to make it right. Am I disappointed in myself for not shutting my yap in the first place? Absolutely. But, I’m so, so glad that instead of continuing in the wrong direction, I made a u-turn this morning. It’s not everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.

There Are Worse Things

I have this little game I play with myself when things aren’t going as I had hoped. I force perspective on myself. I try to take myself out of my sadness, disappointment, and frustration by imagining something worse than what I am going through. For example, say I’ve got a bad cold and I’m feeling particularly whiny about it. I will take a minute to think about how much worse things could be. I could be stricken with a life threatening illness or dying of starvation somewhere. But, I’m not. It’s just a cold. I will be fine. Somehow, thinking of the worst makes the actual seem not so bad by comparison.

For the past three weeks, we’ve had our youngest son spending his Saturday mornings with a school psychologist doing some testing for a possible learning disability. Luke’s reading and spelling have gone downhill in the past year. Things we swore he knew are suddenly missing from his brain. Having gone through similar issues with our other son, we were quick to jump on it this time around. After six hours of testing and several question and answer sessions with the psychologist, we received some news this afternoon. She noticed that Luke has gaps in his early reading skills. She suggested he needs intensive tutoring to fill in these gaps. If the tutoring doesn’t work, he may be dyslexic. She also thinks he might have ADHD like his brother. She can’t make that diagnosis, but it will be mentioned in her report.

It’s not what I hoped, but it’s not the worst I could have found out. For weeks I’ve been anxious about what she would tell us. I tried to prepare myself for whatever she could say. I have to admit that when Luke started struggling in school like Joe did, I cried a bit. I imagined going through with him what I already go through with Joe. I thought that there was no way I would be able to deal with another child with learning issues. I already work so hard to help the one. How would I find the time, the patience, the energy, and the strength to do it with another child? The thought stressed me out. Luke was supposed to be my easy child. I didn’t want this. I wasn’t sure I could handle it. Then, I thought about all the worse things that could be. I thought that they could have been born with greater defects than learning issues. They could be ill. Worse yet, they could not be here with us at all.

It won’t be easy helping two of them through whatever they face, but no one said parenting would be easy. So tonight, instead of being depressed about the outcome of the tests, I’m just grateful that I have such wonderful boys. They’re bright, funny, sensitive, and sweet. They’re going to struggle in school. So what? We’ll do our best to help them through it. They may never make honor roll or become class valedictorian. It doesn’t matter. We’ll just stick together and do our best. The rest will work itself out with time.