The Lost Boys And Girls

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

I have over the years written here about our sons and their struggles and triumphs with education. Joe was diagnosed with ADHD at 8, and then we discovered he also had some dyslexia-adjacent issues with math (dyscalculia) and writing (dysgraphia). When our youngest was 9, we learned he had severe dyslexia and needed immediate, intensive tutoring or placement at a specialized school to remediate these issues. It was hard to take in all this information as a parent. It was harder still to recognize and accept that our sons were atypical. They struggled to thrive in a traditional school setting. Whether we liked it or were comfortable with it or not, our sons needed something else.

To that end, we placed them in a special school for kids with learning disabilities. They started when they were in 4th and 6th grades, respectively, and they improved so much in this new paradigm that we moved them to a high school that allowed them to continue along this same pathway. Our recognizing and accepting our children as they were and where they were changed their trajectory entirely. We knew they needed help. We also knew we had no clue how to help them. So we found people who could.

Now, we were in the fortunate position to be able to afford a specialized education for them, and I recognize not everyone has the means we had to make a difference for them. Before we had them in private school, we used our insurance plan to get them occupational and speech therapy. After that, we tried private tutoring, but the overwhelm for them of trying to keep up in traditional school plus spend hours a week with a tutor was untenable. They were exhausted and frustrated with being “different.” So we looked for schools that would use school time for the catch-up help they needed. And, again, we were in the fortunate position to find not one, but two, such schools in our metropolitan area. These schools, with their student bodies comprised entirely of kids just like our boys, helped them see their own potential and proved to them that they weren’t anomalies. This made them feel capable and it taught them how they learned and how they could advocate for themselves to get what they needed in other settings as well.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how parents of younger children handled working at home and having their kids do school from home during the pandemic. I believe a lot of families have spent the past two years struggling with their children as they tried to learn and complete work at home rather than in the school settings they were accustomed to. I found a perspective piece in the Washington Post that seems to suggest as much. I assume some parents, when witnessing firsthand their students learning at home, may have realized for the first time that their child or children have difficulties learning that they were unaware of. While it is hard to determine the exact number of atypical learners because not everyone who struggles has been properly diagnosed, the statistics run somewhere between 10-20% of all individuals. Not every child is cut out for traditional education. Some need something different or, at the minimum, some extra attention. And not every child will go on to higher education. Some children will excel at trade schools or art schools or in local, associates degree programs. There are many paths through this life, but every child should be getting the help they need to get through their formative educational years. No child should be struggling because they have brain differences that make learning in the traditional paradigm less than optimal.

Our schools are struggling. I read just today that an estimated half of teachers are looking for an off-ramp from their teaching careers. Not only do we need to attract more people to the teaching profession and increase pay to retain the quality teachers we have today, we also need to bring in professionals to help the kids who are getting lost, be it due to learning disabilities, poverty issues, or social issues. We are failing our children. Every day I am grateful our sons were to be born into a family where they were able to get all the extra help they needed to grow, thrive, and move forward with their dreams. I wish other children had the same access to the type of schooling our sons received. We have so many issues in our country right now, but the children who have lost time in their education due to Covid, who might also be battling other issues outside their control, will still need to launch into their futures someday. I hope we find solutions for them or this latest generation might come to be known as the lost generation.

Drawing The Box To Think Outside Of

They’re notes about Ben Franklin, obviously.

Kids come home with school papers every single day. When the boys were in kindergarten, I tried to save everything. Every paper seemed too precious to toss. Each drawing was a work of art. Each handwritten page a portent of the amazing stories yet to be told. By the end of Joe’s kindergarten year, I had a stack higher than I could manage. I promised myself I would go through them, select no more than 5 (or maybe 10 or perhaps 20 at the most) and toss the rest because I knew I could not keep every one of them. I’m pragmatic. I understood that if I saved everything we would have to move in three years’ time. Now that they’re older, the pieces of schoolwork I save are even fewer. I’m more likely to save an honor roll award or an awesome watercolor than I am a piece of their graded work. I’ve somehow created categories in my head of which work is somehow more important and trumps another piece of paper for the valuable space in the Save box.

Yesterday as I was going through Luke’s school folder, I came across a piece of notebook paper with Luke’s writing on it. In addition to words, there were drawings. I looked at it briefly and acknowledged that they were notes, but I couldn’t tell what exactly they were about.

“What is this paper?” I inquired.

“Notes for my Ben Franklin test,” he answered.

“When is the test?”

“On Thursday.”

“Oh. So these are your notes so you can study for the test?” I clarified.

“Yes. But, I don’t need them. I know it all already,” he replied.

I didn’t doubt him. He has a fairly good memory because, as I’ve said, he’s a great listener. What he’s not great at, though, is taking notes. As I glanced over the paper, I realized I could not understand at least a full two-thirds of what he had written. Luke’s spelling and handwriting are horrific which, I am now learning, is caused by dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is to writing what dyslexia is to reading. So, in Luke’s bi-weekly tutoring sessions, he’s working on cursive letter formations. I didn’t understand it at first, why he was writing when he should be learning to read, but it’s all interconnected.

I have to admit that when I saw Luke’s notes yesterday, I cringed. Joe used to bring home papers like Luke is writing now. When Joe brought those papers home, I cried. I only cringed yesterday because I know it gets better. I’ve seen progress in Joe’s work. It’s been slow, but it’s perceptible if you look closely enough. So, I know someday Luke’s written work will get better too. Still, when you look at a paper like that with your third grader’s work and you register that it looks like something a first grader would do, it’s sobering.

I shared Luke’s paper with a friend when I was looking over it yesterday. She tried to assure me that her daughter’s paper wasn’t much better and that she believed that, as her daughter reported, the teacher talks so fast during the note-taking, review portion of the class that it’s hard to keep up and be neat. Good friend that she is, she tried to help me believe that Luke’s notes were probably not that far off the notes of other children in the class. I appreciated her trying to make me feel better, but I wasn’t convinced. Then, tonight, she texted me this:

“I looked at Luke’s paper again now that I know more about Ben Franklin. And, it was really smart of him to draw the pictures. He knew what they meant. The lighting rod, the fireman, etc.”

When I’d looked at Luke’s paper yesterday, I was seeing only the writing. I looked past the drawings because Luke is always drawing. He’s been very artistic for as long as I can remember. He’s done elaborate battle scenes where he attaches page after page of lined notebook paper to each other so that he creates a mural that stretches 15 feet long. Luke always sees the big picture. He draws it too. Heather was right. His notes were filled with drawings, but they weren’t doodles as I had originally thought with my overly critical, left-brained parental eye. They were part of the notes. There on the page were the kite and the lightning bolt, a candle to represent his working in his brother’s candle shop, and a fireman to denote his work as a volunteer firefighter. Luke doesn’t think in words. He thinks in pictures. He knew he would have difficulty reading his notes, so he drew pictures so he would not forget. It was quite clever, actually, because what could be more difficult than asking a dyslexic kid who also suffers from dysgraphia to read notes he took with his own hand? Is that some sort of a cruel joke? That’s more painful than eating salt and vinegar chips when you have a mouth sore.

I am continually amazed by the way my sons have creatively adapted themselves to fit into the traditional school model that caters not at all to children with learning differences and difficulties. For all the days when I’m sad because they struggle so much, there are days like today that fill me with pride and wonder at their ability to think outside the box and see the big picture. And, you’d better believe that Luke’s note page with its innumerable spelling errors and non-existent grammar is going into the Save box. That paper taught me more about my son than any test ever could. I have no reason to be concerned about Luke. He’s light years ahead of his old mother. Not only is he able to think outside the box, but he can draw it first.