learning disabilities

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.

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.

Queue George Michael’s 1990 Hit…FREEDOM!

Harry Flufferpants, Esq.

Harry Flufferpants, Esq.

One of the best things that has come from our sons’ beginning at a new school is the stress it’s taken out of my life. For years our boys were struggling to keep up in class, an issue that was never more obvious than when they would pull out their homework. Every night was a battle. Homework that, according to their teachers and reports from friends whose children were in the same class, should have taken no more than an hour or an hour and a half each night took our boys upwards of three hours. There was non-stop whining, pleading, bargaining, and crying, and that’s without even mentioning how hard the boys took it. Five evenings out of the week (because, let’s face it, the weekend’s homework was not worked on slowly over two days but was instead busted out in one heinous rush on Sunday night), there was no peace in our house. Math assignments, book reports, and spelling troubled me more than any other thing in my life, including midlife crisis and the amount of time I had to wait for the next season of Downton Abbey. Those days are gone.

In their place, we have creativity, laughter, and family time. Because the boys work so hard all day at school to overcome their learning disabilities and because the school understands that, our boys currently have a manageable hour’s worth of homework each night…with a little extra time needed when special projects are assigned. And as if the one hour limit didn’t provide me with enough solace, the school also offers a homework club each day after school. For a reasonable fee the boys can stay an hour after school and complete their work in a teacher-supervised classroom with other students. It’s pure genius. When I pick up my boys at 4 pm, they are finished for the evening. We are currently mulling over which outside activities they could do, like music lessons and tae kwon do, because they will at last have the time to partake. I’m giddy simply thinking about it. They are finally getting to experience what life has been like for their friends. I’m excited for them. It’s about time.

In the meantime, our boys have taken their extra time to try new things and exercise their imaginations. Joe has been discovering graphic novels (books with more pictures than words that are perfect for dyslexic kids…get your minds out of the gutter, people) and Luke has been engaged creating the Museum of Cute. He’s using his iPad to print out photos of cute things, like teacup-sized Pomeranian dogs and mini pigs wearing rain boots, and organizing a collection, which he plans to tour our families through in a few weeks on opening night. Tonight there was an explosion of cute when he brought me this picture of a tiny, white Pomeranian with a mustache. The photo is labeled, “My Lawyer, Harry Flufferpants, Esq.” I can’t make this stuff up.

I also can’t seem to get the chorus from George Michael’s 1990 hit Freedom out of my head. Normally, this would be a problem for me, but I’m so relaxed after my new nighttime ritual mug of chamomile tea that I can’t even find the residual daily angst to care. I think my zen just got a bit closer.

The Forest For The Trees

The beginning of a grand new chapter...

The beginning of a grand new chapter…

Back to school time in our house, like many other homes, is marked by stress, uncertainty, and readjustment. Aside from the usual tension surrounding school re-entry, I have had the burden of wondering how our children would fare during another traditional school year and how their new teachers would adapt to their different learning needs and my requests for special accommodations for them. Honestly, I never know what to expect, and traditionally it has taken me some seriously positive self-talk to get through the first two weeks of school. (Well, self-talk and wine. Who are we kidding?)

My heightened level of personal anxiety surrounding the advent of the school year began the day Joe started Junior Kindergarten. That day, I walked him into his classroom as I had done in previous years to ease the apprehension of my nervous boy. I’d enrolled him in as many years of preschool as possible because I knew he would benefit from extra adjustment time. He was five then and beginning his third classroom experience. I was cautiously optimistic that upon meeting his teacher he would smile his shy little smile but remain quiet and be the sweet, deep-thinking little fellow he was at home. Instead, when his teacher Mrs. Smith approached him to introduce herself, Joe dropped to all fours and began to bark. I am not kidding. He was on all fours. Barking. To compound an already embarrassing situation, Joe had speech issues and his “woofs” were not woofs at all but were actually “wooks.” There he was, crawling around the floor in front of the other kids, wooking. It was awkward at best. The other parents looked at me sideways with bemused pity. The teacher, smiling politely, asked me what he was doing. I had to tell her that apparently he was pretending to be a dog and barking his own introduction, something he had never done before. At that point, I turned 50 shades of red, kissed my puppy on the head, wished Mrs. Smith well, and walked out. I cried most of the way home. And thus began my less than stellar experience with back to school. Sigh.

This year my back to school stress was compounded by the fact that they were starting at a new school. There was a whole new list of variables for me. New teachers and school staff I had not yet met. New classrooms. New pick-up and drop-off routines. New parents to meet. New procedures to learn. It was all way too much newness for introverted me. I went bravely forward with it, though, because Havern is a school for children with learning disabilities. For nearly a half a century they have been offering hope to parents like me with kids like Joe and Luke. If any school could offer the breakthrough chance our dyslexic sons need to get on track with learning, to achieve the way in which they are capable, and to at last feel smart despite their differences, Havern was it.

On the first day of school, both boys seemed surprisingly calm. I walked them to their classrooms and introduced them to their teachers. There were no barking dog incidents, so I left feeling fairly optimistic. When pick up time arrived, I stood on the lawn waiting for them to be dismissed to my care, praying that the day had gone well for them and that they were indeed committed to this change in their education. Joe ran out first and confidently announced that he had the “best school day ever.” Luke quickly followed and told me that his new school was “epic.” (I have no doubt this pronouncement was impacted by the knowledge that the school has a Lego Club.) I almost asked the principal to verify that my boys had truly been in school all day. Perhaps she could pinch me because this could not possibly be my reality. It was surreal.

I have spent most of the past six years running the gamut of emotions, vacillating between denial, anger, depression, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and even bitterness about our sons’ developmental and learning issues. I’ve wondered why them and why me? I’ve felt lost, just as they have. Tonight, though, after attending Back to School night and talking with other parents and the boys’ teachers, after sitting in their classrooms and looking at their class schedules, I finally see the forest for the trees. Our boys are not broken, and they never have been. They just hadn’t found their place yet. Tonight my dreams for them came true. They’ve finally found a home.

Vomitoriums, Clone Troopers, And The Sahara…Welcome To My World

On Floreana Island in the Galapagos with the monkeys I'm not totally certain belong to me

On Floreana Island in the Galapagos last August with the monkeys I admit I’m not totally certain belong to me

Some days I wonder if the children I parent are even mine. They certainly resemble their father more than me and, if I hadn’t actually seen my belly shrink approximately the size of a child and then watched their wrinkled, newborn faces as they screamed their way toward the ritual of their first weigh-in (I scream every time I weigh in, so I understand), I might not have accepted this gig as their full-time, gainfully unemployed, tutor, chauffeur, cook, maid, and all-around-slave. I mean, it’s a thankless job and I know someone has to do it, but without even so much as similar eye color to go on, I have to wonder sometimes.

And, it is because I wonder that I so heartily appreciate it when the Universe provides me with proof that these spawn truly do belong to me. This evening we were driving home from dinner. The three of us were having a stimulating discussion, the kind we often have when we are trapped in a moving vehicle together. First, Joe attempted to educate me about the vomitoriums of ancient Rome, at which point I had to tell him that a) yes…I am old enough to have knowledge of such a thing but not old enough to have firsthand knowledge (thank you very much), and 2) no…it is not what you expect it is. Google it, my young apprentice. The conversation turned then to a discussion of the stop-motion animation video they planned to make when they got home and to which Luke had already assigned the pre-production, working title The Suite Life of Rex and Cody, after the Lego Clone Troopers he planned to turn into stars.

While the boys excitedly discussed Clone Trooper stage blocking directions, it began snowing. When it begins snowing at any point after the end of January, I begin cursing. Once the holidays are over, I see no point for the snow. I graciously allow winter a full-month to vacate once the holidays are in my rear view mirror, yet tonight winter was mocking me. It’s not the snow I hate as much as the cold and, glancing at my car’s thermometer, I registered it was a balmy 19 degrees outside. This, of course, caused me to interrupt their conversation with a pseudo-expletive.

“Cheese and rice!” I exclaimed mostly to myself. “I hate the cold. Have I ever told you that I hate the cold?”

“Yes,” they replied in unison with a bit too much annoyance.

“I like the cold,” Joe ventured. (Joe is the one who least looks like me. Did I mention that?)

“Really? You would rather it be 0 degrees than 100 degrees?” I responded.

“Yep,” he replied with confidence. Of course, this is the child who told me his dream vacation destinations include Antarctica and Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.

“What about you, Luke? Would you rather be hot or cold?” I queried.

Before Luke had the opportunity to answer, Joe and his impulse-assisted mouth burst back into the conversation to persuade Luke to his side.

“Luke….100 degrees is torrid. It’s a warm spring day in the Sahara,” he shared. (Joe pronounces Sahara as sah-har-ah rather than the more common US pronunciation suh-hair-uh. It’s positively British of him. He won points for that even though he was busily arguing against me. But, I digress.)

“Joe,” I asked, “did you just say torrid or did you say horrid?” I knew he knew the second word, but I’d never heard him utter the first.

Torrid,” he repeated as if my elevator didn’t reach the top floor. Then to make matters worse he added, “it means oppressively hot.”

“Gee…thanks for the explanation, Joe. Believe it or not, I am perfectly well aware of what that word means. Why don’t you spell it for me?” I asked.

“T-O-R-R-I-D,” he answered both quickly and flawlessly.

“Wow,” I said, duly impressed. “Good job, Joe.”

“I would rather it be 100 degrees,” Luke chimed in, perhaps fearing we’d forgotten about him. “I could always take my shirt off.”

“Keep your shirt on, Fabio,” I replied.

“Who’s Fabio?” Joe asked.

“Oh…never mind,” I said, disgusted and depressed that I had dated myself by decades.

The conversation returned to stop-motion videos while I wondered at my son’s new word. According to the most recent educational report we received about Joe and his learning disabilities, both his working memory (the ability, for example, to mentally add 26 + 54) and his processing speed (the amount of time it takes him to do such a math problem) are well beneath average for a child his age. These deficits make school quite difficult for Joe. The one bright spot the tests illuminated, however, was in Joe’s Oral Language skills. Turns out that as a 5th grader he currently has the language skills of a 9th grader. I smiled to myself at his use of the word torrid. The kid did inherit something from his ancient mother with the BA in English and the MS in Professional Writing. Genetics did not grant him my blue eyes or my freckled fair skin, but he did end up with my curiosity and a sturdy vocabulary. For a brief second, I spied something of myself in my son, something we had in common. Tonight, for a few seconds, I was 100% positive he was mine. And, while one could argue that the things I determined we had in common are more likely derived via nurture rather than nature, I don’t give a flying fig. I’ll take it.

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.