Disappointed!

Clone Troopers have seized control of the White House again!
Clone Troopers have seized control of the White House again! This is what happens when someone cancels Homework Club.

Three afternoons a week, our sons have been attending Homework Club at their school. They don’t normally have homework over the weekends, which means that only one night a week have we had to step in and help them with their school work. Given the years of frustration and discord during homework time because we’re not able to teach our kids the way they need to learn, Homework Club has been a family miracle. Like parting-of-the-Red-Sea level of miracle. It has restored peace in our home, given the boys a chance to get help from people who understand what they need, and delayed the final and irrevocable departure of my sanity.

Then, tonight, I got an email that rocked my world. The State of Colorado has decided that Homework Club falls into the classification of school age after school care and, as such, requires a license. Seriously? Some overzealous person is looking to increase revenue for the State of Colorado, apparently. Anyway, the email states that Homework Club, along with Art Club, Lego Club, Chess Club, Choir, etc., are cancelled until further notice while the school jumps through state-mandated hoops to acquire the necessary piece of paper allowing them to continue the programs they’ve been operating successfully for decades. I read the email a couple of times trying to decide how to feel about it. My brain finally settled on the scene from A Fish Called Wanda when Otto opens the safe to find it empty. Disappointed! Bureaucracy tests my patience. And bureaucracy really aggravates me when it cuts my kids’ school day short by an hour thereby cutting my peace and quiet short by an hour. And, as disappointed as I was, I knew the boys would be worse. They choose Homework Club. I daily give them the option, and they’d rather spend an extra hour at school than deal with my help. No lie.

I steeled myself for delivering the bad news. Honestly, I expected a full-tilt, murder-of-Archduke-Franz-Ferdinand revolt once they discovered they’d have to go back to doing homework with me rather than their teachers. We used to spend hours doing homework together, and they have post traumatic stress disorder from those days when most of us would end up either yelling or crying each evening during the process. I tried to assess the best way to minimize the damage. I decided that I would approach it as if it were no big deal. My experience has been that the greater reaction they see from me, the greater the panic that ensues. When I am calm and deliberate, they tend to handle bad news much better. Lead by example, right? I took a deep breath and went to the basement to interrupt their Lego play.

“I’ve got some potentially bad news, guys,” I said evenly.

“What?” Luke asked.

“Did someone die?” Joe inquired.

“Nothing like that. The school is cancelling Homework Club for a while. I guess you’re going to be stuck doing homework with me,” I said with utmost nonchalance. “They are having to get a special license from the state. They’re working on it.”

“That’s going to really mess things up for some people,” Joe noted. “Some kids’ parents can’t come get them until 5 because of work.”

“I know. It’s a bummer.”

“Man,” Luke sighed. “And I just got into Art Club too.”

“It happens. The school is committed to getting things back up and running as quickly as possible. I’m sure you’ll get to finish your project soon.”

“Okay,” Luke replied.

“Hey Luke,” Joe started, “want to play Skylanders?”

And just like that it was over. Potentially catastrophic nuclear meltdown avoided. Sometimes the simplest solutions really are the best. Now I just have to convince myself that I’m prepared for our own personal homework club again. I too have PTSD about our previous homework experiences. I’m not gonna lie. It was rough. Thinking I might just have to pretend that 3:30 is the new 5 o’clock until Homework Club is back on our docket. I hope the state gets its stuff together before I become a permanent day drinker.

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.

Get The Rubber Room Ready For Me!

You’re never too old for the carousel.

I’ve lost my mind. It’s official. Prepare the rubber room. Put some extra fabric softener in when you wash my straightjacket. I’m ready to be institutionalized. It finally happened. Traditionally, the day before school starts has been the one day of the year I was guaranteed to be in a good mood. But, today, I was mopey. We went to the zoo to check our last to-do off our summer to-do list. I was depressed the entire time. Even the elephants couldn’t cheer me up, and they are my favorite zoo animal. That’s when I knew things were bad. Then it hit me. I’m actually sad that the summer is over and that the little buggers (who, incidentally, have been driving me crazy for the past two weeks with their non-stop bickering) are leaving me. Sniff.

No more sleeping in. No more schedule-less days. No more field trips. No more late nights. No more days at the pool. I’m back to volunteering, making lunches, chauffeuring, and early mornings. And, while all that is fine and good and part of my career as Mom, right now I’m sad because I am going to miss my little monkeys. The house is going to seem quiet. I’m not going to have anyone nearby with whom to share my flippant remarks, which means I’m going to be talking to myself a lot again. I never thought I’d see the day when the thought of a tranquil, silent house would vex my introverted soul. A mere couple weeks ago I was dancing in the back-to-school aisle at Target. Yet, today I’m mourning the end of summer and the loss of precious time with my awesome sons. I’m not sure what’s happening to me. Curiouser and curiouser.

I suppose that if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the years as they’ve been growing older have been flying by at an ever increasing speed. That means that next summer should be here before I know it. Funny how time and the speed at which she travels is both a blessing and a curse.