Saturday, January 24, 2015

Apple and Tree

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am an outspoken supporter for autism awareness. Since The Boy’s diagnosis in 2010, I’ve worked tirelessly as an advocate and as an aspiring special ed teacher myself to bring empathy and acceptance to children like mine.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I learned that people have been fondly, lovingly, with the best of intentions I’m sure, theorizing behind my back that I am on the autism spectrum myself. A friend of mine told me about it, expecting I’d find it as hilarious as he did. And for a moment, I did. But when I opened my mouth to laugh, all I could do was cry. I mean, literally. I sat there and cried.

My friend was mortified, of course, and apologized sincerely with an outpouring of support and love, saying all the right things. I accepted the apology and had to admit, I was as surprised as he was by my reaction. Haven’t I been saying “We’re here, we’re weird, get used to it!” all along? Haven’t I acknowledged that The Boy is not the only one in our wonderfully wacky little nuclear family who has all these delightful quirks and challenges?

And, okay, you know. Maybe I am on the spectrum. I can’t deny that I have some of the notable quirks. I’ve openly admitted that my social skills were appalling well into young adulthood and still kind of are. I suspect that I had what we now know as selective mutism when I was young, although the adults just thought I was extraordinarily well behaved. My classmates hated me for it, though. Endless harassment. I couldn’t understand what their big problem was. Why would I talk just for the sake of talking? What would I say and to whom would I say it? Highly illogical, the whole business.

So, yeah. I was a big weirdo, which frequently annoyed the hell out of my mother and embarrassed the hell out of one of my sisters. I was pretty universally teased and bullied all the way into high school until about 10th grade, when I guess everyone found more fun things to do. I gradually managed to crawl my way out of it, finding theater, writing, music, crushes on boys, and dreams of one day moving far the fuck away from all this and never turning back. I grew up, I put it behind me, found my tribe, and moved on. The end.

Well, no. Not the end at all.

I was about one year into parenthood when I found myself rather a misunderstood outsider again, this time because of The Boy’s challenging behavior instead of my own. I think one of the reasons I fought so hard for him was an unconscious raging against the way I had been marginalized myself as a child. There was nothing wrong with HIM, and there was NOTHING. EVER. THE FUCK. WRONG. WITH ME.

I had research on my side this time, and everything I was learning in parent ed classes, and the excellent work of disabilities rights activists who’d come before me as well as my contemporaries who fight more bravely and outspokenly than I have. We’ve made a fair amount of progress in the five years since receiving the diagnosis.

But even now, even as I’m building a stronger and stronger base of knowledge and skills at one of the best graduate schools in the country, we struggle just like anybody else struggles. There are always going to be adults who take his autistic behaviors at face value and find him offensive and ill-intentioned. The fact that he’s growing into rather a smart-ass isn’t helping any. But at least he has more fight in him than I did. I’m so proud of him. I’m proud of both of us, quirks and all.

So why did I cry?

I guess it was the shock of still, STILL being held to a mainstream standard after all the progress I’ve made. I may feel comfortable and happy in my own skin now, but I’m never going to outrun that little weird girl that nobody liked. And even though people have learned to appreciate me for my novelty-act appeal, they still basically identify me as “other,” even if it is with love.

It hurts because of all the baggage attached to it. I love being different, but I didn’t always. Being different caused me more than pain. It caused me to grow up simply, stoically believing that there was something fundamentally wrong with me; that I was “less than,” unworthy, and incapable. I wasn’t trying to be different. I simply was. I simply am. This is the only way of being I’ve ever known. I can’t…not be this way. I don’t even want to not be this way.  

So, now what? Soldier on, I guess, secure in the knowledge that at least most people like me for my weirdness now instead of hating me for it. I suppose I could pursue an official diagnosis, but to what end? Having a label to put on it would have been useful when I needed social skills and executive functioning support as a child. But I doubt it would make much difference in my life now, other than providing me with a different sort of soapbox.

Which leaves me pretty much where I was before I was aware of any of this. We’re here, we’re weird, get used to it.




Thursday, January 1, 2015

Welcome to the Year


“Welcome to the year your baby will be born!” said the prenatal yoga instructor one brilliantly sunny January morning eleven years ago. All around the classroom we gasped or laughed nervously, teared up in grateful disbelief or smiled blissfully, simply knowing it to be true.

Never mind those resolutions about eating healthier and being more goal-oriented at work. Such a major turning point was waiting for us by year’s end, there was barely any point in resolving to change. Change was coming for us, resolutions or no.

I’m hard pressed to think of another new year where such definitive change awaited at the end of it. Well, except perhaps this one.

I have an awful lot of feelings about finally embarking toward a career I love at age 45, many of which involve shame and embarrassment. What took me so long? What was I doing with myself all those years? All that education, all those accomplishments, and here I am a 45-year-old student teacher? Don’t look at me.

There’s pride and gratitude too, of course, at having finally found a meaningful path that flows so earnestly with my true skill set and passions. And I’m very good at it. I just am. I’ve never in my entire life had such strong, simple conviction of my own self-worth. It is an amazing feeling to have after all these years, and better late than never.

And…there’s fear. Once I’ve earned my M.Ed. and endorsement at the end of the summer, the goal is to find a job as a special ed teacher. And then…well…I’ll be The Special Ed Teacher. Not only that, I’ll be The NEW Special Ed Teacher. Everybody loves The New Special Ed Teacher, right?

Yikes.



As a special ed parent myself, I know frighteningly well how much responsibility is going to rest on those shoulders. The special ed teacher can make or break an entire school year. The special ed teacher can make or break an entire child. There are immense and terrifying expectations in front of you. If you’re lucky, there is support. But it’s just as likely you’ll find yourself surrounded by a school community that waits anxiously at the sidelines, hoping you will be magic but worrying or maybe even cynically expecting that you will crash and burn instead.

One of my instructors last quarter, a Ph.D. student who got a very early start in her special ed career, was surprised to hear that I find this degree of responsibility daunting. “I guess I was lucky in some ways, being that young and na├»ve when I first started,” she said. “I just went in and WAS the teacher. I was the leader. I set that tone, and everything just sort of fell into place. I had no idea at the time how arrogant that probably seemed, but I did it and it worked.”

Can I do that? Can I brazenly walk into a school with the hopeful/cynical/resentful eyes of teachers, parents, administrators and aides on me and just…be the teacher? Would it work? I’ve seen new teachers get their asses handed to them, confident and skilled or not. I want to believe that somehow I’ll be able to avoid the typical pitfalls with my special ed teacher superpowers. But it’s not an easy world I’m venturing into.

Yesterday, for example, a car and a bike collided on my street. The driver was hysterical and furious...with ME, because she'd seen me starting to back out of my long driveway and had slammed on her brakes for that reason (even though I wasn't in the street and had, in fact, stopped backing out to check the road and was never in any danger of hitting her). The cyclist collided into the back of her car because he couldn't stop in time. He wasn’t hurt. But this driver came up to my car, banged on the window and scolded me so relentlessly that I believed for one terrible moment that I was the one who'd collided with the bike.

Somehow, in the face of that accusatory scolding, I was able to be entirely calm and treat her with kindness and sincerity. Everything got resolved nicely. The driver warmed up and stopped trying to fight with me as she realized there was no fight to be had. The cyclist enjoyed regaling us all with stories about the collisions and near misses he's had. I overheard the driver talking to her insurance company and gradually realizing, as she told her story, that it wasn’t actually my fault. And when the police officer finally arrived on the scene, he was as kind and reassuring to me as if he was my dad or my coach or something. All's well that ends well.

But the whole experience left me feeling shaken, a little angry, and afraid. There are people out there just READY to be that angry at me, READY to blame me for a terrible thing that I truly, truly didn't do. And here I am, poised to assume the role of The New Special Ed Teacher.

There's a certain parallel there that's striking. People blame teachers in much the same way that people blame the other driver in a collision. And whether we're right or wrong, it really doesn't matter very much. People see a teacher and they see...what? A lazy union member who needs to be held accountable? A cruel standardized-test-giving Common Core lackey? Every bad teacher they or their children ever had?

I don’t blame them for their mistrust. As teachers, we do hold a tremendous amount of power. We have the power to define our students, almost. Each one brings a wide spectrum of strengths and challenges to the table. What are we able to see in them? Which parts are we able to bring out and which parts do we inadvertently inhibit? What will we notice and what will we completely miss about them? And what will we report back to their parents?



I’ve had teachers tell me wonderful, glowing things about The Boy and I’ve had teachers regard him as if he were the second coming of Voldemort. At a recent IEP meeting with The Boy in attendance, I cheerfully asked the team to share something they love about working with him…and was met with a long, awkward silence. It’s not that they dislike him, exactly. I think the IEP process, and school in general, has just become so deficit-focused that it barely occurs to anyone to remember that there actually are positive things to say about the students.

Practically every teacher I’ve ever met – and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve done this myself sometimes – labors under the delusion and the extreme frustration that the parents somehow don’t see what we see or don’t take it as seriously as we believe they should. We’ve all, at some point, bought into the misguided notion that somehow the parents don’t know or don’t care (or REFUSE to know and REFUSE to care). And so, with the best of intentions, I’m sure, we special ed parents often find ourselves on the rather unpleasant receiving end of a well-meaning “wake up call” from the school.

I said this years ago, and I’ll say it again:

[I]nstead of assuming the parents don’t know or don’t care, consider the possibility that we do know and care; that the misbehavior breaks our hearts; that we do everything we can to help our kids learn to function within the parameters of “normal” but it doesn’t happen overnight; that we can barely take a step without weighing the implications. This tends to drain our energy for faking shock and remorse over our children’s every autistic move in public. But for Zod’s sake, it doesn’t mean we don’t care.

So, yeah. I get it. I get why parents who’ve been subjected to these misunderstandings and assumptions of bad parenting year after year are going to be a little prickly when The New Special Ed Teacher comes along.

I want so deeply to be worthy of this task. I believe that I am. But I also understand that even with all our skills and passion; even with our resolve to be Jaime Escalante Meets Anne Sullivan Meets Mr. Kotter, no one gets it right 100% of the time. There are so many variables, so many contexts and unknowns and unavoidable learning curves. All I can resolve at this point is to bring my absolute best to the job, and to ebb and flow with the challenges with a loving and fearless heart.

Things will go wrong. Things will go right. I will bend and change and learn and get better and stronger every year.

Just like I have as a mother. Could I have known, all those years ago in that sunny little prenatal yoga class, all the ups and downs of the road ahead? No, I could not. Did I pretty much kick its ass anyway? Yes. Yes I did. And this year, I resolve to do it again.

 Welcome to the year.



Sunday, August 24, 2014

Leap of Faith

“You were always so good about remembering to bring snacks,” my friend says fondly. We’ve been sitting by the lake while our kids swim, reminiscing about the earliest days when our boys were toddlers together.

She’s right, of course. I used to bring snacks like it was my freaking religion. Fresh ground almond butter sandwiches on whole grain bread. Tillamook cheese. Raisins. Dates. Anything to keep his mood even. He could be so busy and happy for hours upon hours on our outings. But once he’d cross over into the disequilibrium of hunger, frustration, or disappointment…look out.   

And I realized as I was answering her: “That’s because for the first six years of his life I didn’t know he had Aspergers. I didn’t know what to do. So I brought snacks.”

And we laughed. Ain’t it the truth. I brought snacks. I took parenting classes and read books. I met with teachers and used expertly extended metaphors to try and explain what I thought I understood.

These days, thankfully, I have a much clearer idea of what to do. And I don’t have to do it alone anymore. But the truth is, there’s still so much I don’t understand.

A new school year is about to begin. His final year in elementary school, in fact. Just to make things extra fun, we’ve got an almost entirely new IEP team – new principal, new case manager, new teachers. There’s also a new academic model of “mini middle school” and the absence of his best friend, who starts middle school for real this year.

I have no idea what to expect. To be honest, I don’t really know what to hope for or even what to worry about. We have a back-to-school team meeting coming up and I feel almost embarrassed to show my face at it.  

What am I trying to do here, exactly? Get them to like him? Get them to like me? Get them to somehow promise me that they won’t feel the very human and natural frustration they surely will feel when he paces in their classrooms and interrupts them with semantic corrections and cries when he’s supposed to be writing and refuses to partake of any of the accommodations in his IEP?

Sigh and sigh again.

I can only imagine how I must look to them. An anxious, well-meaning parent who’s worried about all the wrong things, hyper-focused here and completely clueless there, striving to control the uncontrollable. In the context of all the school’s students and families, all the heartbreaking challenges they face, my earnest and relatively privileged little attempts are going to seem so irrelevant.   

So they will reassuringly say “He’s fine, you’re fine, it will all be fine” right up until the moment when it isn’t. He’ll say something rude or storm out of the classroom or worse. And then they’ll want to talk.  

Even now, it’s so hard not to take it personally. Which I know is silly. Because I know that teachers don’t “like” and “dislike” students as simply as that, anyway. It’s our work. It’s our medium. You love all your work and all the students in general, but – yes – you’re not a robot, and sometimes you find it incredibly frustrating, too.

I’ve been there myself. Did I love it when a student took my Odwalla juice and dumped it all over my keyboard? Did I love getting bitten and punched? Did I love being called “stupid bitch” by 5-year-old boys? No, I did not. Who would love that?
 
But…did I love the students themselves?

Yes. No question. They were vibrant and curious and clever and incredibly resilient. They were funny as hell. And at the end of the day, as much as it sucked to work through their less-than-loveable behaviors, it always came down to looking at myself and what I could be doing better as the adult.

I know most teachers see it that way, too. Not all of them, sadly, but most. I have no reason to believe that The Boy’s new IEP team won’t be just as kind and supportive as his old team.

I used to approach these back-to-school meetings as a form of damage control. I’d try to lay everything out on the table and elicit some kind of reassurance back from the team that they would handle any and all future incidents with the empathy, skill, and style with which I would choose to handle them myself.

I recognize the futility in that now. As if a little meeting is going to somehow transform a group of individuals into the sort of dream team I’d envisioned for my kid. They are who they are, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. They have to understand and follow the IEP and BIP to the best of their abilities. But they don’t have to be me.

I understand that, in their own way, these people also want the best for my son. And while I am painfully aware that they couldn’t possibly love and understand him as well as I do…I can also accept that this is truly okay.

They are going to see other sides to him, find other ways in to him. They might uncover strengths I never knew he had. They are going to make mistakes, and we will deal with that as it happens. I don’t get it right 100% of the time either. I need to let them have their process (mistakes and all), just as I have mine, because that’s the only way their relationship with my son will feel authentic for them. That’s the only way they will truly learn and improve.

Do I actually have the patience and skill to pull this off? Well…do I have a choice?

So much of this business of parenting is a tremendous leap of faith. Faith in teachers, faith in systems, faith in the child himself. Will it be okay? Who the hell knows. My best guess is that it will be okay, except when it’s not. And when it’s not, I’ll be right there with him to slog through and figure it out, just as we always have.

We got this

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How to "Be There"


There’s a lot of well-intentioned “Be There” rhetoric floating around Facebook this morning in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. And while I agree with the overall message – surely it’s better to be there for a suicidal person than to not be there – I must admit that the oversimplification and (at times) implied shaming is getting under my skin a little. Like everything else you see on Facebook, there’s a lot more nuance to it than that.

So, yes, I feel the need to add my voice to the “be there” chorus. Yes, by all means BE THERE.   

Be there…with reasonable expectations. Know that you cannot single-handedly cure someone’s depression. Don’t get discouraged or frustrated with them when your mere presence doesn’t magically make them sunny.

Be there…with small, good things every day. It doesn’t have to be grandiose stay-up-all-night gestures all the time. Bring them a coffee. Invite them to a movie or a walk on the beach. Send them a link to funny cat videos.

Be there…and know that sometimes “Oh man, that really sucks!” is a more loving thing to say than “Cheer up! It’s not so bad!”

Be there…and understand that while you may have disappointed this person many times over the years, you did not make them depressed. This is not your fault. Depression doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.

Be there…as quiet or loud as they need you to be. Someone might really want to hear lots of advice and affirmations. Someone else might just need to vent and needs you to listen without judgment. And someone else might really just need a distraction. Not sure how to proceed? It’s okay to ask or offer a choice. “Do you want to talk about it or do you want help taking your mind off it? Do you want advice, or do you need me to just listen?”

Be there…if they actually want you there. It’s okay to give them space. Just check in and make sure that’s what they actually do want.

Be there…but recognize that someone else’s depression doesn’t necessarily trump your own. Take care of yourself, too. Even if you don’t suffer from depression yourself, it can be incredibly helpful to check in with your own therapist for advice and support.

Be there…to the extent that you are truly able. Understand that there are circumstances under which it’s just as heroic to call 911 or ask another friend or family member to step in.

Be there…on your own terms. It has to be said: You don’t owe anyone your body against your wishes. You can’t screw anyone back to health. All jokes aside, I’m willing to bet that getting laid has probably never stopped a suicidal person from committing suicide.   
 
Be there…ONLY if you feel safe. There’s a Facebook post making the rounds that says it all:

Many abusers (maybe most; the data isn't clear) threaten suicide at some point. A suicide threat is not a license to abuse someone and still make them stay, any more than it's a license not to pay a bill, or a license to get out of a lawsuit, or a license not to be prosecuted for a criminal offense, or anything like that.

Hell. To. The. YES. If you fear for your own safety, or if you’re just exhausted and broken from constant emotional and/or verbal abuse, you can leave. Call 911 if you’re worried he’s going to attempt suicide after you leave. Call mutual friends or family members and ask them to step in for you. An abuser’s depression does not trump your safety and well being. Under any circumstances. Ever.

And that’s my two cents on the whole “being there” thing. For some really helpful background info on depression, nothing says it better than Hyperbole and a Half’s excellent story from a few years back. Here, read it again.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dear Mr. President


I’m sure you hear “You are my hero” multiple times a day. But for me, speaking those words is something I never do. I usually pride myself on my arm’s length cynicism. Seeking a hero is not something I consciously do.

 But when I’m facing challenges as a special education professional, advocate, and parent – when I feel particularly frustrated or alone in my struggle – you are the one whose words and actions inspire me. From the moment I watched your speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I was absolutely swept away by something you probably take for granted. Simply: You are a thoughtful person. You see nuance. Rather than impose a black-and-white view on the world, you recognize and value every subtle shade of gray. I never expected or even hoped to see a President who could do that. You are an inspiration.

And that is why I’m so disappointed, Mr. President, in your administration’s approach to the one subject nearest and dearest to my heart.

Last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a “major shift” in federal oversight of special education. And while I was initially delighted to finally hear some acknowledgment of special education at all, I was heartbroken to hear the superficial, ineffective approach your administration has chosen.

The article I read claims your administration will “hold states accountable for demonstrating that [special ed] students are making progress.” It says “[s]tates that fall short could lose federal funding earmarked for special education.”

In other words, we’re going to address the very serious problems our special education students face with…more high-stakes standardized testing. I don't see how that addresses any of our issues in a meaningful way at all.  

It’s not a question of rigor. I know these children. I work with them every day. My own son receives special education services for autism. I can tell you – I can promise you – lack of academic rigor is not what’s failing these children.  

They face low expectations sometimes, yes. But more often and more devastatingly than that, they face unreasonable expectations. In the name of “rigor,” they are forced to comply with a system that wasn’t built with them in mind. In the name of “rigor,” they are denied empathic support that meets them where they are. In the name of “rigor,” they have fewer and fewer minutes in their day for playing outdoors, socializing with peers, or even eating lunch.

It’s not enough to simply impose standardized testing on a group of students and assume that those who score high are well-served and those who score low are not. My son is autistic, but he is also particularly skilled at taking standardized tests. He consistently gets high scores, regardless of how well he’s actually being taught. Many of my students, on the other hand, are extremely diligent and have overcome extraordinary hardships in their lives just to be able to sit in a classroom with their peers. Anyone who knows them can see that they’ve made incredible progress this year. Sadly, that progress is not always reflected on their standardized test scores. I’ve watched them struggle in front of the computers – not with the content, but with the mechanics of the computer itself. I’ve seen them misunderstand the semantics of the questions. In one extremely frustrating instance, I saw a girl struggle simply with the mechanics of filling in bubbles with her pencil.

This is not what learning looks like.

Learning is not black and white. There’s nothing “standard” about it, just like there is nothing “standard” about the children we teach. Yes, they all need to learn reading and math. But how each child gets there is an individual journey. We don’t need teachers who can herd them all blindly through the same hoops. We need teachers who are dynamic and absolutely in love with teaching who can find each student where they are, celebrate their strengths, honor their differences, and earn each child’s trust. Only then can real learning take place.

 How do we get there? By valuing the profession of teaching instead of denigrating it. By demanding that our teachers not only be intelligent, but thoughtful, flexible, creative, and kind (and by compensating them accordingly). We get there by seeing and valuing every shade of gray.

We can do this. You can do this. I’m asking, Mr. President, because I know you have the tools. Please bring your thoughtfulness and your ability to see nuance to the issues of public education and special education. Visit our schools. Play chess and four square with our students, join them in the cafeteria, let them tell you all about their favorite things. Give them a reading assessment. Watch them play and argue and forgive each other. Come to IEP and wraparound meetings. Come to staff meetings. Ride a school bus.

Take the time to truly understand the unique challenges and strengths we face. If anyone can do it, you can.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Slut

I’ve written about this before. I said it at the time, and I’ll say it again: Why do I feel like the minute I start making arguments in favor of birth control, we’ve already lost?

So, I’ll tell you what. Instead of a thousand words, here’s a picture. Check it out:


Do you recognize her? That’s me! Well, my ovaries, to be precise. It’s hard to make out the one on the left, of course, because it’s covered by that huge-ass bleeding cyst that’s practically swallowing the thing whole. I was 24, and this is what endometriosis looks like. This photo was taken during one of my surgeries.

Let me tell you, it felt every bit as bad as it looks. It felt like walking around with Moaning Myrtle inside me, seizing up in wails of pain at the slightest upset. For six months, I had to get hormone injections that imposed a fake menopause to inhibit its growth. I was painfully aware that endometriosis can cause infertility. Even after every trace had been surgically removed, there was a good chance it would grow right back.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my other piece, endometriosis is easily managed with good old-fashioned slut pills! And for the next seven or so years, that’s all I needed to stay healthy.

The story ends happily enough for me. My various health plans over the years covered birth control. Of course they did. I never felt the least bit rogue or slutty or even feminist for expecting nothing less. My health plans covered Ortho-Cyclen same as they covered allergy meds or antibiotics. Healthy sinuses, healthy ovaries…it was all the same. The endometriosis never came back, and I went on to have two little monsters of my own.


It’s this second little monster who’s very much on my mind these days. Endometriosis is hereditary. My mom had surgery for it when I was in college. My maternal grandmother likely had it too, although in those days they handled it with a friendly “out with the uterus!” approach. It’s pretty likely my Grrl is going to cross paths with endometriosis at some point in her future.

I always planned that I would encourage her to use birth control pills as soon as she and her doctor agree she is ready. Why have her suffer like I did with all that pain and wild moods from the hormone therapy and worry about future infertility? Who would want that for their daughter?

I don’t doubt that birth control pills will be accessible for her when she needs them. What concerns me is that all of a sudden it’s such a weighted choice. People are talking about birth control as if it’s the same thing as abortion. Which it just ISN’T, people, it isn’t. I mean, grab the reigns. How did we get to the point where this is even up for debate? And how did we get to the point where not wanting to be a raging endometrial cyst-monster somehow equates with being a slut? How did we get to the point where using birth control for any reason equates with being a slut?  

Well, okay then. Call me a slut. Call us all sluts.

But don’t think that name-calling is going to stop us. Because we are going to go right on taking care of our bodies and our futures with birth control however we see fit. Some of us are going to have sex before we’re married. Some of us are going to have sex long after we’re done making babies. Some of us are going to have sex and NEVER make a single baby! Not that any of this is anyone’s business. But by trying to restrict women’s access to birth control, they’ve kind of made it their business, haven’t they?

Well, as much as it’s hurt to have our complacency shaken up so much – as painful as it’s been to come face to face with a contempt for women so intense that they actually consider it a religious liberty to hold us down – we are going to fight back. Call us sluts all you want. But you can’t stop us. 


Saturday, May 3, 2014

School / Work


And you may find yourself…oh let’s say running across a crowded playground at dismissal time holding a giant box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts leftover from your class’s party. You’re running away from your lead teacher and your own class, running toward two 4th graders standing toe-to-toe about to get into another brawl. One of those 4th graders is your son. And you may ask yourself…how did I get here?

What can I say. Working at The Boy’s school seemed like such a good idea two years ago. I’d just spent seven years as a parent-teacher in my kids’ cooperative preschool. I’d spent The Boy’s entire elementary school career up until that point volunteering in his classrooms – during the pre-diagnosis years at his old school, at his current school with his 2nd grade classroom, and in that school’s K-1 inclusion classrooms. Pursuing a paid position at his elementary school just seemed like the next logical step.

It didn’t happen right away. I was passed up for three different openings at his school before I conceded that I’d be starting my new career as a substitute parapro instead. By October I’d found a long-term placement at a different school that was working out really well. The principal and lead teacher both made it clear that they wanted to hire me full-time just as soon as they got the go-ahead from the school district. But right before Thanksgiving, the school district gave that position to a displaced employee with loads more seniority than me. On what was suddenly and unexpectedly my last day on the job, I stood in the parking lot browsing through Subfinder on my phone and snapped up a one-day gig at my kids’ school. Nearly two years later, here I still am.

I don’t know what I was expecting – of the job or of myself. I just remember how incredibly joyful I felt during those first few weeks as a sub, working right next door to my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. I barely crossed paths with my own kids during my work day, but when we did it was an absolute delight. Little Grrl would stage whisper hello and wave wildly. The Boy would remain stoic and professional, but his eyes would light up with undeniable joy. When the school day was over, I’d put my 1:1 student on the bus and come back to our room where my own children would be waiting for me. I’d clean up and do paperwork while they did their homework. Then we’d all go home together, curl up in a pile on the couch, and watch Phineas & Ferb. It was perfect.

Meanwhile, I was doing so well at my sub assignment that when another full-time position became available at the school, they actually hired me. I felt like I’d won the damn lottery. And, honestly, I still do feel that way. But my goodness…what a long strange trip it’s been.

For the rest of The Boy’s 3rd grade year, I was assigned to the same special ed program from which he receives his pullout and inclusion services. And almost immediately, his up-until-then successful school year took a huge nose dive.

It might have been a coincidence. There were a lot of other new changes taking place right around my start date. Two special ed programs had recently merged into one classroom, increasing the caseload from 10 to 20 and bringing students with a broader range of age and disabilities into the same room.

Meanwhile, it was January and whatever honeymoon had been happening up until that point was clearly over. Each student’s challenges were increasing in some way –at home or in their general education classrooms or both – and this had an overall domino effect on each other and staff around them. As the students’ needs became more intense, our staff became spread increasingly thin. This made the general education classroom teachers feel more anxious and, in some cases, resentful of the challenges our special ed inclusion students presented. Which only fueled our students’ challenges even further.

So, yes, there was a lot going on that may have contributed to The Boy’s sudden dip in behavior. But perhaps seeing his mom in the hallway at school all the time was the tipping point.

Sometimes it was too much for me, too. On the one hand, seeing him around during the school day was an incredibly visceral reminder of why I came to this career in the first place. Seeing my own son struggling with the very things my students also struggled with helped me see the “mother’s son” in all of them. It drove me even harder to bring my best to them; to do for them what I would want for my own son.
It was incredibly hard to maintain a professional distance when my colleagues took an ineffective approach with him (even though I might have done the exact same thing in their shoes). I’d try and back off and let them have their process, just as I would want to be allowed to have my process. They were thoughtful, flexible people, I told myself. They’d get it right if given the room to get it right. Sometimes I was Zen enough to pull that attitude off. Sometimes…well, I tried, is all.

There were other sore spots too – pretty typical of any workplace, but harder to brush off when your own child is involved. There was the sullen, disgruntled lady who was openly looking for another job and had certain favorite students and colleagues. The Boy was not one of them. And neither was I. Then there was the cantankerous, chauvinistic older dude who asked me during my first week “Are you sure you want to do this? You’ll spend all day with special ed students and then you’ve got one of your own at home, one you’ll probably be taking care of for the rest of your life.” When things got challenging with The Boy, this man’s go-to was to call for me over the radio with an air of blame, regardless of whatever else I happened to be doing.

Worst of all, I got to see first hand how some of the classroom teachers really regard special education inclusion students and staff. I would be sitting right there at lunch trying to eat my little yogurt while this one lady would rant about how the EBD students were “a burden on society” and how my colleagues and I “don’t do anything.” And I had to sit through a staff meeting where more than one teacher insisted that special ed students are the only ones who run in the halls, and when typical peers do it it’s only because they’ve seen special ed students doing it and that’s where they got the idea.  I tell you, by springtime I was eating that yogurt all alone in my car.


The following year, I was transferred to a different special ed program in the same building with one of my favorite teachers, and I was having one of the best years of my life. Honestly, I cannot say enough good things about the experience. It was amazing.

And yet, despite the prevailing theory that The Boy’s challenges had been due to my presence in his special ed program, my transfer did not seem to make much of a difference. He continued to refuse to set foot in the pullout room and basically decided to exit his own IEP. After a brief back-to-school honeymoon period, the behavior challenges persisted.

Feeling slightly more empowered now that I wasn’t working directly under his case manager (why did that ever seem like a good idea in the first place?), I asked for another IEP meeting in the fall. We finally worked out some real solutions that have, for the most part, worked very well.

Plus, he has a classroom teacher who gets him. She’s a big neurodiversity advocate and genuinely delights in the quirks and cleverness of her autistic students. So, naturally, I have heard through the workplace grapevine that this teacher “accommodates him too much.” Whatever that means. Reminds me of the time a colleague at another school told me I have too much empathy.

Our old friend Teacher Tom said in a recent post:

Whenever I write or talk about treating children as if they are fully formed humans and not just incomplete adults, there are some who ask me about (or even accuse me of) “spoiling” the kids.

And he’s a well-established, widely respected preschool teacher. So imagine the professional response to someone like me – an earnest little neophyte on the lowest hierarchical rung of a huge public school institution and a mom, for Zod’s sake – when I suggest this point of view.

Something changes in their eyes. It’s like a closing of sorts; closing and reassigning me to a different category. I’m not sure which. An activist? A hysterical parent? One of “them”? Occasionally I sense resentment. But more often, I sense pity. These people have been at it a lot longer than me, and they have a very sobering perspective on what the cold world of public middle school and greater society’s attitude toward mental health issues will have to offer a child like my son. They’re only trying to help.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time these past two years sort of chasing my tail, trying to reconcile my ideals with the realities of my chosen career. I have no conclusions yet, but I do have a distinct sense that I’m learning…well…something. That this isn’t easy? That nothing is ever black and white? That even with the courage of your convictions, you’re going to end up needing to compromise sometimes and what is that going to look like? What do you even believe anymore and how are you going to get there?

And what about The Boy? Now that I’ve had an up-close-and-personal look behind the scenes at a public school special education program, do I still have enough faith in the system to keep him enrolled in it? And either way, do I really have a choice?



“What you don’t realize,” a good friend told me recently, “is that your son is going to be okay.”

And he went on to remind me of what I already know: that my son, like all children, is incredibly resilient and incredibly himself. These students…they’re just going to be what they’re going to be, what they’ve been all along. They will ultimately grow into adulthood in their own deliciously imperfect ways and succeed almost in spite of whatever happened to them in school. They’re on a trajectory. All we can possibly hope to do is help them more than we hinder them.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I only know that I will always fiercely support The Boy in my role as a parent with the enhanced knowledge I have from this job and from what I will hopefully learn in graduate school.  

And I will rest assured with the knowledge that, like my friend told me, he is going to be okay. In the end, he always rallies. He has good friends, intellectual curiosity, passionate interests, academic success, and an evolving sharp sense of humor. He has adults in his life who believe in him. He is fundamentally himself. He is on his path.

And I am on mine.
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