Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Drinking the Skool Aid

The worst part is, I knew better.

It’s written all over the notebook I brought with me on the kindergarten tour. I’d been skeptical when they trotted out the panel of meticulously multiracial 5th graders. I’d been embarrassed when the panel’s only white boy did all the talking, and rather amused by the touring parents who eagerly asked these 10-year-olds question after question. I sat out the excited murmuring when they mentioned 3rd grade Shakespeare plays and 8th grade homeless role-play “empathy building” activities. Even the gorgeous library rubbed me the wrong way.

I tried to explain it to Mr. Black afterwards, but he takes everything so damn literally. Gorgeous library, Shakespeare plays, great test scores. What’s not to like?

“You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “Everyone was so happy there. So self-satisfied. Like nothing could ever go wrong there.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s good if it works for you,” I said. “But what if it doesn’t? What if your kid is in the midst of all this feel-good Shakespearian high-test-score empathy building and he still has problems and doesn’t fit in? How do they treat people who aren’t happy?”

Back then I didn’t know The Boy had Aspergers. In fact, the first therapist who evaluated him assured me that he didn’t. I didn’t know he was academically gifted, either, although I had my suspicions. Mostly, I just knew we were having a truly horrendous final year of preschool. The teacher didn’t get him. Some of the other parents didn’t even like him. There were serious looks of concern when I’d mention he was headed for kindergarten in the fall.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That’s why I was so determined to send him to the Absolute 100% Best of All Possible Public Schools. Of course, none of the schools we toured fit that description. How could they? It’s like looking for Mr. Right. There’s no such thing. But I’d pinned all my hopes for The Boy on this notion of the Right School. I guess it stood to reason that, sooner or later, I’d have to start believing the hype.

I wasn’t expecting to get into that super-nice school with the Shakespearian 3rd graders. It’s hugely popular, open to the whole city by lottery alone. Everyone warned me not to get my hopes up. No one gets in.

Except…we got in.

I didn’t realize how much I’d wanted it until it was right there in front of me on the school assignment letter. I actually dropped the letter in shock. Everyone was amazed and delighted for us. Even our preschool friends who got into the coveted foreign language immersion school were impressed. You’d think the kid had won a full scholarship to Yale or something. But it felt so good to have people happy for us for a change. I felt vindicated, somehow.

And then…I kind of started to lose sight of reality. Somehow, I conflated all the praise and congratulations with The Boy’s actual state of well-being – which, let’s face it, hadn’t changed just because we’d lucked into a prestigious elementary school. But I couldn’t make myself slow down and see that.

There’s a lot to like about that school, for sure. It sits on a woodsy hillside overlooking Lake Union. The kindergarten was nurturing and fun. He sang in a coffee house holiday concert, performed in a shadow puppet show, participated in a salmon migration parade, sang in the chorus of a Shel Silverstein musical revue. He made good friends. He learned some sign language. He was happy and proud to be there.

But the tension was never very far below the surface. Poor little guy. It’s hard work to have Aspergers when none of the adults in your life know or understand. He didn’t need a gorgeous library or a salmon migration parade. He didn’t even need “empathy building.” He needed teachers and a staff who’d seen kids like him in action before and knew what the heck to do with it. Or, in school district lingo, he needed a “more intensive service model.” He was more than halfway through 1st grade before I finally figured that out.

Of course, these “service models” typically aren’t offered at the fancier, more prestigious public schools like Empathy Building Central, here. Coincidence? Are these schools considered “good” in the first place because there’s conveniently no room for kids like mine?

If you believe the rumors in the special ed community, a previous administration did all it could to keep special ed students out of this school. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but it would certainly go a long way toward explaining some of the cluelessness we’ve encountered there. Kind, well-intentioned cluelessness. How would you know what to do with Aspergers if you’ve never seen it in your classroom before?

Next year, he’ll attend a school that’s walking distance from our house. They have a special ed inclusion program that’s taught by an award-winning teacher. He might even be able to participate in gifted classes. If I hadn’t been so stuck on finding him the Best of All Possible Public Schools two years ago, we could have just sent him there in the first place. But our new school, for whatever reason, is not very highly regarded by parents. And again: coincidence? Is it considered “not good” because there is room for kids like mine?

Well, we’ll see. Meanwhile, at the risk of pouring myself a new flavor of Kool Aid, I have to admit that I’m pretty excited about the new school. The Boy’s excited about it, too. And yes, we know by now that there’s no such thing as the Right School. This isn’t going to fix anything. It’s part of the process, not a happy ending.

Although…gosh. After all we’ve been through, maybe for now I’d like to just imagine that it is.

1 comment:

Melissa Taylor said...

We have also been on quite a school journey - and the realizing that the parent reviews aren't always right - or right for everyone. Now that we've left the "popular" school it seems we've been booted from some of our social circles as well. Which, is kind of like having a child with special needs, you immediately get a sense of who can "tolerate" / accept others different from them. I'm trying to see these judgements as blessings since now I know who I want to be friends with and I won't waste my time with. Can't tolerate my kid who doesn't make eye contact? Good to know. See ya.
I hope next year is a lot better for your son!


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