“I am very concerned about your son’s academics”.
My 6-year-old’s teacher fiddled with her collar as she said it. I sat perched on the miniature wooden chair, in front of the miniature wooden table, my knees practically scrunched up to my neck, and surveyed the busy and colorful classroom. Cut-out leaves made of construction paper ran the length of the room on a string, the names of each student written in barely legible writing; the alphabet with, associated pictures, lined the chalkboard; A Chore Chart hung nearby: Line Leader. Door Holder. Snack Helper. My eyes landed on a stray book, “Red Lace, Yellow Lace”, a book about learning to tie shoes.
The word “academics” sounded conspicuously out-of-place.
My son goes to a wonderful school. I have enjoyed all of his teachers, have great relationships with anyone who has been involved in his learning, praise the administration for working so hard to right by my son, and have no doubt in my mind that everyone was always wanting to do what they thought best for him. It just gets tricky when what people think is best, differs radically.
Over the course of the next two school years, after that initial Parent-Teacher Conference, I would be bombarded with anxiety from people, urges for testing, meetings. I would find myself sitting at long conference tables while people shuffled around of papers baring words like “Quantitative Concepts”, “Passage Comprehension” and “Reliability”. There was such pressure and insistence and anxiety in “Doing Something” about my son’s “lag” in learning. At times, when I asked that nothing be done, but for us to wait and be patient and see how the year turns out, I was often met with startled, confused and befuddled looks. I might have even been deemed a Bad Mother to some. To most, it seemed clear that he had a learning disability, but to me, I saw a young boy who simply needed a bit more time. It felt like the boxes in which our children were to fit were getting smaller and smaller by the year, and I couldn’t think of a more promising deterrent from learning, than anxiety and pressure and force. Everything I felt was driving this ship.
My son fell into that age-bracket where we could have easily waited another full year before starting school. His birthday falls on the second week of August, which meant that upon starting Kindergarten he had been 5 a mere three weeks. I remember putting him on the bus for the first time with this nagging feeling that I should have kept him back just one more year, but everyone said he would be okay. I didn’t want to seem over-protective. I didn’t want to underestimate him. So, I ignored the nagging feeling.
As the years went on, in addition to the fact that boys tend to mature a bit later than girls, I was certain that this “lag” that everyone was so worried about had more to do with him being young for his class and needing more time to grow. Needing more patience from the adults around him. Needing to learn at his own pace. I remember the wonderful words of his Kindergarten teacher: He is exactly where he needs to be. I’ve held on to those words all of these years and reminded myself of that very thought when I felt myself waning.
I met with teachers, brought home supplies, put together small Learning Lessons at home, bought a dry erase board for the kitchen and did my best to help him try to learn the things with which he was struggling. I remember there being such worry that he couldn’t count to 100 by 2’s. He’d make it to 16 or so, but that’s it. I remember trying to make a game out of learning how to count by 2’s. I tried to show him the pattern to see if he could understand. Counting in the car and making songs out of it.
I remember him getting frustrated, feeling like he had failed, losing interest and just looking out the window after a while.
One evening, while he was at our kitchen counter trying to do his math homework, and as I was drying and putting away dishes from the dishwasher, Silas lowered his head down, dropped his pencil and said, “I’m so dumb”. I put down my dishcloth and went over to him, wrapped my arms around his sunken shoulders and tried to convince him that he was anything but dumb, but that everyone learned at a different pace. Of course, it didn’t matter what I said. He wasn’t understanding things that his classmates were, and that’s all he noticed. I would hear him say this periodically throughout the year and each and every time I heard it, I became more convinced that he needed more time.
The school year was coming to an end in just a few short months, and my husband and I needed to come to a final decision about what to do: Keep pushing him forward toward a future of endless testing and flashcards and meetings and urgency and anxiety and hearing “I’m so dumb”, or hold him back one more year and give him the extra time to grow and learn at his own pace while all of his classmates moved on.
One morning, at about 6:00, I was sitting in the living room couch reading and sipping my coffee before the mayhem of Getting Ready For School began. Silas came tip-toeing down the stairs, sleep still evident in his blue eyes. He crawled onto the couch next to me and laid his head on my lap. As I brushed away his hair slowly and asked him how he slept, he responded with, “Mom…..are there others of us, but in the future? Like, are there others of you and me, but we’re living in the future?”. I remember pausing, trying to reconcile that my 7-year-old son, who had just woken up, was asking me about the possibility of other planes of existence. How exactly does a 7-year-old even have such a thought?
No wonder he wasn’t able to count to 100 by 2’s. He was too busy wondering about Parallel Universes–the first of a many other impossible questions he would ask me during our alone time.
I love the way my son’s mind works. I could honestly care less if he is “reading at grade level” or able to count by 2’s at the exact age he is expected to. I don’t care if it takes him a while longer to string a series of letters together to form words than it does others. I guess I always knew that he would get there someday, it would just be at his own pace and not anyone else’s. So I didn’t worry, until others told me I should be.
What I do care about is the wonderful curiosity that drives him. At home, when he’s shown a keen interest in the sinking of the Titanic, or Bigfoot, I sit down and Google things with him and we watch videos on YouTube and we buy books and DVD’s and we watch Harry and The Henderson’s. I even sit through Finding Bigfoot with him, which is pure torture.
I appreciate the fact that his empathy is sometimes too much for him to bear, which may indirectly be my doing. That watching a poor elephant get his foot stuck in a pail on a cartoon might bring him to tears. That when a child in his classroom loses control emotionally, it almost traumatizes him and he sometimes tries to befriend them.
I cherish the fact that sometimes his thoughts and his questions are so profound, he doesn’t even know how to ask them, and I barely know how to answer them.
But alas, the way out world works, our children are ranked on regurgitation. Like cows lazily chewing their cud. And unfortunately, much of our children’s’ Self-Esteem hinges on doing “good” in school alongside their peers. I also know for a fact, that many of my son’s teachers cringe at this very concept themselves, but are forced into following protocol, much like the pupils they guide. Luckily, my son has had some amazing teachers who Get It and I also cherish and appreciate them.
By the end of the 2nd grade, I was left with two options: Keep pushing him forward down the crowded hallways of students toward things he wasn’t ready for, or hold him back and allow him the extra time he needed, as he watched the others move up. Would he really be a child “Left Behind”, or would he be Exactly Where He Needs To Be?