Today I met once again with the powers that be at my son’s school. I can’t tell you how many of these meetings we’ve been called to or requested, but somewhere in the vicinity of 7 in three years. They all blend together after awhile: a blur of words intended to give hope, promises and suggestions that haven’t worked or come to fruition, and a lot of people taking notes… that I assume get filed away. The paper trail of a broken system that has failed my child, and let us down—over and over again.
At this meeting, there were: all of his teachers— good educators who do care and come in with hopeful faces; the Principal, Assistant Principal, the school psychologist, my son’s guidance counselor, me and my son—looking wary and anxious. “I guess we’ll need more chairs,” says the Asst. Principal, who called this meeting. Weren’t we all expected to attend? Is it a surprise to see so many, around a table the requires squeezing close together? I notice that my son has taken a seat at the head of the table and for a brief second I think that maybe he has called upon some small reserve of self-esteem: this is about me; I’ll sit at the head. It is a bold move, with so many adults in the room and I quietly hope that he has done it consciously, with a bit of confidence regarding his own role in all of this. However, a teacher who is a good teacher, but does not believe this meeting is necessary, comes in and asks Little Man to move. I watch my boy slide around closer to me… and is it my imagination, or my mother’s heart, that sees his face drop just a little? More.
The Principal’s office looks out on a main courtyard where students rush to and from the places they need to get to. The blinds are wide open— no privacy here. I watch a few kids I know walk by and look at us all, seated around the conference table, and I know that my kid is cringing inside. They will all know. They will ask what I did wrong. They will wonder what’s wrong with me. I think the same things, wishing I could just go close the blinds and open this meeting to real dialogue. Get to the heart. My bleeding heart, that can not bear another meeting that ends in empty promises for my kid. The window remains open, and a friend walks by and waves.
The Assistant Principal runs the meeting, while the Principal- who does not usually attend, but has opted in this time- sits back a bit. I watch her face as the meeting gets underway. I like that she generally gets to the point and she hears what is said with fresh ears. Fresh to our situation at least— she has years of experience; those ears are not new on this block. We all hear the same old, same old: “Little Man, is such a good kid… all of his teachers love having him in class… He is one of the nicest kids we’ve ever met, and I mean that!… Everyone agrees that Little Man is a great kid… very smart…” His teachers all smile; some nod, and some try to encourage him across the table. Some of them have heard this too often, like us, and know that it is fluff. If his education was built on the number of times he or I has been told what a “nice” kid he is, or how smart he is, we wouldn’t be having meetings. The fact is: nice doesn’t help his grades and his intelligence isn’t being represented by those grades either.
He is a nice kid… unusually nice. He’s perceptive, funny, kind and compassionate. He is smart, very smart… but ADHD turns his thoughts into a swirl of ideas, intentions, efforts, that all spin and sputter and cough out a small fraction of what he can actually do. He is bored; he is frustrated; he is beaten down— by a system that is so broken that it really doesn’t know what to do to help him reach his true potential, or feel as successful and capable as he could and should be. It is a system that strains under the weight of the kids who are too smart for, the kids who struggle with, the kids who digest and move on easily through, and the kids who spin with inside- a curriculum that has been determined to be best. Best for which of those kids? Not mine. Not a friends. Not many of the teachers who are required to follow it. There is no real wiggle room for teachers, who want to be more creative, or challenging, or passionate. There is no wiggle room for kids who struggle (in whatever context that might be) without IEPs and 504s and Special Ed and HCL and a slew of other letters, attached to their names.
And so we meet again. We meet, and the same nice kid comments are made and the same questions are asked of a 16 year old boy (a year young for his grade— oh to go back to kindergarten and not make that mistake again!), who sits there listening to us talk about him, and answers “I don’t know… I guess so… Uh, I… well… I don’t know” to nearly every question he’s asked. “What do you think we can do differently Little Man? What do you think we should do?” Enormous questions for a kid to be asked, when the adults are all stumbling over the very same questions! Does he need the help? Hell yes! Does he want help? For sure! Does he want to accept a label that will follow him, and that he and his peers see as a stigma, but which comes with a possible solution that might actually help? “No,” he answers.
I see the frustration on the administrators and teacher’s faces. The Principal steps in: “What would be the mature decision here?” She asks. All of the adults sit and wait. They watch Little Man. We all know which answer the power that be is looking for. Little Man stares… a deer in a road full of rushing cars. “I… well… I guess… I don’t know.” One of the teachers, a kind person and well meaning, tries to explain to Little Man that this is not a punishment—that the class he’d be offered and the assistance he might get, would help him and is not because he is not smart enough. My boys eyes stare down; he nods obligingly; I touch his knee under the table, and try to convey my support and love. He looks up and thanks her, but I know he is disappointed. He is disappointed in himself, and there is nothing we will all say that will change that.
Questions are thrown around; all of the teachers state that they believe Little Man should get the help he needs, which I have pleaded for for FOUR YEARS and been denied. Each year we have been told that he doesn’t “qualify,” that other things will be tried… things that have never come to fruition: Sorry, there are no resources- we thought we’d be able to but can’t- we’re working on it- sorry. As I sit there something has happened and as each of his teachers stick their necks out and urge the system to do the right thing, I see that we will probably be told that we don’t qualify… still. And so I jump in.
Why don’t we qualify? What has to happen here? He is a junior and there are few chances left. Nothing that we’ve been told would happen has happened and we just keep returning to this table with the same issues. I say all of this carefully. Tread lightly but with determination. I can’t let my kids down one more time, but I need these people to want to help us. “Unfortunately, your son has to fail—fail completely, to qualify.” What! Could this be true? Like the broken criminal system: someone has to shoot up a movie theater, or kill his wife, or do something equally shocking to get the help or legal intervention that was asked for over and over again? Do not misread that logic. My son is not in any way comparable to a violent or unstable person… the situation is comparable. Things have to break all the way down: he would have to fail a year and be held back, to get the help he needs.
The school psychologist speaks up. She has been a wonderful help, but she has not gotten us anywhere up until now. “Actually, we really have enough data to support giving Little Man these ‘services;’ we would not necessarily need to go the usual route… and we might be able to get it in place before the next semester starts.” The assistant Principal has been watching the clock throughout the meeting, intermittently reminding us all that we don’t have much time— 25 minutes to be exact. Twenty-five minutes to fight for my kids life, as he speeds toward graduation and more missed opportunities, and in minute 23 the psychologist has said what I never would be said: we might be able to finally do something tangible and solid. I get that too: They are all taking time from other things; their schedules are packed, conceivably with other kids who need their help, and this is all they have to offer. That is the reality: there is 25 minutes for this topic. My son.
I jump in, and I’m told that we “are really out of time.” But I am not going to sit there. I push on and try to plead my boy’s case. All of these teachers have just told you what I’ve been saying for three years at this school. They are the ones teaching my child and they all see that he needs this. He may not fail the year, but he hangs on by a very thin thread all year—it is exhausting for him, for me, for his teachers. They can all tell you, if they speak honestly, that Little Man squeaks by with grades that in no way reflect what he knows or is capable of— The teachers are all nodding now. The clock is being watched and I’m told that the staff needs to go, that we can come back to this… No! I understand that you all need to go, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that you all came here and that you have shared your thoughts, but I know that if we get up right now, we’re going to stay on this same path.
And then a miracle happens. The school psychologist takes out a piece of paper and says: “If we sign this right now, we could try and get this in place by second semester. I think everyone here as agreed that it would be real help for Little Man. I brought it along because I think there’s more than enough data to make this happen.” The teachers have to leave, but now that there is a golden ticket on the table, they don’t need to stay. They all try to encourage Little Man and reassure him that this is for the best. He’s not buying it. But he’s not old enough or wise enough to know that the system is broken and this is the bandaid that really might help. The teachers and my boy leave, but I am not moving. The assistant Principal collects her papers and says again, that we all need to get going, but I am not done.
I sign the paper, and wait as the others leave and I’m left with the guidance counselor and the Principal. It’s her office. I tell them this that this needs to happen; it can’t fall away like all the other plans that have not worked out. And the Principal sits back and digs deeper; she asks more questions; she fills in some blanks from the meetings and efforts that she was not involved in. She listens. The counselor backs me up, and soon they are telling me that we can really make this happen. That time is short, but we can make it happen. “We are making Little Man top drawer,” the P-r-i-n-c-i-PAL says. I know that she says this to reassure me, but my mind rushes briefly: wouldn’t he be better off ON the desk than in a drawer? I’ll take top drawer; it’s better than filing cabinet.
As I walk to my car it’s raining. The campus is empty now; the kids are all in class. I feel hopeful, much better than when I arrived an hour before. As I’m walking, a man pushing a large garbage can and a broom walks toward me. As we get closer I see that he is very young; he hardly looks older than the seniors at this school. I smile as our paths cross, but his face is so flat. His eyes look empty and he looks so unhappy to me. It flashes through my head: who is he? Is this what he wants to be doing? Was the system broken for him too? Or does he just hate the rain?
It is a broken system. Our schools, which have many good things to offer, also withhold so many other things. Teachers are not payed enough or supported enough. The good ones struggle on and keep trying to bring something positive to the kids they teach, and the bad ones still get tenure and our kids have to navigate around, over and through them. The services that my son will now hopefully get (it’s not done until it’s done, I’ve learned) are something that our kids see as a stigma. Sadly it is, within this system—though it should not be.
It doesn’t matter how many lists of famous, intelligent, creative people he sees- who had ADHD. He feels different amongst his peers, and having to take a class that confirms that is one more tough thing to swallow. The very same class (as in virtually identical) and service is offered in the private school that my older son attended (Little Man refuses a boarding school) and there is no stigma there. It is offered to all of the students. It is taken by the majority of the students there, and you are no more or less capable if you are in that class. In the public schools, the label Special Ed has come to mean something other than what it really is and what it should be. And you have to bleed to get.
As a final note: This is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life: helping raise each of my three kids to be the people they are destined to be. Figuring out what each of them needs as the individuals they are, and making that happen is a rough trail, and my knees are bad. For each success and proud moment, I also feel- every day- that I have let one or more of them down… in some way or another. The burden is huge, the guilt bottomless— that we didn’t know sooner that failure was the key, that we didn’t push for other schools, that we didn’t know to go a step up and bang on other doors, that we could have-should have done other things, and more. I’m intelligent and capable enough to know that I was doing my best with what I knew at each step, but that doesn’t always help me feel better when I look in my son’s eyes.
How do parents who work full time, or don’t have the financial resources, or don’t speak English, or don’t understand the system at all, or don’t care (they do exist)— how do they navigate this system? What happens to their kids? For all the balls I’ve dropped, there are so many I’ve kept in the air. What about all those other kids, who have no one to juggle with? My boy struggles with the low self-esteem and self-doubt that a broken system has helped feed, every day. And no, I am not putting all of the responsibility on the system. If you read Black and Blue, or many of my other posts, you know that I struggle with this on a personal level, on a regular basis. Right now, I am so grateful for a possible step in the right direction, but can’t help but look at the path we’ve taken and wish we’d had a few better options.
Share your thoughts. Have you struggled within or with the educational system? What worked and what did not?
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