I mentioned in my last post that we have had some challenges. Actually, in some ways, I think that it would be more accurate to say that we have had ongoing frustrations over the last several years. I know that some people are going to read this and immediately decide that I am a bad parent and that I need to just "get over it." For me, at least, this has been easier said than done.
I'm a teacher. I work for a school board with a fairly prestigious reputation that touts itself as being on the cutting edge and doing things right (in contract with several other local boards which are so inferior to us is the implied message). I'm an idealist and while I have times of feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, I've always listened to the workshop speakers or the staff meeting presenters and agreed (and, at times, felt a bit guilty that I wasn't doing everything perfectly). I've always put a high value on making parents happy, treating families with respect and not judging their parenting. I've always tried to do right by my students who weren't excelling and I've tried to stay current in terms of our understanding of how to support students with learning challenges.
I had been a teacher for 10 years when I had Pk, I assumed that school for her would be the same as school for me. I thought it would be easy, she would excel without a whole lot of effort and that she would be one of those bright, well-behaved and engaged girls who make life easier for teachers. Early on, though, I noticed some things that surprised me. Her vocabulary was incredible and at times, she showed real strengths but at other times, I was ready to lose my mind. She had so much trouble following how to play games and in her piano group classes, she never answered questions and never seemed to really know what was going on. The other kids seemed smarter than she was and I was worried but everyone (well, my mother and my husband) kept telling me that I was crazy and that I was pushing too hard. I didn't want to have the smartest kid but I was seeing some signs that concerned me and everyone was dismissing it as my being an ambitious mother.
Then, she started J.K. I have taught kindergarten, grade 1, 2 and 3 for years and years and I have seen lots of kids. Initially, her teacher told us how bright she was - she started J.K. (pre-K in the U.S.) knowing all of her letters and their sounds, some words, she wrote her name and she could count collections with ease. She learned to read lots of words but she just didn't seem to care about anything academic. She had a vivid imagination and told wonderful stories but at times, she could be really vague and we had a three year fight about not keeping her water bottle inside her backpack and soaking everything. I had this gut feeling that she wasn't who I had expected her to be and everyone around me kept telling me either that she was wonderful or that I just wasn't seeing how talented she was.
S.k. continued in the same vein and then, she began grade 1. She read really well but her writing left a LOT to be desired and for math, she seemed to be almost incapable of learning simple rote math facts. I still remember the time when she dragged me down the hall to see the self-portrait and personal description she had done. The art was good but the writing? I was shocked to see it on the wall next to the work of the other students. She had done so little I was a bit surprised that her teacher hadn't required more and I actually spoke to the teacher, asking whether I thought there were problems. No, she thought that Pk was bright but "social" and that all would be well.
Grade 2, things got much worse very quickly. It would take me days to tell you the ins and outs of it but let's say that it included marks plummeting, a teacher who didn't know the curriculum, Pk being tormented by two boys to the degree that she broke down crying at school one day at 11:30 a.m. and when I picked her up at daycare at 4, she was still crying and nobody had thought to call me, tremendous anxiety when a new boy moved in who was emotionally very unstable and was dragged daily from the class, screaming and attacking adults. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible year and with all of the anxiety that developed, we didn't have a clue what was academic and what was due to her high level of stress.
I would say that grade 3 was the absolute worst. It became clear from day 1 that her teacher didn't like her, viewed her as spoiled and indulged and really, just couldn't be bothered. We were told that the teacher "had bigger fish to fry", that our expectations were unreasonable and, after 10 weeks of not talking to the teacher, when we tried to contact her to check in on how things were going, that she was "too busy" to talk to us. I can't describe it. I'm a teacher myself and I've been at this for 20 years. Over and over and over again, the teacher was treating us like we were crazy for asking how to help our daughter and refusing to speak to us at all. In the meantime, the marks continued to fall and yet, the teacher kept telling the principal that there were "no academic concerns." It was like an alternate universe.
Finally, we gave up on the school system and went to our doctor. That was the first step in things getting better. She referred us to a top pediatrician who in turn sent us to a FANTASTIC psychometrist (an expert in educational assessments and the interpretation of results). Guess what? Pk is EXTREMELY bright but also has a learning disability (well, actually, three areas of very significant weakness). By this point, she had moved schools (that happens in grade 4 in our community) and the new school was as wonderful as the old school was frustrating. I have to be honest, hearing that your child has real deficits is a hard thing to face. I had a friend whose son was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities and I remember her telling me about the grief. Having experienced it myself, I think that was a very good way to describe it. You still love your child, in fact, in some ways, it helps you to appreciate him or her even more. On the other hand, though, you begin to understand that life may not be easy for them. I have overheard one of Pk's friends talking about how Pk just "isn't good at writing and can't do that stuff" which is 1. untrue, she just needs more time and 2. really, really hurt her feelings. I know that we will be dealing with terrific teachers like the one this year, who loves her, admires her strengths like her sense of humour, her optimism and her kindness and yet is willing to work with her through the challenges but there will also be the teachers who either think Pk is stupid or lacks potential or who insist on viewing her executive function issues as being laziness. I know that the transition to high school may be challenging and that while according to the psychologist, Pk should be able to pursue any university studies she wishes based on her intelligence, she may well have to work a lot harder than other people. And, from a purely selfish standpoint, I have to learn to live with 1. that she will never measure up to the standard of the "perfect child" in the competitive world of "mommy-wars" (not that I buy into it but knowing that you will always be inferior in some people's eyes is still frustrating) and 2. that I will probably have to fight for her and that I will often face the dilemma of having to face the choice of being the nice, easy-to-deal with parent or being the mama bear who keeps the system honest for my kid but who knows that teachers are cringing when they see me coming.
So, that's been my tough battle this year. A friend with a son with a diagnosis told me last fall, when I was in the worst of feeling discouraged that we were almost at the top of the hill - that fighting the system initially and finally getting the diagnosis was the uphill part of the battle and that you spent a bit of time on the level at the top when things aren't so bad but you aren't seeing success yet and then, finally, you realize that the coast down to the easier part of the journey has arrived. I think that we have finally crested the hill and are starting the descent. I'm grateful because the trip has left me very tired.