Deep deep sigh.
My son, my big boy, is nine years old. His birthday was November 28th – Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and his birthday all in one this year. I started doing these birthday posts when he was six – the age his younger brother is now, although it is only two more months before Spencer turns seven. I like to go back and reread these birthday posts more than any others here on my blog. I have a good memory but being able to capture little moments that slip through my mind’s cracks gives me a better sense of my family. The journey from eight years old to nine was a challenging one so truthfully, I’m not sad to leave eight behind. Even though Graham has become this huge person, not a little tiny boy anymore and that makes me sad, I’m just glad we are able to move on to the next year.
If you have been reading here long enough, you know that Graham has some challenges that do not have a name. (You can read more posts about him here.) He is not on the spectrum (Autism or Asperger’s), he is not dyslexic, he doesn’t have behavioral issues, and he is healthy as an ox. He probably has some kind of auditory processing disorder meaning that he doesn’t process language in the way that you and I do. He hears the words fine but doesn’t make sense of them in a timely manner, or sometimes at all. Language, as I have learned first hand, affects everything you do in your life. If you are not fluent in speaking and understanding, you are probably also not fluent in social language. He struggles to follow along in his classroom and he also struggles on the playground. Ever the cheerful and friendly child, he wants to join in games at recess but can’t follow the complex rules that sometimes go along with those games and frustration ensues. Fortunately, in his case, frustration means walking away, not hauling off and hitting someone. He also just doesn’t read people in quite the right way so kids sometimes find him annoying or inappropriate. It is heartbreaking to watch. All he wants is to connect, to be friends, and he just doesn’t go about it quite the right way. I watch Spencer, his junior by two years, navigate friendships effortlessly. But for Graham it is just so much harder. I will say that the older kids, especially the girls, adore him and he gets high fives whenever he sees them.
All along, Randy and I have held tight to the idea that public school is the best choice for Graham. Because he has been tested and has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), he has legal rights to services within the school. If we opt out and go to private school, we lose our rights to services during the school day. The burden would fall to us to get him extra help. Over the years, the schools he has attended have offered him quite a bit in the way of services, but it has never been quite enough, especially as he has gotten older and school has gotten more sophisticated. This past year it seemed they are always just falling short of what he really needs. This has been a frustrating process, to say the least. Both Randy and I believe that their hearts are in the right place, that they care deeply about Graham and want him to succeed, but for many complicated reasons, including funding, they are not able to give him quite enough help. Last year, at the end of our rope, we hired a lawyer to help us navigate the meetings and to help us speak the correct language to get what we want for him.
Through the process of many meetings and innumerable emails, not to mention an honest threat to sue the Oakland school district, Graham is now being helped more than before. He attends a special reading clinic every morning where he and one other student get intensive reaching coaching by a specialist. He still gets help with reading and writing during the school day, and he has an aide shadowing him at recess, to help him navigate the complex rules of the playground. He also goes to speech therapy twice a week. This kid works so hard. I have to wake him up most mornings, then he gets breakfast, then I pile the two boys in the car and drive to downtown Oakland where the reading clinic is. He spends an hour and forty minutes with no break practicing reading and pronunciation. He scores a ten out of ten almost every single day for his effort. Then he gets on a bus and goes back to his regular school where he has just missed recess, and has to jump in with two feet to whatever is on the schedule that day. His teacher is kind and accommodating, telling him to get his wiggles out on the playground if he needs to, and offering him time to eat a snack, but it is still a big transition. One that he does every single day and will do through the end of the school year. Graham has homework every night that can take him up to an hour, with a lot of assistance, and it is so difficult for him. All through these long days with challenging expectations, he is cheerful and compliant. “How was school today?” is met, unfailingly, with “Great!”
I am so proud of him. I also continue to be frustrated by him. And that is where this post will sound like all the other birthday posts that I have written about Graham. I have this beautiful amazingly sweet tempered child, who tries his best every single day (how many of us can say that?), and much of the time, in addition to loving him, I am impatient with him. Homework is the time of day where I am tested. I sit with him as he struggles to recognize his spelling words (must they be written in cursive??) and watch as his math skills, which are very good, flee his brain as he contemplates word problems. Third grade is a big transition, the work is less linear, more complex. This does not work well for our child. Again, I am grateful to his teacher who is compassionate and understanding. She suggests that he does 20 minutes of homework only, set a timer, and whatever he finishes is great. So far, that has made things a bit easier for all of us.
At his last IEP meeting, an emotional one where the school therapist shared her findings, and her deep affection for Graham, in a stirring way, Randy raised the difficult question. The one that has been in the back of our minds since he started school. “At what point do we hold him back?” It was one of those things that had been with me so long that it was startling to hear it voiced aloud. And even more startling was how they unequivocally told us that studies show that “retaining” students does them no good. They progress for a while and then continue to get stuck about where they did the previous year. Much better to keep assessing his needs and making accommodations for him along the way. I felt so much better after that was cleared up. And I also worry. Of course I worry. How will this look in the future? How will he continue to be in the classroom with typically developing kids without his very strong self esteem being impacted?
And then I remember what his pediatrician said long ago. Before we knew what this was (and we still don’t), before he had started in school, just about when we realized that he wasn’t talking and all the babies his age were. She told me that as long as he was making progress, we shouldn’t worry. His peers will make progress too, most of the time faster than he will, so it won’t be a race. He won’t necessarily catch up. But as long as he is moving forward, that is what we need to hold on to. And he is moving forward. When he was starting developmental preschool and he was still wearing diapers, I could not imagine a day when he would sit at a real desk and do real math problems and read real books. And here he is doing all of those things and thriving in his own way.
There are lessons here. Be easier on him. Be easier on myself. Celebrate what you have without wishing for what you don’t. Why is it all so hard? I imagine other people’s houses at homework time and how effortlessly it must flow. I imagine other people’s weekends and how much less frustration they must experience just trying to get out the door in addition to everything else. And then I remember a valuable lesson I learned when I went through my divorce from my first husband. When we announced to friends and family that we were splitting up, people were absolutely shocked. From the outside, we seemed like the perfect couple – how could we divorce? I realized that no one knows what is going on in your house and the challenges you face. So as I imagine these other people with their other children, I need to remember that everyone has something. What I have is a gloriously happy (and handsome) child with an amazing attitude who thinks he is awesome and that his life is great. And I have a temper I wish was less volatile when it comes to this child. We’ve done the work for him and we will continue to do it. I think I need to do some work on me.