As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a mother. This desire was heightened in my teens when I was the neighborhood babysitter. I just loved being around children. I liked playing board games, was a wiz at baking chocolate chip cookies, and I could change a diaper in 1 minute flat. So, from the age of 13 until 36, when I had my first child, I had a lot of time to think about what my future children would be like. I had it all worked out in my mind the type of mother I would be, and the types of children I would have. I had lots of dreams for my kids. The ancient Greeks calls this type of planning/thinking hubris.
My musical prodigy dream meant that all three would start taking piano lessons at three years of age. As they developed in their love of music (of course, they would love it because I loved it), they would each take up one of my favorite instruments: the cello, the violin and the oboe. After I moved to Texas, I became open to the banjo, the fiddle, and the mandolin. (Life got in the way though. With three kids in diapers and hefty student loans, we never could afford a piano.)
There were other dreams too. Since school came fairly easy to my husband and me, I assumed my children would not struggle in school. Yes, they would have to work hard if they wanted to stay in those AP courses and internships with researchers working on the Genome Project, but on the whole, they would breeze through the halls of K-12 grade. (Isn’t this a nice dream?)
Naturally, extracurricular things would be effortless for my kids. Baseball, soccer, basketball, sailing, horseback riding…They may not be the star players in EVERY sport, but they would definitely be key contributors.
I think all parents have dreams like this, and some parents are very lucky when their child takes quickly to the cello, makes the honor roll each quarter, and is the MVP of all sports he/she plays. Dreams are funny little phenomena. Some stay in a dreamy no-man’s-land state, and others become actualized. One definition of dream is “a wild or vain fancy.” I think that is the type of dream I had for my children. These dreams were wild and fanciful, and they centered on me—vanity, vanity, vanity. The dream kids would make me look good, real good.
School comes naturally to Katie, my middle child. She is fortunate to have great executive function skills; in other words, she know what to do with a folder, never forgets to write down assignments, and has a calendar filled with due dates. Katie instinctively meshes with how a traditional school runs. At home, this child spreads out all her books and papers, and methodically completes each homework assignment at a pretty good speed. It’s no surprise that Katie makes the honor roll—with virtually no help from her father or me.
Then, then there are the other two kids, who were just born different. They both have some type of dyslexia. Both have slow processing systems (which makes reading even more difficult), and both have severe ADHD. Oh yeah, and they have very high IQs.
Even though they are medicated and have been through various therapies and tutoring sessions, “doing school” is a daily battle for these kids. They read slower than their peers, so reading aloud is out. Both use audiobooks, and not just for novels. Annie has to have all her textbooks in audio book format because when it comes to reading, she is practically “blind” to the words on the page. At the same time, both kids have very high comprehensive skills when they just listen. Yet, that means they cannot take notes during a lecture because truncating ideas into notes hurts their comprehension.
The slow processing exacerbates the reading problem because developing fluency is almost impossible. My kids are terrified to be called on because while the other kids are enthusiastically raising their hands, mine are still thinking about the question. They usually have the answer, but one has to be patient while they dig through the recesses of their brains to find the answer. Annie needs all tests read to her, and both children require extra time to complete them. This slow processing also spills over to their activities. It has taken my son a long time to get the timing right to hit a baseball. And, my daughter is learning to sail, but she has fallen behind her peers because, as she says, “I kept getting hit by the boat.” The best part is that both kids have a great sense of humor about this, although there have been times of deep depression and questions like, “Why am I different from my friends?”
Executive function skills? Having a complete homework agenda is basically just a fantasy. Sometimes they write down assignments, and sometimes they never even knew there was an assignment. Even when they complete homework and projects, it is not a guarantee they will turn them in. My eldest seems to be plagued with the black hole syndrome—assignments disappear into the black hole of her room or her school locker. She often completes two versions of the same assignment. My son does not have a black hole issue, but he does have a book bag of empty folders and layers of crushed papers on the bottom of his book bag. I have yet to get an art project from him that does not need to be ironed out.
When a child has ADHD, everything can be a distractor. In the morning when my kids should be dressing and brushing their teeth, they are loving on the dogs, methodically organizing their latest marker set according to a rainbow pattern, or just staring into the closet. I have to take the computer keyboards every night so they aren’t tempted to get lost in Minecraft. Getting out the door with their book bag, lunch boxes, and shoes is a challenge. Hair brushing has become optional, and often their breakfast lays untouched on the table. On the upside, my dogs really like eggs and pancakes. And, don’t offer me any tips because I have tried them all. The chart thing just doesn’t work for our family most likely because I too have a form of ADHD.
My son has dysgraphia, which means he cannot write legibly. He holds his pencil almost backwards—despite three years of occupational therapy—and his letters are almost microscopic. Words run together and slant every which way. He is not being lazy. In fact, it takes him longer to write than most children. Yet, he often gets notes from teachers that say, “Write neater” and “Try harder.”
Yesterday I received the results of Annie’s recent educational evaluations. The scores were all over the place. On some tests, she scored on a second grade level (reading), and on another she tested on a 17.5 grade level (math). Yet, the reality of some of her disabilities overwhelmed me, and made me profoundly sad. I realized that she will never be “fixed.” This is typical of parents with kids with special needs. There are high moments of pride and hope, and low moments of frustration and helplessness. Over the years, I have grieved the loss of my unrealistic dreams, but I have learned to dream new dreams as well.
Despite all of their difficulties I wouldn’t trade my kids for all the prodigies in the world. They are unique and quirky, intelligent and loving. Annie is gifted in origami, crafting and drawing cartoons, and her laugh is contagious. Her singing voice is sweet, and her sense of fashion is flawless. Will is our go-to guy when it comes to fixing any form of technology in the house, and he has been doing this since he was five. He can manipulate anything that plugs into the wall or takes batteries. Moreover, my children are very kind. Just this morning Annie made me breakfast in bed, just because. Teachers tell me that Annie and Will are the first ones to greet the new kid in class and make him feel welcome. Will has received the Good Samaritan Award every year, and they only give out four a year. That means more to me that all the perfect agendas in the world.
I used to say, “God has a sense of humor,” because he gave this English and writing teacher two kids who struggle to read and write. And, He gave me—a teacher with a doctorate in Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies, children who are outliers. In all the years I studied education, I never once took a class on the special or exceptional learner. I had no idea how to deal with a dyslexic child. I couldn’t even define it when Annie was diagnosed. And, now I am learning a great deal about this and special education in general through the back door, so to speak.
No parent knows what will become of her children once they grow up. Let’s face it, they have a lot of choices to make during adolescence that can have an irrevocable impact on their lives. However, I believe that once my children are in a position to study what they like in the manner that works best for them, they will fly—fly without fear of failure, fly without holding back, and fly with confidence so obvious it shines around them like a halo.