Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Tie.

Oh fourth grade, I heart thee.

This has been such an incredible year. Make no mistake both girls have been blessed beyond measure with some remarkable educators but fourth grade, well it has been the icing on an already delicious cake.

Why is this grade different? Emotional acknowledgment and support. Fourth graders are tough. They are nine, mostly ten before the year's end. Ten year old children are a handful. They are still children, but their hormones are kicking in and they are transforming into young adults. Hormones can drive the "best mom and dad" crazy, but let's be honest - teachers have these hormonal Tasmanian Devils 40 hours a week.  Forty hours of tears, anger, anxiety, hyperactivity, learning struggles, learning achievements, and so much more. Add to that teachers are handling all this with 24 kids in a classroom. There's a reason I never taught fourth grade.

As luck would have it, Penelope's teachers have been a pillar of emotional strength for her and all their students. They know it takes a partnership with parents to truly get through to the child. They know to see success it takes a learning environment where students feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and yes, those fourth grade feelings.

Penelope is trusting, loyal, anxious, and naive. You can pull the wool over her eyes at any time and while she is learning to see the bullshit, more often than not she can still be deceived. Penelope believes people at their word and would never in a million years think someone would lie to her. Especially a friend. Penelope has yet to realize that girls are bitches and true friendships are a rare find.

In the beginning of the year I set the stage as I do every year. I am "that mom." I am involved in PTO, I send emails, I check homework, I check the on line grade book twice a day (judge away I give zero fucks), I eat lunch with my girls, I help them study. BUT I also hold them responsible. If they do not want to complete homework or study.... well, good luck to them because this mama says to the teachers, "Go right ahead and give that F. Go right ahead and take recess. My child is in the wrong." I open the line of communication with the teachers saying here are our emotional struggles, here is our dirty laundry, here is my child trying her hardest to navigate family life, academic life, social life, and oh yeah, hormones. As always, the teachers met my "crazy" with grace and acceptance and probably a little sympathy for Penelope. It's tough being my kid (sometimes).

With each passing week Penelope's star shone brighter. With each passing week Penelope needed less and less help and willingly went to her teachers for help. With each passing week Penelope forged an unforgettable bond with these teachers. I was living in a twilight zone with statements of "Mrs. W showed my paper to Mrs. K - can you believe it? I must be a good writer now." or "Mrs. K showed me how to do this. I am going to go in early for the review. I like the way she teaches it. Your way is old." While the former teacher in me wanted to help her, I couldn't help but relish in the fact that Penelope trusted these teachers. And how do I know she trusted them? Because she was being her true self. Penelope wrote a paper about how hard it is to be Jewish. It takes a lot of courage to not only talk about your religion, but to write about it negatively. It takes emotional support to know you can express yourself without discernment.

I cannot remember when, but at some point this year I was asked to stop by as the teachers were concerned about something Penelope said during morning meeting. Morning meeting? Oh that's right, these teachers start each day with a student led conversation about various topics. The students share! Openly! There's no judgement, consequence, poking fun....just honest, real, conversation. It was at this moment I realized why Penelope was soaring to success. Emotional support. She felt free to convey her every thought. She was free emotionally. While what Penelope said at that morning meeting wasn't a "huge red flag" it was concerning because I had set the stage. The teachers know our family dynamics, they know the struggles at home, and when Penelope expressed herself they felt it best to share considering what they already knew about her life.

THAT is called emotional support. THAT is going over and beyond. THAT is great teaching. When your teachers know you are willing to listen, when your teachers know you appreciate honesty, when your teachers know you support them and their efforts THAT is when the true learning can happen.  A student that is emotionally supported can achieve anything.

We have had growing pains too. The teachers expecting more from Penelope and expecting 100% effort was a challenge at first. E1 is used to everything coming easily. She is used to minimal input with maximum output. Fourth grade proved to be the year where minimal input equaled minimum output. Did I enjoy seeing low grades in the grade book? Did I enjoy all the meltdowns at home of "I can't" Nope, not at all. But I supported the efforts of the teachers to encourage Penelope to do better, be better. They saw her capabilities. They wanted for her to see her capabilities. With that bond of trust formed, E1 climbed the mountain of high expectations and saw her own self worth. She began writing papers for fun! She began asking for more math assignments! The hubs and I repeatedly asked ourselves, "What the fuck is happening?" Emotional support. That is what was happening.

Just today, I received this email:

While I loathe the STAAR test and everything it stands for, I LOVE THIS. It was a reminder of the emotional support we have received all year. It was a reminder of the partnership we have with her teachers. This idea, so simple and yet so powerful. It doesn't ask me to make a healthy breakfast. It doesn't ask me to make sure my kid gets a good night sleep. It doesn't ask me to remind my child to show their work on math or justify their answers on reading. It asks me to give ENCOURAGEMENT to my ten year old, my child, their student. 

During the Passover Seder this past weekend Penelope and my nephew were discussing school. Penelope was ranking her favorite school years and fourth grade tied for the number one seed. With the exception of once, Penelope has loved each and every one of her teachers. She has said it was the best year each time a school year ends. However, she always held a special place in her heart for first grade. First grade was Penelope's first time to understand what a difference a teacher can make in a young girl's life. Knowing how she felt about first grade, I knew she would ever let another year rank higher.  First grade was just that awesome.  And sometimes a year cannot be out done. 

Until now.

A tie is two winners

Twice the love. 
Twice the best year ever. 
Twice the support. 
Twice the confidence. 
Twice the success. 

Fourth grade, we heart thee.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Blue Hearts

Yesterday was Autism Awareness Day. Yesterday I wore blue to the gym, E1 wore a blue bow to school, and my Facebook feed was filled with blue hearts, posts about Autism, and pictures of children with Autism. There was an overwhelming amount of support.

Today is Wednesday and the world resumed to its previously scheduled program. School was the same, I wore my regular clothes to the gym, and Facebook looked like it usually does - pictures and posts of glorious bullshit moments because let's get real, only few and far between post things like "I am going to kill my kids or drink a bottle of wine - I choose wine because that won't result in jail time."

While I appreciate Autism Awareness Day, Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day, Down Syndrome Day, and all the other days to recognize and support our special needs population, I wish the support lasted more than a day.

We all hear the stories, read the blogs, see the few posts that some brave mom puts out for the world to see. But what we pay little attention to is the daily ins and outs of our friends' lives whose children fall under the special needs umbrella. I don't know one special needs mama that wants sympathy. I sure as hell don't want any. I do know special needs mamas who wish they could catch a break, wish someone would listen, and wish for once their kid had a good day.

From severe to mild there are struggles that require understanding. There is a lack of patience from others for the day to day. The parenting advice you're about to give doesn't work. Unless you're a trained professional, just shut the fuck up when your friend is venting. Listen. Don't talk. And when they are done tell them you love them, you are more than happy to buy them a drink (or 100), or just give them a hug.

Trust me when I tell you the mom whose child only eats six things has tried it all. You saying your child is the same diminishes the struggle. Your child will out grow it, theirs won't. Hell, E2 is a damn rock star in eating because after years of food therapy we do not bring food with us and she eats three vegetables. But make no mistake - there are numerous restaurants we don't go to because E2 won't eat anything there. She eats the SAME LUNCH every day. Please don't tell me to pack something else. It will throw off her routine and legitimately fuck up her day.

When you see tantrums from a child, know the mom is embarrassed and angry. They paid for countless hours of therapies and at this moment with a grocery cart full of food, the child has lost all coping mechanisms. This is normal in a special needs world. Compensation skills are gained and then poof! one morning they are missing. Hold the door for that mom, push her cart for her so she can hold her child, tell your own child "Everyone has bad days." Do not assume the kid is being a brat. Remember posting that blue heart and honor that post.

Please know we spend every last damn dollar on our special needs children and certain things are out of reach no matter how hard we try. Therapies, even when covered by insurance, can be $152 an hour! Don't believe me? Call Aetna. E2 needs physical therapy again and that is our cost. How do you maintain a childhood for the rest of your children if you need to pay hundreds of dollars a week in speech, occupational and physical therapy? I'm sure you don't have an answer, but on the 364 days of the year that don't require "awareness" this is what you should should be aware of - Families figuring out how to help one child while making sure the neuro-typical child gets that nero-typical childhood.

Perhaps you're thinking a special school would make life easier - for some it can. The average cost of those schools is 30k dollars a year.  We don't have to make that decision because E2 is doing well in public school, but if we had to pay it, we could not do it today. Yes, I could go back to work. That brings its own issues: morning care, after care, gas, etc - all of which cost money that was supposed to go to that tuition which may or may not "fix" everything. Special needs families are constantly caught between a 'is this necessary' vs 'can it wait' scenario. Unless you've been there, you cannot understand the guilt a special needs parent carries after making any financial decision. It's a world of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Remember sibling rivalry is not the same when one kid is special needs and the other one is not. There is resentment, love, a lack of patience, love, frustration, love. It sounds the same, but it is not. You have one child begging for the love of the other and the love possibly not being shown back. You can have one child wanting the bond, but the other one tired of working so hard to create the bond. To then reason with either is a nightmare. One cannot possibly comprehend what you're saying and the other is tired of having the same talk of needing patience because their sibling isn't like others. It's a daily, weekly, monthly, annual happening. Siblings of special needs children carry a burden that deserves its own awareness day. Even in our home, with a child whose label carries the word mild, E1 has asked if she will have to take care of her sister when we are gone. E1 has awareness every day that gives her a view of the reality not always shown to the outside.

Special needs mamas need to celebrate the smallest of victories because they are huge in their world. Special needs mamas want a heart for: dressing oneself, brushing teeth, taking a shower, learning to tie shoes, vacationing, sitting still for 10 minutes without an electronic device, looking someone in the eyes, making a C on a test, making a friend, cutting their own food, learning how to use the microwave, being invited to a birthday party, learning to talk, walk, basically anything that comes natural for other children.  When you post that blue heart, you are celebrating.

Keep celebrating with us. Keep fighting for our children with us. Keep walking with us. Just keep doing it for more than one day.

Awareness days are great. They bring light to a topic that needs discussing. But when the sun sets on that awareness day and the sun stops shining on that day, don't let that heart you posted fade along with the light.