My Son is Changed for the Better
We knew from the moment that our son started public kindergarten, things would not go smoothly. We expected a call from the Principal. Truthfully, we expected a call within the first days of school and we weren't disappointed. Nor were we disappointed in the weeks that followed when I would sit at my desk, riddled with anxiety until school dismissed him at 3:30.
This pattern continued for weeks with an ever-increasing level of school contact culminating in a call from the teacher who said, "I don't think you are getting the full picture of what is going on with your son. He is out of my classroom more than he is in it and when he is here, the other children are not safe. Your son hits. He pushes them out of line in the hallway. I cannot watch him constantly. I have 27 other children in my room."
With these words from his teacher, I put the past six weeks in perspective. We had developed a six page ‘behavioral plan' with the help of the Principal, the school social worker, the behavioral and occupational therapists as well as the teacher and it wasn't working for anyone. We started seeing a psychologist both to improve our parenting style and to get him evaluated because everyone said, "In my X number years of teaching/administrating, I have never met anyone like your son." That phrase was usually followed by a layman's diagnosis, "I believe your son may be autistic/have oppositional defiant disorder/be bipolar."
Certainly, he did unusual things in the classroom; anything to get OUT of there and into one-on-one conversation with an adult whether for positive or negative attention. He wasn't picky. One memorable call was from this teacher earlier on. She was working with a student and heard squealing. When she looked up, she saw my son holding something under another child's nose. When their eyes met, he deposited said item in the trash can. She walked to him and said, ‘What do you have there?' His reply? "Chocolate." When she asked him again what he was doing, he said, ‘I was playing a prank. I wanted my friends to eat my poop!' Yes, he defecated rabbit pellets and was not afraid to handle it.
The last day that he spent in the classroom was the day that he pulled scissors on his teacher. Depending on whom you ask, it was either a silly ninja move or it was truly menacing with the intent to get away from her at any cost. Either way, I felt that a happy, well-adjusted child does not pull scissors on a teacher! We removed him from school and considered our other options.
With so many friends withholding their immature children from starting school as five year-olds, we decided to try him in a pre-K program. He started the very next week and within seven days, the calls started again. This time, they were worse. The teacher clearly felt that she could break him but some days, he did a good job of breaking her. Though she only had him in her classroom for three hours a day, the frustration and anger in her voice were palpable. Again, the phrase, ‘I have NEVER in all my years met a child like yours!' and that was not a good thing.
Mornings at home were no better. He wouldn't get out of bed. He would look at me with his sunken eyes and morosely ask, "Is today Saturday?" No. "How many days ‘til Saturday?" Four. Then, he would emit a most soul-wrenching scream and slide under the pillows, moaning, "Don't make me go there. I HATE it there!" It was at this point that we asked my son if it would make it better if we went with him to see what was so bad. He was non-plussed, catatonic even but we did accompany him for five days. Immediately, it was obvious that he was beyond miserable and that not only were the teachers telegraphing their hatred for my child but his classmates were denouncing him as ‘bad,' ‘mean' and ‘awful.' They were more than willing to detail all of his transgressions as if to confirm that he was not only different from them but unwanted as well.
When his teacher asked the class a question about a penguin book that she was reading, my son answered using his typical five syllable vocabulary. As soon as his mouth closed, the class started scratching their heads because they didn't understand him. The teacher rather condescendingly said, "I think what he is trying to say class is…." With those words, my son fell over like a limp fish, permanently checking out of the class and I was left to wonder where on earth he belonged.
Out of desperation, we began the process to have him tested for special education. That path felt so wrong that I called gifted schools and psychologists affiliated with the schools. I thought, I wonder if these people have ever seen a child like mine who is bright but depressed, and a behavioral disaster? One after another, I found people who had, in fact, met children like my son; people who not only understood what I was experiencing but who cried for him and said, "I wish what you describe were not so common but it happens all the time. Your son is bored and has developed post-traumatic stress. I would recommend removing him from this situation immediately."
Coincidentally, there was a gifted school less than a mile from our home. I made an appointment to visit. Speaking to the director on the phone, I sensed that she could give me the direction that my family desperately needed. Even though I had missed more work than reasonable, I took off one more afternoon and this meeting changed our lives forever.
Mrs. Morse started Steppingstone School, Center for Gifted Education over 30 years ago and there she sat, box of Kleenex between us, listening to me. When I spoke, she intently listened to every word, did not interrupt and soothed my broken spirit with her eyes. When I started sobbing, she softly explained that the most gifted of children disintegrate quickly in environments that do not support their ‘asynchronous development.' Apparently, ‘gifted' did not mean good at everything with A+ behavior as I had assumed. She explained many aspects of the gifted myth and how gifted children, like all children, differ wildly from one to another particularly in terms of behavior matching their vocabularies and abilities. This resonated with our home life. When my son did something ‘bad,' it was hard to remember that he was only five because the words that he used, the thoughts he expressed were well beyond his years and we expected his behavior to match.
She suggested immediate removal and an IQ test. From my descriptions, she felt he would benefit from a school for the gifted where everything supports and encourages the very best that these kids are capable of achieving. She spoke so compassionately, directly, unassumingly and with such conviction that I wept with the first tears of hope that I had felt in six months.
We followed her guidance. The testing experience for a stressed out, angry five year-old was horrendous. He ran around the office. He took the testing blocks and made sculptures. He screamed, "I can't!" and then didn't. Thankfully, the psychologist who administered the test had years of experience with gifted children. It made all the difference in her report. Based on his responses, his IQ was below normal but she was able to tease out my son's intellect as well as his mistrust of authority and disdain for ‘stupid' questions. She nailed him and she had never met him before. She remarked that the score he received would be the lowest score he would ever get; that under conditions of less chronic stress, she would expect him to perform significantly higher in all categories instead of the few that he actually completed. When I received the report, I wasn't convinced that the school would admit him.
Mrs. Morse had already spoken with the psychologist. She recommended that my son come and experience a day at her school. I was terrified. It's one thing to have hope and another to act on it and fail. When we talked to my son, he was willing to try it for ONE day. I spent that day staring at my phone, waiting for the call to come pick up my horribly maladapted son but it never came. Feeling very uneasy, I left work early to pick him up and hear about his day.
My son was radiating excitement and positive energy, something that I had not seen since the summer before school started. He jubilantly told me that he was on a team that successfully built working flashlights! He could not stop talking about his day and even included two phrases that I did not think I would ever hear—"That place is not so horrible. I think the people there might be nice." I wept silently in the car as we drove home, convinced more than ever that if he were going to be a well-adjusted adult, these were the people to guide him.
Coming up with the money was not easy. We didn't expect to be confronted with the medical necessity of private school but we also viewed his diagnosis like any medical condition: treat it using the best medicine available. As I was about to sign the contract, I looked Mrs. Morse square in the eye and said what had been percolating in the depths of my psyche. "This is like buying a new car based on faith alone. For what reasons could he be expelled? What happens when this doesn't work?" Easily returning my gaze, she simply stated, "We only accept those that we can help."
The first days were tough for everyone. My son does not like to be the dumb one and here he was entering a gifted program more than halfway through the year and the youngest one enrolled. He spent the first few days screaming in the office or hiding under tables yet Mrs. Morse remained positive with both my son and my family. She shared the struggles they had encountered – his fear of the bathroom, anxiety about moving from one room to another, meeting new teachers particularly men, immersion French class. She carefully detailed their methods for approaching these concerns and requested that the school be allowed to develop trust with my son before focusing on academics. Although it sounded funny to pay for school only to develop trust, it was the first time that an adult saw my child as a whole being who required kindness and respect with the expectation that greatness would eventually follow; that he would rediscover his innate desire to learn and to be in the classroom instead of the principal's office.
My son has started his first full year at Steppingstone School and he is a changed man. His sunken eyes, sickly pallor and apathy are gone, having been replaced with a strong body which grew three inches in the first few weeks at this school. He smiles and greets everyone warmly instead of sneering or screaming. He has developed a level of empathy that astounds me. Where I once saw a future sociopath, I see a good heart willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. This is the boy about whom, on our darkest days, I would say, "Years from now, he just may cure cancer and he will get up and thank you for your efforts to help him. " While sitting at my desk, I can now say it with an easy smile knowing that he is happily engaged at school.