So, the thing is… I never wanted to be one of THOSE moms.
In August, Ana will start Kindergarten. We’ve attended Kindergarten Round-up, (which is what we call Kindergarten registration here in Austin) and we’ve signed her up and decided that she will indeed be starting school at the public school by our house.
The decision probably doesn’t seem very momentous but it was preceded by an almost full-scale nervous breakdown on my part.
I don’t want to sound like one of those horrible stage mothers –frankly, I was in denial about all this. But my oldest daughter is a pretty special child. I mean, ALL children are special but she’s special in a quantifiable way. Ana taught herself to read at age three and now, at age five, reads and writes fluently. She’s doing simple algebraic equations and spouting the multiplication tables. She understands fractions. She read The Hobbit last year -- and there just aren’t that many four-year-olds who are interested in The Hobbit. She loves opera. On Easter, Ana held up a plastic egg and said, “Mom, listen.” and she shook it. “This one’s as empty as Jesus’ tomb.” That’s her sense of humor. We are not the kind of parents who would send our kid to college at age ten, but she IS that kind of kid.
Still, I had observed Ana at play dates and parties and she didn’t seem out of place to me. She seemed to be developing social skills at the same rate as the rest of her friends (i.e. not at all.) I knew she was very bright but I reached the conclusion that she wasn’t so out of step with her peers.
Then, a few months ago, I substituted in Ana’s classroom. I led the children through an exercise which required them to write their names on the back of a piece of white paper, cut out four shapes from a piece of red paper, paste the shapes in the form of a rabbit on the white sheet and write “red rabbit” underneath it.
It took Ana about six minutes to complete.
It didn’t even engage her whole mind. She did it like a chore and then off she went to make math worksheets for her friends. The other kids were struggling with cutting out the shapes and with writing those R’s and Ana just dashed it off and went on about her business.
I can’t explain the feeling I had. It was like I was this nice placid cow that had suddenly given birth to a flamingo. I had to confront my own limitations: I don’t know anything about flamingos!
I felt simply awed by the responsibility I’d been given for this kid. I set about learning everything in the world I could about flamingos –er—gifted children. I found myself talking to everyone who would listen to me. My neighbor is a child psychologist and has navigated the options for schooling her gifted daughter. She fed me names of parents dealing with the system and professionals with whom it was helpful to speak. She saved articles for me about gifted kids (my favorite title: “Help, My Child is Gifted!”) and allowed me to vent about how overwhelmed I was feeling. It’s like my friend Winter said, “These decisions just seem so huge.”
Ana, naturally, picked up on my stress. She’s a sensitive kid. I was completely out of control and hyper-emotional and spent too much time staring at her with tears in my eyes, so she took a red crayon to the banister. (My kids need me to be their stability and if I am acting like some deranged version of quicksand, they founder.)
I did learn something: I learned is that there is no good solution for kids like Ana. Our school system is designed for “average” children and I have yet to meet one! The more people I’ve talked to, the more I’ve realized that Ana isn’t so uncommon. Oh, sure, she’s uncommon in that her cognitive ability is so far advanced but I’ve met many kids who have gifts in one area or another. Or, the opposite –-kids who have one or more areas where they are challenged. I’ve learned that sometimes the two go hand-in-hand. Sometimes children are “twice exceptional.” They can be both gifted AND learning disabled, which means simply that they don’t learn in a standard linear fashion. The real problem is that our school system is designed for some mythical “average” child and I’m not sure such a child even exists.
In Texas, and in most of the rest of the country, there seems to be this growing movement to standardize education. It seems that every year, there is another test to assess a child’s educational progress. I can only shake my head, especially as the age for such tests continues to get younger. I think our state is trying to mandate a result that, in the end, can only be achieved by committed and creative teachers teaching in such an accessible way that all students grasp the lessons.
I think we need to take the burden of discipline and reporting and politics off of teachers and allow them to actually TEACH. To build depth into their programs so that the tops of their classes are challenged at the same time as those who learn in a different or slower manner. There is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned schoolhouse where all grades were combined and children learned according to their ability and with the help of the other students.
I hope that if you are in the midst of a similar struggle over what to do with your children, you will find comfort from what I have learned.
1) In dealing with a child who is outside the norm, (and I’ve learned this is almost every child) you can choose to nurture the cognitive side of your child’s development or the emotional/social side. I am choosing the emotional/social side for a variety of reasons. (I’d be glad to go into detail but this column is already too long.) Ana will go to school with her chronological peers (at least for this year) and I am convinced she will gain valuable knowledge in how to negotiate a bureaucracy and how to communicate with friends on different levels. She’ll get supplemental academics, should that be needed, at home.
2) Although I felt as much stress as anyone trying to decide what the best course of action is for his/her child, I’ve decided that these decisions aren’t really so huge. If something you’ve chosen isn’t working out, you can CHANGE YOUR MIND. Your local school district is no match for a parent with vision. You are not dropping your child into school and then abandoning her for the rest of her school years –-you are by her side every single day. There are a million creative ways to educate your child—-combining home-schooling with formal classroom, space camp, school abroad—-a million options. Most teachers are dedicated and resourceful people who really want to help your kid reach his/her potential.
The reality is that we’re all given these special kids and we have to make some decisions, within the current system, to help our kids find success. The system exists so that you can USE it—-MOLD it—-to meet your child’s needs.
This is probably NOT what the administrators of our school district were hoping to hear.
No doubt I will be branded ‘one of THOSE moms.’
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Barbara Cooper 2003
Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (5) and Hurricane Jane (2.5). She lives in Austin, Texas and still knows next to nothing about flamingos.