Breaking The Mold

Regardless of who actually said it (it probably wasn’t Einstein), at times I feel like I’m living the definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

At the center of this insanity is a compulsion to fit my son into the world’s definition of “normal”. There is a mold made up of societal norms and expectations that I try to force him into, even though it is clear that the mold is the wrong shape.

Still, I try to make it work because I’m scared that, if I don’t, the world won’t accept him and it will cast him out. Or label him. Or make him feel “less than.” As a result, I correct him when he does something that makes him look different from everyone else rather than celebrating his uniqueness. I spend more time trying to make him work inside what the world expects of him rather than finding ways to make the world work for him. And I keep repeating that pattern, in spite of all the signs that it isn’t working and that it isn’t the right thing to do for my son.

I think that is partly because I don’t know what does work for him. The things I try are the things that are familiar to me. They are the things that I know exist. They are the things that I grew up with because somehow, in spite of feeling very different, I managed to get a traditional education, and go to college, and get a job. I was able to existing inside of the “normal” that most other people seem to also make work for them.

My wife is much better than I am at flipping the narrative and seeing that it is the world needs to change to include our son. She looks for places where our son can feel like he belongs rather than making him fit into any molds. But given the state of the world and its indifference or intolerance to anyone who is different, I can see her frustration and anguish every time the world doesn’t understand him, or us, or our situation.

She’s the reason that we are looking at alternative schools for our son. She’s knew it years ago but no one would listen. I might have thought I was listening, but I was too afraid to act on it because I thought things would get better. I thought I could make my son fit into that mold if we just kept trying. Worse, even when I knew it wasn’t working, my fear led me to just keep trying the same things because it was less scary than going into uncharted territory and discovering that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. I was as accomplice in the notion that we could simply remove a few expectations from him to make him fit the mold better. But all that did was make him disappear.

I am trying to stop the insanity. I am trying to redefine my view of the world and what I expect my son’s path to be because I am seeing that his path does not need to look like my path. His path will be made up of his experiences, tailored to who he is. It’s big and it’s scary and I don’t know what it will look like, and it may take endlessly battling the world to make room for him. But that is something worth doing over and over again.

The world seems intent to prove that it is my son who is the wrong shape, but the world is wrong. My son broke that mold the first time he had a seizure. Actually, he broke that mold the day he was born.

Fewer Choices, Less Time

It feels like we are in a constant search to find a school where my son belongs.

For the first few years, we sent him to one of the city’s best public schools. They didn’t know what to do with him, so he drifted from grade to grade while we struggled to make accommodations for his stunted academic and social growth.

Last year, we moved him to a new virtual school, hoping to alleviate his anxiety that my son felt going to his previous school. While it may have achieved that goal, virtual learning amplified my son’s challenges in the classroom settling and left him further behind. Sitting in front of a computer all day on a video call with a big group of other 5th graders results in a controlled chaos that taxes my son mentally and physically in ways that I didn’t expect.

As a result, we’re once again exploring our options. But the reality is that every time we do this, we do so with fewer options and less time.

When we try a new approach, make a modification, or check out a new school that turns out to not be the right fit, we have fewer choices. The traditional classroom-based, lecture, teach-to-the test education system, which is how the vast majority of schools operate, doesn’t work for my son. He tries so hard, but his difficulty with executive functioning, processing, and retention taxes him to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. That exhaustion makes his processing and retention worse, feeding back into itself until his body and mind tap out and we are left picking up the pieces.

There are other schools, but the ones that have a different teaching method are scarce, expensive, or far away. We called them, though, and talked to the administrators. In some cases, we were told that their school wouldn’t be a good fit. In other cases, we were told that it might be a fit based on our description, but we continue to struggle to get the right amount of documentation to accurately represent where he is. But we can’t get that because we haven’t found a place with the resources or the expertise to make a recommendation for a child who doesn’t fit into a predefined box.

Now, we’re looking at 6th grade. That’s only three years until high school. Three years, and there is no guarantee, even if we find a new school this year, that it will be any different. We’re running out of time to find a place or a way to educate my son enough for him to enter the world. I used to feel like he had his whole life ahead of him, and now I just feel the pressure to find a solution before the system cuts him loose.

I had always expected that someday my son would be like everyone else. I used to believe that, with modifications, we could educate him alongside his peers who didn’t have his challenges. I used to have “normal” as the bar. It’s the same mistake that the education system makes. It’s the same mistake that the world makes.

I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s difficult to predict the future of his condition or to know what he will be capable of as he stumbles through school. We are so focused on finding a way to educate him now that we’re not thinking about college. I’m not even sure that college will be in the cards for him if we can’t find a solution that works for him in middle school and high school, and those grades went from being far out on the horizon to staring us in the face.

Let Him Fail

We moved my son to a virtual charter school for 5th grade.

His previous brick-and-mortar school failed him. Although it gets credit for being one of the best public schools in the city, that only represents the experience of kids without special needs. Our mass education system and the temples to its delivery are designed for the kids in the middle, not at the fringes. My son is definitely at the fringes.

His stamina, comprehension, and retention are all affected by his condition, whether it’s the seizure and epilepsy or side effects of the handfuls of medication he takes every day. Rather than figuring out a way to teach him in a way that helped him learn, they removed expectations from him. They hid behind the vague description of grade level and the wide ranges of “average performance” to try to convince us that he was where he needed to be and to abdicate their responsibility to teach him.

For four years, we tried to exist within that system. Even when we were finally able to get an IEP (individualized education program) plan, his “performance” meant that they didn’t need to include academic goals because he was on “grade level.” We continued to watch our son drift further behind his peers, socially and academically. But he continued to show up. He showed up in a building filled with energy that heightened his anxiety. He showed up after having seizures, while being exhausted, and while being lost.

When the pandemic started and the school moved online, we saw a glimmer of hope. The schools were struggling to transition to virtual learning, and many of his classmates struggled to follow along the same way my son felt every day. It also removed the need to go to a building every day that flooded him with noise and stress and drained him. He still wasn’t learning, but at least he wasn’t learning in a more comfortable environment.

As the school year was winding down, we reevaluated our options. We had looked into virtual school before, but we felt like the in-person experience was more important to help with socialization. But because of the pandemic, the increasing level of anxiety from going to his old school, and his academic drift, we decided to make the move.

The way our virtual school works, the kids have a teacher, but they also have a “learning coach,” which in our case was my wife. The learning coach is supposed to be there to monitor the child’s progress and help them meet school requirements, but it quickly turned into a full-time teaching role.

There was a gap between hearing the material in class and completing assignments that my son couldn’t cross. My wife had to learn and then teach the material to my son and, even then, he struggled to complete the assignments. To finish the assignments, she guided him through every subject, through every assignment, and through every question on each assignment, just to get them done. He spent a few hours a week virtually with a tutor. We tried to keep him caught up but, with little retention, we found ourselves falling further behind.

It became clear early on how difficult school is for my son and how much of a disservice his previous school had done by not understanding his needs. We didn’t fully know because we never truly saw what was happening.

We had the best intentions. We wanted to keep our son moving forward. We wanted him to feel successful. But we started burning out. The combination of an unsustainable amount of work and the frustration of watching our son struggle was too much. By doing much of the work for him, we also inadvertently hid where he was academically. The school wasn’t able to evaluate him because, on paper, it looked like he was keeping up.

That’s when we realized that we needed to do something that goes against every fiber of our being. We had to let him do it by himself. We had to let him fail.

Logically, I get it. The school needs data that reflects where my son stands. Once they have the data, they can adjust his education plan to better match what we can expect from him.

Emotionally, it’s loaded. I have my issues with perfectionism, with being judged and graded, that I project onto him. I’m worried that we haven’t created a safe space where he understands that his grades don’t reflect on who he is as a person. I hope we have, but that’s one of those things that will take years to play out.

The greater fear, though, is that the school will say that there is nothing that they can do for him. And then what? There are no other schools in the city that will take him. Even if there were a private school that could accommodate him, it would be outside of the city, and we likely couldn’t afford it. Even if we moved and found the money, which is also unlikely because the city housing market is terrible, we’d be in the same position, just somewhere else.

Maybe that’s projecting out too far into the future. We don’t know what we don’t know. What we do know is that this isn’t working, and it will have to get worse if it has any chance of getting better.

We have to let him fail so that we can find a way to help him succeed.