So today, I need to be a tough-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside mom, which is completely legit considering how close it is to Mother’s Day (for those of you who may not realize — ahem, NO. 3 — THIS Sunday). I warn you now in case you want to flee and engage in some mindless internet fun, like the yodeling Walmart boy*, perhaps?
I’ve mentioned before, but don’t dwell on the fact that I have a teen with special needs. The reality is, those of us who are parents do in one way or another. Those little people may start off small and sweet, but they are challenging every step of the way. All parents struggle with their kids at some point (OK, every point) even if those children don’t have specific labels. Well, mine does, although we’ve never spent too much time naming names because… what’s the point? Our parental stance has always been that we need to spell out things specifically for the schools and teachers so they know how to deal with our kiddo but for everyone else, said kid included, it’s OK to talk in generalities about challenges. Labels are fine and good until they start pigeonholing people and lowering expectations. Of course, there was one kid — the same one who introduced the ‘f’ word — who also dropped the ‘a’ word on her one day.
“N. says he and I have autism,” she said.
“Yeah, you do,” I told her. “But you already know what that means…”
I went on to say all the stuff that I’ve always said, that she learns differently and can be sensitive to certain things and has trouble communicating and blah blah blah, yada yada yada. And that last bit is pretty much all she heard because I could see her eyes glaze over after “Yeah, you do” and she shrugged and said “OK” and walked away. And that was that.
But, now, now she’s starting to get it. She’s becoming more self aware. She’s seeing the differences in how easily other kids interact while she struggles. A lot.
Arizona’s hardworking teachers, bless them, went on strike recently, which shut down all the major school districts for more than a week. Two out of three kids were home for seven days. This did not sit well with any of them, but it especially affected the one who loves routine and NEEDS TO KNOW what is happening every minute of every second of every day. She enjoys school and seeing her “friends.” She wants to learn and do homework that can be completed in 10.9 seconds before engaging in her very important YouTube watching (another yodeling boy fan).
During the time off, she obsessively checked the internet for updates and when she learned she’d likely have a school-free week, well, then she did that normal teen thing and started texting to find someone to hang out with. Girls would initially sound game but then back out in the last minute. Well, my kid may have challenges, but navigating social media is not one of them and soon enough she discovered that “her friends” who begged off as busy were actually busy with each other. Yup, that sucked.
This led to repeated conversations about the differences between true friends and casual acquaintances and how just because people may be nice to you might not mean they want to pal around outside of school and that’s OK. It doesn’t make them any less nice, it just means you have to try harder to find people you have things in common with and who do want to be with you. This did not help. At all.
“I don’t understand why they lied to me. They should have just told me the truth.”
If only the world worked like that.
So, the lack of a routine, coupled with the dawning realization that she doesn’t really have any friends, unleashed a teenage beast who could easily take over the throne of any third world country currently in need of a cruel dictator.
All we could do was duck for cover.
Then thankfully, school started up again. This should have made her deliriously happy. Instead, she was still hormonal teen-level angry. And finally, it came out. The truth. The anger, the bitterness, the agitation and irritability — it all came raining down because she’s miserable and stressed in dance class.
She adores the class and the teacher, but she has to work… in a group. Collaborative group work is so not her thing. It’s not anyone’s really, but, the rest of us have the social graces to know how to fake it. With her challenges, she gets so lost and tangled that her only way out is to retreat with a headfache (yes, I meant to do that because it’s not real), which, understandably, aggravates the other girls because they need to get stuff done. My girl gets upset because the group goes too fast and so she hides in the nurse’s office, where a cot has been named in her honor for her frequent visits. Further complication: There’s a bossy girl (because there’s always a bossy girl in these situations). Second complication: Another girl she’d thought of as friend and who has been continually too busy to hang out is in the same group. Salt in the wound.
So now, now I know why my kid has been so angry for the past few weeks that she took it out on me by redacting much of my birthday card, demoting me from the “best mom ever” to the worst.
All this behavior was unleashed because she couldn’t handle the group work. This has started to become her MO, by the way. She’s mean and sulky to her family and only after we’re all frustrated and at the end of the rope, we find out what has triggered the whole thing.
Once I knew, though, I could try to fix things. Naturally, I reached out to her teachers. Her case manager immediately started with some counseling and shared her cell number with my daughter, which she recognized as a special honor. Her dance teacher suggested that her teacher’s aide, a mature and kind senior, act as sort of a mentor. That very afternoon, mere hours after everyone became aware of the problem, we huddled together to talk with my daughter, who bravely decided she wanted to tell the group about her challenges. We met for more than an hour, and these teachers shared stories and applauded her bravery and just showed the most amazing patience and empathy. It was like someone — well, two someones — waved a magic wand. The anger, the sadness? Poof. Gone.
I might be a writer, but I’m stumped now. I’m so at a loss to adequately express how much this meant. I dare someone to argue that educators don’t deserve hefty six-figure salaries. They don’t just teach, they nurture and guide and basically act as parents — except they get paid (only a smidge more than we do). Plus they can do math. Seriously, is there any job out there other than teaching that has more impact on someone’s life? And not just on one person, but hundreds. Thousands.
I can still name each and every one of the teachers who made an impression on me: Mrs. Roy**, David Mullis, Bob “Carp” Carpenter, John Robertson, Bill O’Donald, Madelon Muller, Beth Johnson, Ingrid U. Miller, Ted Robbins and Prof. Jim Patten, who made me realize I could be a journalist.
Later, my daughter told me that she didn’t know how she could ever repay her teachers for how much they’ve done. Me neither.
Until I figure it out, though, I can say thank you.
*I do not get why he is a thing.
**She was so prim and proper that she did not even have a first name.