Swimming Upstream in Jello

IMG_5547I know, I know. It’s been a while since I’ve hit this blog. I owe a million updates, and I’ll be honest, you probably won’t get them for the very reasons I haven’t updated this site in a while — work and family and life just have this way of encroaching and impeding the unfettered ranting and/or naval gazing required to keep up a personal blog.

But today, today was too good a day not to share. But to do so, a bit of background. As you know, Tiny has been working with an OT since pre-K, when he was diagnosed with what we thought was SPD. Kindergarten went wonderfully, though, and we kind of thought that we had finally hit upon the mix that would give him the ability to make it through school and thrive.

But this year was different. He struggled early, and hard. It didn’t get easier, and our sunny child became tired, stressed, and even surly. His teachers were worried. His school counselor was observing him. It became clear that the increased expectations in first grade (despite everyone’s best efforts to include plenty of movement, plenty of breaks, plenty of things little kids need to be able to process the amount of stuff we now require them to know at a much earlier clip than I remember needing to) were wreaking havoc with the boy.

We watched secretly (but with our permission) shot video of him hiding inside his hoodie with headphones on, shutting the entire class out as his classmates worked around him. We watched, in tears, as you could just see on his face that he was struggling. He was trying so hard, but the sheer amount of work it takes for him to focus left him little energy for the actual business of learning.

“I hear EVERYTHING, Mommy,” he told me one quiet afternoon when we were talking about school. “I hear the toilet flushing down the hall, I hear shoes squeaking, I hear Joshua breathing, I hear the pencils. I hear everything.”

We started medication for his ADHD, and it helped, some. But it wasn’t enough. He could focus longer, but the sensory issues still plagued him. He was still in the immersion Spanish track (after all, last year he thrived in it), but it was becoming clear that he was not thriving now.

It’s hard to watch a child struggle. As a parent, when you know what kind of effort he’s putting out and he’s still not able to keep apace with his classmates, and you know he’s getting old enough to know this is the case, it’s crushing. We walked this tightrope of wanting to help him catch up at home, but also knowing that after trying that hard all damned day, the kid needed a break.

His OT explained it like this: Tiny was having to tune out all those things – the flickering light, the sounds, the itch in his left sock – then listen to his teacher speak in Spanish, then translate that in his head, then think of the answer, and probably translate that answer back into Spanish, all while continuing to tune out all the sensory things that were bombarding his brain.

Needless to say, he was behind. But his smart counselor began guiding us through the process of requesting an evaluation by the school district. Slowly, we started getting more answers. One of the psychologists called to talk about the results before we had a meeting to plan and strategize with the school and his teachers.

“We feel comfortable saying he is on the spectrum,” she said. Another thing we learned? His reading in English was just at grade level, but in Spanish, he was behind. “I worry,” the evaluator said, “that continuing to work on two languages may mean he gets behind in both.”

So we made a decision that seemed at first sad but was ultimately incredibly rewarding. We took him out of the immersion track and put him into a general education classroom. Tiny was anxious and adamant that he didn’t want to leave his friends, so his amazing first grade teachers worked together — the immersion teachers and the gen ed teachers — to create a schedule where he would be able to stay with his homeroom teacher for math and science, and then go to the general education class for reading, language arts, and social studies.

That move, combined with some assistance he now qualified for, was an unqualified success, to understate what happened egregiously.

In January, he was reading just at grade level in English, barely. By May, he was reading at almost third-grade level. He was bringing home E’s and S’s on his report card.

And most importantly, he was coming home happy and excited to learn.

I can’t say enough good things about his school (which is, in fact, a neighborhood school in Dallas ISD – not a magnet, not a choice school, “just” an incredibly wonderful neighborhood school with dedicated teachers and staff that collaborate daily to make sure every kid there thrives).

From the teachers and counselor who immediately recognized that the ability was there if Tiny could just tune out all the static, to the district diagnosticians that helped us find the best supports for him, to the aides and therapists that worked with him, we never once wondered if this was a team effort. It absolutely was.

Today was the first-grade awards assembly. We were honestly considering the completion certificate we knew he’d get today award enough — after all, in January we were worried about if he’d be able to move on to second grade.

But then something amazing happened. Our small human surprised himself and us by muscling through the year and coming home with the science award. He could win the Nobel when I’m 100 and I still don’t think the look on his face when he gets it will surpass the grin he had on his face when his principal put the medal around his neck today.

We’re home now, and I don’t think he’s quit wearing that medal. He may sleep in it. He may wear it to school tomorrow. I’ve caught him twice so far holding it in his hands, staring at it and murmuring, “I really did it. I won this with my hard work.”

If I can ever get him to let go of it, I may end up having a similar moment.