Friday, March 2, 2012

What is Not Simple


"Lovely Weed"

Easy as ABC. Simple as 123.

What could be simpler than setting pencil to paper, than cutting and pasting a letter in the proper position? What could be simpler than standing and walking in line, than sitting in a seat?


These things are so easy when a child is equipped to do them, it is hard to imagine that they could be difficult for anyone. Almost as simply done as flipping a light switch, the proper instruction is given and the light will turn on. This seems to be the hope and expectation of almost every teacher.

Frustratingly, though, often we flip the switch and the room remains in darkness. The child, though obviously intelligent, sits fiddling with his pencils and the worksheet is incomplete. The temptation is to flip the switch again. Again. Again. Now the child, although he has not completed the worksheet, has still learned something new. He has learned that there is something wrong with him. The light switch is simply not wired to work in this way. It cannot be cajoled or punished into triggering. It will not light until you discover the secrets of its wiring.

Children are not simple.

I work in education and what I know of teachers, generally, is that they work harder than you know, and that they care more than you suspect. Teaching is more difficult, more draining than you think and classroom dynamics quite different than people outside of classrooms understand. The comments left by parents on some blogs I have read, criticizing teachers for what seem like completely ordinary acts of discipline–which I have observed in every classroom I have worked in–leave me puzzled. What do these people want exactly?

I have two children with IEPs and have worked in a school for five years, and I will tell you that implementing an IEP, as it is written can be extremely difficult, in a room with twenty-four other students and limited staff. Sometimes it will dictate that a student have a scribe, but there will be only two adults available to the entire class. Sometimes a student needs a quiet environment and the classroom is small and crowded. They need additional time to work, but from where should this time come? From their play time? From recess? Often IEPs are written in ideals, and when translated to reality, things look entirely different.

Teaching is not simple.

My six year old son reads at third grade level. His handwriting is illegible. He demonstrates higher order thinking skills but can't fully understand the difference between reality and make-believe. He understood how to increment a digit in hexadecimal when shown by my husband, but has trouble completing addition worksheets because...they are worksheets. His teacher knows he is incredibly bright and grasps the concepts she has taught but has very little physical evidence to demonstrate his mastery of material.

Mikalh (MEE-koll) spoke late and didn't string sentences together at the typical age. He received the services of a developmental specialist which were, at one time, almost entirely focused on encouraging him to play imaginatively. This, for a child who now, has more costumes than clothes and spends every unscheduled moment of his day involved in make-believe. I felt then that none of this "help" hurt him, but I hardly felt that the diagnosticians had really seen my child, in all his beautiful complexity, for who he is.

Development is not simple.

Throughout all of Mikalh's years of being watched and diagnosed, notes have been made on his tendency to wiggle, his inability to "pay attention", his general spaciness. To anyone reading his file, flashing red lights appear around the obvious truth that Mikalh has AD/HD. Mikalh can't pay attention. It seems perfectly obvious.

Is it?

If there is one thing you should know, it is that I am not opposed to diagnostic labels. I also am not in any way categorically opposed to psychiatric medications. I have only somewhat jokingly written that my entire family has AD/HD. Two of my children currently take medications for this condition and I am the person who asked for the team meetings at school on the subject and who asked the questions that led to these diagnoses. My intuition as a mother told me that this was the right thing to do. 

With Mikalh, I just don't feel so sure. There is, at this point, no resounding "clunk" of recognition within me when it is suggested that my youngest child has AD/HD. He may, but I don't know how much of who he is can be explained by that particular label. My intuition tells me to be skeptical but still cooperative.

Parenting is not simple.

Mikalh is so young that no one really knows fully knows what makes him who he is. He is currently being served at school for language processing, fine motor and sensory issues, and is also seeing a therapist to deal with the fall-out of his extreme emotional sensitivity. He has a high IQ and a tendency to think creatively. How all of these factors complicate what we are seeing in him is impossible to tease out.

This child, who is apparently paying no attention, will walk up to his teacher, as the other children are leaving for recess and recount for her the most interesting portions of the story she read while he wandered aimlessly around the room. After a day of completing no work on a science unit on liquids and solids, he will come home and conduct experiments in our sink, chattering happily about why the table is solid and why his soy milk is liquid. In a quiet classroom with the attention of his sweet teacher or in our own kitchen, he blooms.

My deep suspicion is that the world comes at Mikalh undistilled. He seems to be attending to the sound of his teacher's voice, to the motion of classmates in the room, to the rhythm of the noisy heater, to the graceful ballroom dance of swaying branches in the wind, visible outside the window. The world gushes into him, full of beauty and horror and confusion to attend to, and he vibrates with the sensation of its touch. The endless worksheets shift like pieces of a Rubik's Cube, meaningless as clutter. The seat beneath him confines him.

He is a song composed of golden riddles and velvet images, forged to evoke instead of explain. The world wants not music, but a simple explanation from him.

Mikalh feels intensely the softness of fleece and the hardness and scratchiness of a plastic school chair. He stops to examine the beauty of individual snowflakes. He feels, with eyes wide and full of contemplation, the pain of toiling slaves, who lived and died one hundred fifty years before his birth, and the fear and bravery of Helen Keller. He wonders why it is ethical to put an injured animal to sleep, whom we cannot heal, but not an injured person. He is fascinated by the intricate design on the back of a spider.

Who is not paying attention?

My child is not simple.

Simplicity can be the ultimate truth and essence of the world. The room free of clutter, the Japanese garden, the raw and uncomplicated gorgeousness of a sunset over mountains. A moment of quiet meditation. Many things have been written in praise of simplicity, and they are beautifully true.

But simplicity can also be a shackle. When your heart is full of poems and the world wants neat demonstrations of knowledge. When creation settles on you in a bedlam of rich color and detail and you are asked to name the thing most important, but perhaps, not most interesting. Simple plans and objectives fail the child who is a swirl of lovely chaos.

He is a rangy, delicate wildflower in a garden of orderly tulips, and I am dumbstruck by his beauty.

I do not want for him to be more straight and tidy. I want, instead, for the world to love wildflowers as much as I do and renounce its blind devotion to simplicity.




28 comments:

  1. a beautiful description of a beautiful and complex child which also clearly demonstrates that neither teaching nor parenting is easy. Well done!

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  2. This is gorgeous. I have a lot of thoughts about it, too many for a comment, really. Just gorgeous and heartfelt.
    I love wildflowers.

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    1. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I always love to hear your thoughts. Children are complex creatures and a system designed to, in a standardized way, educate vast quantities of them, is doomed to be flawed no matter the intentions and talents of the individuals involved which, in this case, are considerable. I am not even slightly angry at the school my son attends (which I also work at). There are wonderful people in his life, focusing lots of attention on his needs. He is a wildflower and that is not what the system is designed for. Many, many accommodations have been suggested and they sound excellent and yet, perhaps, they result in a child more and more excluded–a wildflower on the edge of a yard of tulips. Education of the masses is just hard. Very hard.

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  3. Ah, this is lovely. I've fallen in love with your not so simple son

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    1. Thank you! He really is a completely delightful creature. Today he was telling me all about Benjamin Franklin and what he had read about him in a book in his classroom, probably while he was supposed to be doing a worksheet.

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  4. It's a shame we haven't found a way to run schools more creatively so our children's talents are able to be expressed.
    He sounds beautiful and interesting and truly creative.

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    1. It IS a shame. I want to re-make the whole world of school every day so each lovely, exotic weed of a child I encounter can thrive in it–every single one I meet.

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  5. That sounds like me when I was little. Read at a 6th grade level in 2nd and couldn't do handwriting at all (still can't at 53).

    It sounds like he's missing the squelch control to block out the extraneous stuff, but he has adapted enough to pick up what is important.

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    1. I have often found that this is a child with whom many writers have things in common.

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  6. I have found that wildflowers grow up to be the creators and the leaders. Relax and he will find his way. I love wildflowers, too. Processing life is an individual thing and should be allowed. ♥

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    1. Thanks, Jo. I always say I think he will be fine–more than fine–if we can just get through this time without his self-esteem being irrevocably damaged.

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  7. He is blessed to have you for a mother, and to be part of your exquisitely brilliant family
    Amy

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    1. You would adore him, Amy. I can't wait for you to spend time with him again. He's such an interesting character.

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  8. I agree with Amy! Your description reminds me somewhat of my own son. Have you read this book? http://www.amazon.ca/Raising-Your-Spirited-Child-Perceptive/dp/0060923288
    Two of my children are very spirited, including sensitivities to materials and the world around them, emotional intensity, etc. I found it a very helpful read:)

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  9. I did read this book! It was my bible for my oldest son and right now I have a copy of the accompanying Workbook in my car to read when I have to wait at appointments. Both are great books. :)

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  10. When my daughter was younger (and even still, but a little less so), she was very sensitive to the moods of everyone around her and seemed to catch them the way others caught a cold, she was full of crazy passion and deep despair sometimes within seconds of one another. I spoke with an old friend about my concern for her and said, "I think the world is going to be very hard on her." And he said, "Oh, I don't know, maybe she's going to show the world a thing or two." I've kind of been clinging to that notion for ten or twelve years now and, mostly, it works for us.

    I think your son is very lucky to have a mom who pays so much attention to all of the person he is.

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    1. Thanks. I'm sure your daughter has been equally lucky. It's so easy forget that fitting oneself to adapt to an imperfect world may be necessary in part, but we also have to ask the world to adapt to us. It does, and it makes the world a place full of interesting people.

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  11. Yesterday, Mikalh entered our RE classroom quietly. Activity was already happening and I am not sure what instruction he received, but he started to look through a magazine and was captured by something he wanted to read (we were making collages about what is important to us). A parent helper tried to get him "going", but I assured this person that Mikahl was fine and indeed he moved at his own pace and made a meaningful collage. He later stopped by our classroom, collage still in hand, and told me, "I liked this." When I expressed confusion, he said more emphatically, "This. Class." I don't know if he came specifically to say this or just happened by when I was in the room gathering my things. Whatever the reason, I treasure two things. One that he cared enough to stop and say he liked it and two that we did something he found meaningful. I am not a trained teacher and it is a long time since my sons were 6-8, so I often feel out of my element, but we are all learning how to be together this group of lovely, intelligent, thoughtful, creative children. I only see them once a week at most and it takes a while to get to know each other. Mikahl is indeed a lovely wildflower, but I seem him with "my" other wildflowers all lovely and creating an interesting field to wander.

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    1. Mikalh loves RE, Rebecca. Thank you so much for giving him the space to explore in his own way. He was still reading that collage in second service, asking for help to pronounce Ontario and wondering what it was. I wonder what it meant to him.

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  12. This:

    "He is a rangy, delicate wildflower in a garden of orderly tulips, and I am dumbstruck by his beauty.

    I do not want for him to be more straight and tidy. I want, instead, for the world to love wildflowers as much as I do and renounce its blind devotion to simplicity."


    is so incredibly beautiful.

    My oldest is a teacher--a wonderfully hard-working and deeply caring teacher who puts herself out there every day. I called her and read your words to her and she reacted just as I knew she would. She is that teacher--the ones who loves the wildflowers as much as the tulips and understands that the garden is most beautiful when it boasts a lush assortment of blossoms.

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    1. Thanks for sharing it, Elizabeth. I love teachers. I have so much respect for them, being privileged as I am to work with them every day. The ones who see the beauty and potential each child–and make sure that child sees it too–are people none of us ever forget. Thanks for raising someone like this!

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  13. My 16yr old son went to college this year. He's never been to school before.

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    1. In that case, if I ever get round to writing that piece about homeschooling, I'll be asking you for the fulls coop! How amazing. We are thinking of going to half day for Mikalh next year.

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    2. I cannot type correctly to save my life today. I give up. One can only delete and re-type so many comments in one day.

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