Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Only Self I Have

Photo Credit: Morguefile by Flutterby

Some days, when you are a parent, just suck.

Yesterday was one of those. It was not without its pleasant moments. A flash of brilliance in my older son's writing and a smile exchanged afterward. A hug from my littlest. A moment cuddling the chicken, whose feathers are now growing back.* Most of it, though, felt like slowly being bludgeoned with the hard surface of a pair of fuzzy dice.** I couldn't teach anything. We were learning a new step in adding: two digits each addend with neither a multiple of ten. Carrying. All mental. No quick-pencil algorithm in this math. Numbers lay in disorder on the floor—their teeth bloody and broken; they refused to stay in columns, refused to join one another into sums. Nothing I did would work. It was the second day with the same small problem set. My anxiety was starting to rise. My child was stubborn, belligerent, spacey, despondent and disinterested by turns.

This is where my large decisions come back to bite me in the ass. Last year, at public school, he refused to work in his first grade class. He dawdled, dropped pencils and languished in his chair. At the end of the year, he knew less math than he'd come in knowing at the start. We kept waiting, waiting—and his teacher kept waiting, too. We waited for him to decide to try. We encouraged, gave consequences, gave love, sent him to therapy. We didn't know what to do. None of us.

"What can he do in Math?" I asked his teacher. "What does he know?"

"I don't really know," she told me. "He won't do anything."

And so went the entire year.

When I decided to home school my son, I did it knowing that, when he doesn't know how to do a task, he will go to war with anyone, rather than having to try and fail. He will show you he is choosing not to learn, so that you can't see he has no choice. It's the strategy of a learning disabled child. I felt that my job would be to love him, to show him that it was always OK to try and fail. And to never let him win by refusing to do his work.

Yesterday, my patience went bankrupt. It wasn't OK for him to fail. He needed to do it right. I needed him not to struggle to add together eight and two. And I was stuck with myself. There was no one else to do the job.

"I would just give up for the day," said my husband, reasonably.

It sounded so right, so obviously the perfect thing to do. And maybe it was. But I couldn't do it. Tomorrow was coming after me, already the same way as this day and the one before. I can't get away from my learning disabled child. He is brilliant and confounded, all in the same breath. He is epic in his thinking; he is stuck on basics; he is mine. He is mine. And I am his.

This is the only self I have. This self I have is the sort that will become impatient when it takes ninety seconds for a child to recall a math fact that we both have filed as "known." I will try to conceal it. I will stifle my sigh. I will scrunch up the frustration on my face. But I will be frustrated. I will be that way today and tomorrow and Friday and next week and next month and forever. My son will notice. He's sensitive. And he will always be the sort of person who answers slowly, who doesn't hear what I said, who has the slipcover over his ears and is refusing to do his work. He will be that way today and tomorrow and Friday and next week and next month and forever, too. His is the only self he has.

I can give this unpaid teaching gig to someone else. I really can. It's a valid thing to do. That's why we have public schools with fine teachers and administrators and speech language pathologists to help him. It makes all the sense in the world, especially on days like this. But...he has gone there and...I have worked there. And so I know that they are just trying their best with all their knowledge and commitment to teach the children, same as me. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.

In the end, no one is more committed to this one child than I am.

My art as his mother and teacher, then, becomes one of avoiding false choices, getting past do it or leave it alone. I have to know that there is always another option, always another way. He can learn and I can teach. The problem is with neither of us. It is the method that is wrong. And then, back to the drawing board, over and over—how will we learn this thing? The art I speak of is of never giving up.

The child in psychic pain rushes at me like an angry bull, teased by crowds, poked and prodded, bullied into a fight. You're telling me I have to learn this, woman? OK, the fight is on! The child has no choice but to fight me or must give up being a bull. To sit there, passive, when provoked with education beyond him, is too much. He's heated, angry, petulant. He's coming after me. When I'm tired, when I'm foolish, I will stand there. I will argue with the bull. Holding back its horns until my arms are aching, wrestling with its nature, yelling curses about crazy cows, I'll drain myself of everything I need to win the fight. Some days are like that. Other times, I remember what to do.

The bull charges, tears toward me, ripping up the earth. I stand still; my heart is pounding. Still, I remain there; I can feel its musky breath fill the air just near my face. And then, as the horns lower to gore me, seconds from my end, I make one movement: I slowly step aside. The bull expends his energy in the run. My own is preserved to face him another time.

So it is with children. My job is to be that matador—to let them have the power and anger of their run and to keep from getting impaled on the process of their growing up.

1 PM.

"You did it!" I tell him. "You really did it. You finished that whole sheet. You got all of it correct. I am so proud of your hard work."

He beams.

"I learned it."

"Yes," I tell him. "Yes, you did."

*Yes, I got her a diaper. She has only worn it once since it came two days ago. Her feathers are regrowing on their own. We are all very happy she is doing so much better now.

** This is what I say it feels like being worn down by adorable little people—kind of like being tied up by Ewoks.


  1. Great job! It's easier to give up, but worth it to continue (but not all the time). Each child needs a push once in awhile, or sometimes more. And, they need to know that they are loved no matter how they behave. And, that's what you're doing.

    1. Thanks. It is always hard to know when to let it go and when to push and our own psychology can get in the way of that, but I am not sorry that I pushed him—that day at least.

  2. =) Great job and a wonderful post.

    PS! Glad to hear the chicken is doing well. I'd love to see a photo of the chicken in diapers. Even the idea of it, is hard for me to imagine

    1. I took some photos of the chicken. None of them are good, but I will have to put them in here soon. She's almost fully feathered and looks pretty funny in her blue diaper.

  3. Well, that wears me out just to read it! I am so glad you made the breakthrough, finally! Maybe your son will begin to see that success carries its own reward and he'll develop more of a desire to keep trying.
    But this is why I could never home-school, and I could never be teach special-needs children. I don't have the patience. My mother was a teacher and she used to say, "Some kids sit there and defy you to teach them anything." She just did the best she could presenting the material (she taught high school English and Spanish) and if they didn't learn, they didn't learn. Nobody can work miracles.

    1. There is that. I think the thing is when you are parent and teacher you are dealing with those moments of defiance both from a teaching perspective and from a raising perspective. So, you can see that they are not letting you teach them and they won't learn no matter what you do AND, as a parent, that is an issue you want to try and deal with as best you can because you love them. So, both things are always happening at the same time.

  4. "In the end, no one is more committed to this one child than I am." A very significant truth. And, in these days when so many parents have very little commitment to their kids' education, he's so lucky to have you.

    1. Thanks, Jewels. I hope so. Sometimes, I wonder if he won't be in therapy later because of all this. ;)

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  7. To be learning such lessons together is a gift greater than merely knowing the sum of 8 and 2. Thanks for sharing this.


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