Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Christa's post about finding the right incentive system for her son Ben reminded me of something I wanted to write about before school ended.

(That, clearly, did not happen. But I've decided there's no statute of limitations on blog post ideas, and so...)

When N started in the resource room at school (for extra academic support), one of the things the resource teacher asked us to do was to restart a computer-based reading program we'd been using on and off at home. I explained to her the reasons we'd had so little success in using that program consistently, mostly having to do with the fact that the thing is deadly dull, had pegged him at way below his actual reading level, and goes excruciatingly slowly. Getting N to sit down and use that program instead of more fun--but not school-approved--reading websites was like pulling teeth, and I'd given up.

She asked me to give it another try. She talked to N about why she wanted him to use this particular program, promised to try to get him up a few levels so it wasn't so boring for him, and sweetened the pot by instituting a sticker chart: For each 30-minute session on the computer, he would earn a sticker at home; when he had five stickers on a piece of paper, he could visit "Mrs. R's Treasure Chest" and choose a prize.

He was very excited. He earned the first four stickers in just three days, spending a whole hour on the computer plugging away at the program one evening.

And then he stopped. Wouldn't go back to the site. Wouldn't talk about it. Just wouldn't.

A few days later, Mrs. R mentioned to me that he'd earned some kind of award in her class, that she'd invited him to visit her treasure chest for a prize, and that he'd refused.

"Turns out, he says he's scared of going up to my treasure chest," she said. "Totally took me by surprise. In the end, I just praised him, and dropped it. Didn't want the positive incentive to become negative."

And with that, I'd solved the mystery of the reading program.

That night at home, I suggested a new plan.

"Hey, N," I said. "How about we do DORA tonight, and when you've worked for half an hour you get a sticker on your chart. That's it. Just a sticker. You don't have to go to Mrs. R's treasure chest after; you can just bring in the sticker chart and show it to her. I bet she'll be really proud of you for your hard work."

It worked, though not as wildly as it had the first few nights. He did his half hour, earned his fifth sticker, and I gave him the paper to show to Mrs. R. Except he never did show it to her.

And now, now that it's summer and he's not seeing Mrs. R, and there's no treasure chest and no unwanted attention for a sticker sheet? He's working away at the reading program. Not every day, but often enough. He wants to get past the levels he's on, he says. That's incentive enough.

And that is my quirky kid, in a nutshell. The kid for whom a traditional incentive--a seemingly nothing-but-positive incentive--can turn on a dime, and actually become a disincentive. A kid who's scared by a prize box, and put off by praise. Not always, not in every situation. Just often enough to make me shake my head, and realize that I'll never really understand what makes him tick.

Fascinating kid, though. Just fascinating.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

An Open Letter To N's Third-Grade Teacher

Really? You have absolutely nothing positive to say about my child in the comments section of his report card? REALLY? Not a thing?

N continues to work below grade level.

Well, duh, lady. I'm pretty sure the IEP, at which point they pulled him out of your classroom for most of his major academics, would have been the first clue. The second was the fact that, because of that, you weren't even allowed GIVE HIM GRADES in those subjects. So, um, yeah. We know. Thanks for noting it.

He has difficulty reading or speaking in class.

We know this one, too. I get it. You're documenting. Carry on.

He has not developed any strong friendships and prefers to work alone.

It's called autism. But, you know, whatever. Salt in the wound, I can handle it. Again, you want to make sure these things are in his record. OK. Maybe his next year's teacher will refuse to read the IEP like you did, so it will help that he or she is forewarned by these notes.

That's not what made me shaking angry. What made me shaking angry was the fact that the comments stopped right there.

You were diligent about documenting his issues, for sure. But you had this child in your classroom for 10 months, and you have nothing positive to say about him? I can think of a few things you could have said. More than a few actually. I assume it would have cost you years off your life to say that it was a pleasure to have him in your class, or that you hope he has a good summer. But you could have noted that, despite your often-obvious hostility toward him, he never once spoke disrespectfully to you. You could have said that, despite his difficulties connecting with his peers, he never hits or pushes or bites or even really butts heads with anyone in any way, including verbally. You could even have said that he withstood some pretty nasty taunting--most of which went on right under your nose--with considerable grace and aplomb. And you could have pointed out how he did pretty much everything that was asked of him that fell outside of his known disabilities--and some that fell within as well, including getting up on a stage to perform with his class last week.

But you didn't. Because you are a bitch. (Apparently I'm the one who deserves the "needs improvement" in "gets along with others" which you gave him.)

And so Baroy and I will clean up yet another of the completely unnecessary messes you left for us this year, and we will just not show N his report card. We won't even mention it. If he asks, we'll show him the notes from his resource-room teacher, who wrote things like "has been trying hard" and "has good ideas" throughout the progress report she put together regarding his IEP's goals and benchmarks.

Because, you know, she's a human being. Who actually likes children. Even if they have the absolute gall to have special needs ... and thus need special care.

Fourth grade will be better, right? Because I am absolutely done with third.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


We couldn't see N during the opening number of the third-grade play. He must be far back in the crowd, I thought. But then: Or maybe he wasn't there at all?

Next came the scene with a smaller bunch of pirates, singing a song I'd heard him practice over and over.* But no N.

Baroy and I caught one another's eyes. Baroy was up closer to the stage with the camera; I was videoing from the back.

He's not there. He didn't go on. Oh, no. No. No. Oh, my poor boy.

He's been so excited to participate in this play, to dress up in his pirate costume and put on his eyepatch and brandish his sword. He's even used the word brandish. He's been studying up on piracy, is what I'm saying.

And now this.

I continued to video the play because he'd insisted he'd want to be able to see it later on; he also wanted to show Em, who couldn't miss school this morning to attend. But I saw Baroy sink to the floor and put his head in his hands, and I couldn't see through the tears in my eyes.

But then. Then. A few scenes later, the pirates came tromping out one by one, and I saw blue-striped blur. N! It's N!

Baroy caught it at the same time, and started snapping pictures.

He wasn't loud, and his gestures weren't as big as they should have been. But he was singing, and he was doing the choreography. He was there. On the stage. Participating.

Now I really couldn't see through the tears.

I noticed, nearby, that N's occupational therapist, H, had come into the auditorium. (She was looking for one of the other students she works with.) She saw me and came over.

"That's N!" she breathed. "On stage!"

"Yup," I said.

"That's huge," she said, clearly awed.


And there he was, in all the scenes. Usually way in the back, or half hidden behind the stage-left curtain at the end of a row.** But he was there. Singing. And dancing.

And being one kick-ass pirate.

(Far right. Blue shirt with red sash. Pirates!)

*Turns out it wasn't one of his songs. He just liked it, so sang it a lot at home.
**No blame on the teachers for this; I'd have done the same. He was a definite not-going-on risk, and the last thing you want is a big hole front and center in your play.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Moments of Renewal

I'm walking up to my car this morning after dropping N at school, and I see a small white dog streak down the main (ish) thoroughfare I park on. It makes a sharp left and turns up a side street.

I stop and look; a few blocks above, I see a man walking his dog. I see him begin gesturing, pointing down the side street. I see a woman appear at a full-out run, following his gestures. She's not young; she's not dressed to run like this. She disappears down the side street.

I get into my car and wait for traffic to allow me to make a U-turn. I head up to the side street where the dog and the woman had disappeared. I'll pick her up, I've decided; we'll go up and down the streets until she finds the dog.

But I'm too late. Up the block I see another car, another minivan with the school's bumper sticker on it, open its doors. The woman climbs in, and they're off. I follow, just in case I can help. About two blocks later, past another 'main' north-south street, the car pulls over, stops; the woman gets out, scoops up the dog.

I'm definitely no longer needed. I pass the car, my window open, and I hear the dog-lady thanking the driver of the car; she's still panting, and there are tears streaming down her face.

"I can't...I just can't...thank..."

There are days and times--amidst oil spills and irrational hatreds and children senselessly dying--that it feels like too much. All of it. Too much.

But then a man points, and a woman opens her car door, and a puppy is scooped up into loving arms, and it doesn't fix anything, it doesn't negate any of it, but it makes it all possible again. Even if just for a day, even if just for a little while. There's hope; there's grace.

Right there in front of me.