Friday, August 1, 2008

The Incredible Power of a Teacher

or this could also be titled: "How a Little Boy Can Be Left Behind"

My son was born on his due date of August 23rd in 2001. It didn't occur to me until about 4 years later, but he would only be 5 years old for about a week when Kindergarten started in September of 2006. I thought long and hard about his starting Kindergarten at such a young age for a boy. Boys typically mature a bit slower than girls on average (well, do they EVER really mature? I'm not sure about that .....). I had dutifully entered my son into preschool when he was 3. He went 3 mornings per week. I was told that he was a bit behind the other kids his age, and that I should increase him to 5 mornings per week to help him get ready for Kindergarten. I thought "Get 'ready' for Kindergarten?" When I was a kid, Kindergarten was "getting ready" for grade school. But times are changing, and kids are expected to have a solid start on reading by First Grade.

I had been a Stay-At-Home-Mom since February of 1997 when my daughter was born. I was closing in on 10 years of not working (or working part-time sporadically). I considered long and hard whether he should start Kindergarten, or wait another year. Since we were really feeling the crunch of a one-income family, we decided that he could enter Kindergarten, and he could easily repeat Kindergarten if he fell behind, and I could begin looking for a job.

When I think back to the events leading up to this summer, I think: "I should have seen this all along". But, I didn't. As the mother of a very bright daughter, I wasn't terribly surprised that my son weaned later, talked later, and potty-trained later than my daughter. He also stutters when he is excited about something, or trying to get his point across without being interrupted (usually by his big sister). He struggled a bit in preschool, and was more interested in the social aspect than the academics. He is a very outgoing child, a bit of a class-clown, and all the kids think he's cool. He is also very, very sensitive and loving.

I met his Kindergarten teacher early in the year for the "Meet the Teachers" night at the school. She was an older, grandmotherly type woman, rather soft-spoken and seemed nice enough. It wasn't long before the telephone calls started coming. "Victor has a hard time sitting still in class." "Victor comes to school with dirt in his shoes, and it falls out all over the classroom floor." "Victor comes to class with dirty hands."

In the conversations, I politely reminded the teacher that Victor has afternoon Kindergarten. He plays all morning, and while he is dressed and cleaned up before lunch and after we walk out the front door, he does play while we wait for the bus, which can come anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes later. I told her that if I did not allow him to play with his trucks and cars, or play ball or frisbee while we wait for the bus, she would be having far more trouble getting him to sit still than she currently does! That comment went over like a lead balloon.

Then I got "the" call. Mrs. Grandmotherly Kindergarten teacher called on a Sunday, and the conversation went something like:

Teacher: "I don't know how to ask this question, so I guess I will just come out and say it."
Me: "Yes.......?"
Teacher: "Well, you know, there are people to help .......... you see, Victor comes to school without a coat ........... Does he own one? Can you not afford to buy him a coat? And all his pants are too short, and he doesn't wear socks, either."

I about bust out laughing, and explained to Mrs. Grandmotherly Teacher that yes indeed, Victor has no less than three coats, and he chooses not to wear them. Now, this wasn't February and 20 degrees outside when she called. Oh no, it was October or November, and unseasonably warm weather, in the 40's and 50's. I explained to Mrs. Grandmotherly Teacher that I dress my children for the weather, not the date. If its 60 degrees in January, I'm not sending him in a ski parka! I told her that he is smart enough to put on a coat if he is cold, and I am not going to force him to wear something and be uncomfortable. He also chooses to not wear socks becuase he doesn't like the feel of them, and I do force him to wear them when it gets below 40 degrees. I also explained he has a drawer full of new school clothes, and he much prefers to wear his too-short, well-worn in comfortable clothes from last year. At that point, I was thrilled that he liked going to school, so wasn't going to push the clothing issue. It was enough of a fight to get him to wear non-stained clothing, so I decided to choose my battles.

Mrs. Grandmotherly Teacher breathed a sigh of relief, laughed, and told me stories of her son, and his odd clothing choices as a child, and that she still doesn't buy him clothes for gifts, but gives him a gift certificate instead to purchase his own.

I thought that was the end of it. But it continued, with more phone calls home. During the first week of school in 1st grade, I had a call home from the principal. Apparently the school bus driver had a freak-out about my son and two other boys sitting on the bus discussing "My Daddy's gun is bigger than your Daddy's gun." Apparently she felt these 6 year olds were going to hijack the bus with Uzi's or something. Luckily, the principal is a native to this town (rather than one of the "big-city" folks that have moved in more recently), her husband is a hunter as well, and she understands that ownership of a shotgun or rifle does not automatically cause you to become a serial killer or terrorist.

I had spoken with Mrs. Grandmotherly Kindergarten teacher about possibly retaining him to repeat Kindergarten because he was struggling a bit and not quite up to grade level. She assured me that he was improving and would be fine.

The new first grade teacher was supposed to be one of the better teachers for active young boys. Her philosophy was that "every day is a fresh start", and "anybody can have a bad day", so she had a card system, where your first infraction your card went from green to yellow, then yellow to blue, then blue to red. You lost part of your recess or all of it as the infractions continued to grow, but each day you started out fresh in the morning. It seemed like a decent system at first. Now I feel this may have served to label him as a "troublemaker" child, and you'll see why if you choose to keep reading (sorry, this is so long, but I think you need the history to understand).

Victor liked his teacher well enough, he liked school and enjoyed going every day. We had a few conversations, and at the Parent/Teacher conference we had a chat about Victor and his behavior, and she seemed to understand about "little boys" and their inability to sit still for long periods of time. I thought we would have a good year. I'm sure I didn't even hear half of the stories, but we had a few telephone calls home about Victor's impulsivity, inability to sit still, his inability to finish any task without someone standing over him encouraging him to finish. He was having some difficulties keeping his hands to himself, also, and tends to strike out when frustrated. He always feels remorse and knows when he did something wrong, but seemed to have difficulty controlling the intial impulse.

Then one day Victor came home with some Starburst candy in his backpack. Hmmm..... I asked where he got that from. He said his teacher. I asked why his teacher gave him candy? He said it was a reward for doing something (I don't recall what it was). I thought to myself, Why in the world would a 1st grade teacher give out sugar-laden candy to a child who has a difficult time controlling himself and focusing? So I spoke to the teacher and told her that Victor is easily affected by sugar, and it wasn't a good idea to give him candy at school if she wanted him to sit still! She explained her reward system (which I don't agree with, but it was her classroom....). I agreed to purchase some little toys to give my son as a reward rather than candy. So I picked up a package of little plastic dinosaurs, Matchbox cars, and other little trinkets that I knew he would like, and I left them with her to give to him. He did love the special little treasures he received, I think moreso because they were cooler than candy!

Victor was also placed into an extra reading help group for kids struggling with reading. He was also placed in a speech class for his stuttering (which only comes out when he's stressed). Finally, he was placed into a class called "Special Friends", which was supposed to help him learn to deal with conflict and other children without getting frustrated and lashing out.

During this time, Victor had been having some illnesses. He seemed to pick up these stomach bugs easily, and was always sick for 3 days, where the other family members seemed to only feel ill for a few hours, or not at all. Then one day he came home from school, and he looked at his sister and said: "Your head is BIG!!!" She screamed and told him to shut up, but he said it again, and again. After I told him to stop teasing his sister, he said: "No, really mom, her head is HUGE!" I said "What are you talking about?" He said that sometimes peoples heads look really huge for awhile, then it goes away. He said that mostly round things, like heads, light fixtures look really huge for awhile, or really close, then it goes away. He called it "the eye thing", and when I asked him how long it had been going on, he said it had been going on since Kindergarten (so for at least a year!)

I thought this quite odd, but I remembered having weird feelings like that when I was a kid and having fevers. I got on the internet and started googling key words like "visual disturbance in child", and I came across the Alice in Wonderland Syndrome website. It seems a lot of people were getting this, most grew out of it by puberty and never said anything to anyone. Most of the people found that when they hit puberty, they started getting migraines instead. Some had brain tumors or other health issues. So I brought him to the pediatrician, and he had a head CT (which thankfully showed nothing), and he also had a full workup by a pediatric opthalmologist, which again thankfully showed nothing.

Then one weekend my husband brought my son home yet again from a weekend away, sick. He was on the couch for 3 days, with a headache, low-grade fever, and throwing up. My mother in law made a comment that he always got sick after being away, and I had noticed this, too. Then I started grilling hubby about what they did, where they went, when he went to bed, how often they ate and what they ate. I finally put 2+2 together, and realized that my husband was feeding them a lot of bacon, sausage, ham, and hot-dogs. Hmmm, all loaded with MSG. I read Dr. Mercola's article on MSG and being an "excitotoxin", and how it affects the nervous system. Hmmm, again.

Now, I have to say, that in general we eat pretty good. It is not often that we have pre-packaged foods, things loaded with food colorings and artificial flavors. But I didn't stress about when we were away from home, thinking that a little here or there wouldn't kill us, if we were good about our diet in general. I guess I was wrong. I immediately informed all family members that Victor was to NEVER have a hot dog, piece of bacon, sausage or ham. I told them no more food coloring, no Gatoraide or "fruit punch" juice drinks. No more Campbells soup at my mother-in-laws. I told them what to look for on labels, and I gave them a list of things that were OK for him to eat. That list included things like in-store baked turkey and roast beef sandwich meat, Wolfgang Pucks Organic soups, Apple and Eve or Juicy-Juice juices (or preferably water). No Cheeto's, Fritos, Cheeze-its. No bologna, hot dogs, ham, sausage, bacon. No food colorings, i.e., no Gatoraide, "fruit snacks", Skittles, Starburst, blue-colored yogurt, etc. As a bonus, since we were doing all this, we eliminated high-fructose corn syrup, also.

Victor has had absolutely NO MORE of his "down-for-three-days" illnesses. Wait, he did once, he had a terrible headache and was sick to his stomach. He had been sneaking candy in my husbands barn, that was leftover from the Memorial Day parade. They were tossing out to the kids as they drove the old Army Jeep in the parade, it broke down so they didn't get to finish and had a lot of leftover candy. I think he learned his lesson that day, luckily that time his migraine only lasted one night.

His reading level had increased by 10 levels. He stayed at a level 4 for a very long time, and was having difficulty concentrating and staying focused. By the end of the school year, he was at a level 14. He had improved expoenentially, but was still not quite at the level they wanted him to be at. I had discussed numerous times with the 1st grade teacher about keeping Victor back in 1st grade. I felt it would be better to do it now, than to have him struggle for the rest of his life in school, frustrated. We decided it would be best for him to repeat 1st grade.

At the very last minute, the school system decided to offer a summer school program, for some children that were struggling in Kindergarten and 1st grade. I eagerly enrolled him, and then was thrilled with the extra bonus, that they had found funding for it, so there would be no cost. I was willing to pay for the service, but was pleasantly surprised.

Victor was not all that thrilled with having his summer vacation interrupted with summer school. It was a struggle getting him there the first day, but after that, he was eager to go every day! He loved it so much, and even more so because his best friend was in his class. There were only 6 kids per class, and it went for 4 mornings per week for an hour and 45 minutes, for 5 weeks.

To say I am thrilled is an understatement. After about 2 weeks, the teacher took me aside and asked me why we had decided to keep him back? I explained to her, and she was surprised. She said he was reading and spelling at a mid-2nd grade level. He was reading and spelling words like "through" and "enough". His comprehension was also quite advanced, and he was able to relate to stories emotionally rather than just factually. The teacher said that his self-esteem really increased in the class, he was so excited that he was the "smarter" one in the class, and was able to help the other children out, rather than being the one that needed help. (See how easily a child can be labeled? Even if it isn't stated, they still pick up on it.).

Victor said to me something in the 4th week of summer school, he said "Mommy, I had no idea I was so smart!!!" Oh my, that statement just about broke my heart. It proved to me, that while nobody ever told him that he wasn't smart, he felt that is what people thought of him, so that is the way he acted. He lived up to the expectation that he was behind the rest of the kids.

So now he is going to 2nd grade, and he is just so proud of himself! He is now reading at a level 20, up two levels from where he started just 5 weeks ago. I am very happy for him, and I am ever so grateful to his summer school teacher, for believing in him, and for recoganizing the fact that he is a very smart little boy, who was only living up to what was expected of him. She also recognized how affectionate and loving he is, and that he would do better with a teacher who is affectionate toward children (which I do not believe either of his previous teachers were).

We are both hoping that Victor is assigned to this teacher for 2nd grade. She has requested that he be in her class, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. She did recommend another teacher that she feels he would also do well with, so I'm sure he'll get either one. I do prefer the summer school teacher, however, because if he regresses during the school year, with longer days and larger class sizes, she already knows what he is capable of, and will be able to recoganize that he is getting lost in the shuffle.

It is quite incredible, the power that a teacher has in a childs life. The right match is amazing, and the wrong match can be devastating.


Funder said...

I really enjoyed reading that, Michelle. You're a good mom, to persevere to find out what's really going on with your son. And your son sounds pretty cool too, to "overcome" his "problems."

My husband is the smartest guy I know, but he had a weird family life growing up and thought he was dumb for the longest time as a kid. Depending on which of his teachers you spoke to, he was either borderline retarded or possibly a genius. I understand what you're talking about, with the value of having a good teacher in Victor's life.

Keep advocating for him!

LJB said...

Oh, this brought tears to my eyes, your son's excitement that he's smart, not otherwise as he'd been led to believe from how he was treated in school. Good for you for researching and researching until you found a culprit (food additives!). Thank heavens there are folks in the school system who can listen and respond.

JoAnn said...

I agree with how different teachers can make a tremendous difference, for better or worse. I have a third-grader who is still in school this year, but only because she has an amazing teacher. We were prepared to start homeschooling instead, but it looks like we'll begin next year. I also read Mercola and limit the toxins, which definitely cultivates a better attitude.