For #MotherlyStories | “She’s at the bottom of the class. We have our work cut out for us.” This is what I was told by my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. It’s the line I was told one month into the school year, and it’s the story I’ve been telling myself and everyone who would listen for the last five years.
The way my fingers sit on the keyboard after I type that line. How long those words have lived in my body with nowhere to go. The way I couldn’t be convinced otherwise. The way I wanted to find my girl to be brilliant but I was so good at the classroom game myself that I couldn’t see her as anywhere but at the bottom of the class.
A few days ago, I told my story to an older woman who had been the principal of a school for children with dyslexia. She told me her story: “After my daughter’s first test, the tester told me I had a brilliant daughter with learning issues and I said, "I’ve been told I have an average student,” and the tester said, ‘No, you have a brilliant daughter who is doing average work right now.’”
And this woman who now has grey hair had tears in her eyes. Her daughter’s tester was asking her to tell herself a new story about her girl.
Tell yourself a new story. Our first tester told me my almost six-year-old daughter had the mind of a three-year-old. I repeated that line to anyone who would listen to me that year. Bless the people that argued with me: “Nancy, you believe her, don’t you? It’s not true.”
The parents who are asked to have their children repeat kindergarten due to developmental delays lay awake next to their anxious six-year-old who will repeat kindergarten in the fall and wonder when things will get easier. It isn’t until my daughter is about to enter 4th grade that I can see how I fully believed both of these women, a tester and a kindergarten teacher. I thought my girl’s brain would never unstick. That age three might be where she landed forever.
Even as half of me was full of rage that time the kindergarten teacher sat at a meeting with the tutors and announced she wasn’t sure if there was anything going on in my daughter’s brain, the other half of my brain was full of fear. Half of me raised up and said, look, the way my daughter is lost in that book isn’t exhibiting a shut-down brain, her brain is on fire right now. You just can’t really see her!
While the other half of me didn’t think I was mom enough to help unstick my daughter’s brain. Even as I escorted her to six tutoring sessions a week. Even as I watched her turn into a raging tantrum throwing machine when the reading tutoring sessions were too hard. Even as my girl curled into a ball after she yelled and I went over and placed my body around her body. Even as I told her I was there to help her calm down. And she did calm down and she always went back to tutoring and she began to learn those 26 sounds and attached those sounds to 26 letters and bit by bit began to read. I was the one there holding my daughter as she did the hardest thing. Even as half of me raged at the difficulties my girl had to face, I faced them with her.
Even as the remarkable slowly began to happen, though, those old lines still lived in my brain. Even as my daughter caught up and began to read at grade level, I still heard those old voices. Even as my daughter who couldn’t count to 30 in 2nd grade began to count to 100 for fun, the old stories lived on repeat in my brain now and again. Your daughter has the cognitive abilities of a three-year-old even though she is six. Your girl is at the bottom of the class. What does it take to tell myself a new story? What does it take to unclench my teeth and not dread the start of yet another school year?
I watch the ant crawl over the newspaper as I ponder this idea. Does it take ignoring what my latest research for work has told me? The researcher who has studied learning disabilities for more than 40 years told me, “But in grade 4 the curriculum changes and most of the reading is silent rather than oral and the requirements for spelling and expressing ideas in writing sky-rockets.”
But still and yet. Maybe I don’t need to ignore these facts. Maybe I need to be ready for 4th grade to explode my daughter’s brain into new territory. This is the part of the story where I finally believe my daughter can rise to this occasion the way she rose to the occasion of repeating kindergarten and playing catch-up in so many skills. Maybe I need to look at my daughter and see how by the end third grade I no longer had to walk her up to the classroom. After eight months of walking her up the stairs to the second floor and into her classroom, she was the one who initiated the kiss me at the bottom of the stairs routine. She was off on her own during that last month of third grade.
I have to replace the old lines with the new lines. When her voice teacher complimented her on her singing at the June concert by saying, “Thanks for sharing your gift with us,” my daughter replied, “You know, singing is not my only gift.”
I have to finally listen to the girl who is in front of me telling me she is brilliant and there’s no need to rate her based on the other kids in her class. I have to unclench my teeth as I lie in bed at night and wonder about 4th grade. I can’t know what 4th grade will bring. All I can know is this girl who is unfolding like a bright orange California poppy before me, singing her way through the summer months. I’ll remind myself of what I told her last fall when she couldn’t sleep at night. I was so mad at being awoken yet again in the middle of the night. I said to her, “What are you worried about?”
“I’m worried school will get hard again.”
As my open heart clenched hard in pain, I asked my daughter to look at me in the eyes. When her eyes held tight to mine I said, “Oh, but we have dealt with hard before. If it gets hard again, we will just ask for help. We know how to ask for help.”
Asking for help saved us. Learning how to breathe into the hardest moments saved us. As I took deeper breaths on the days my daughter shaped her body into a fetal position I thought to myself, “I am still. I just get to be in the room with her. Be in the room with her now.”
And I was in the room with her and she looked up at me and I repeated the phrase we made up together to help her calm down. “Baby bird,” I said to her, a secret term between us that reminds her of our special bond. And she began breathing deeper and she wiped her tears and she went back to the folding table in the basement room where we did her reading tutoring. And she learned her sounds and her letters and how to put the letters together to make words. And last spring my girl admitted she hardly remembered how hard it was to learn how to read.
All I know for sure is we are in this together and this girl has taught me to drop all my preconceived notions of success. There’s no ladder to climb or no seat at the top to strive for. There’s just moments like last night when her older sister made her start a difficult chapter book and my youngest picked up the book and began to read out loud. Her sister stepped in to help her with the hard words. I sat in the other room and listened. Tell yourself a new story. This is my new story.