Monday, February 22, 2010

Special (needs) kid

I haven't posted on this topic before because it is a difficult subject for me to put into words. I doubt this post will be all that coherent, but I really feel the need to write about it.

Different. I have a stepson who is different.

As a young child (well before I knew him), he was verbally delayed and had some motor issues. Now, as a nine-year-old, he is behind at school -- mostly because he is a different kind of learner, but also because his behavior and lack of typical social skills gets in the way of his success. I could write pages and pages about the tests and so-called "diagnoses" (from autism to anxiety -- but none of them really fit) the professionals have subjected him to. I won't, because I truly believe all the tests in the world won't help him. 

What will help him is a teacher who cares, as well as parents (including me) who reinforce the academic and behavioral work the school is doing. 

He starts at a new school today, and there is some real hope. I have not yet met the teacher, but I plan to. A teacher friend of mine told me, "A.J., you are a parent. The school and teacher don't care if you are a bioparent or a stepparent. You might not even want the title, but you are a parent." She's right - I am one of four responsible adults in my stepson's life and I can have a genuine impact on his life. I want the school and teacher to know who I am and to know that I care. (Whoa! Tears in my eyes as I type that.)

C., my husband, has met the regular classroom teacher, special ed director, principal and others at the school who seem to be on board with treating each child as an individual. What works for one won't necessarily work for another. They don't believe in forcing a square peg into a round hole. With the right support and encouragement, I believe my stepson can succeed. He is bright. He is special. He shouldn't be written off just because he is different.

* * *

This weekend, C. and I watched the HBO movie "Temple Grandin." If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.

Dr. Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950. She didn't speak until she was four years old. "Professionals" told her mother she never would speak and that she should live in an institution.

Her mother refused to give up on her. She DID speak. She went to school. She learned. She loved science.

In high school, a science teacher became her mentor and she began to thrive. Someone believed in her and showed her that she could do it. She went on to college, earned a master's and eventually her Ph.D. in animal science. She now teaches at Colorado State University and lectures on autism. 

She says she thinks in pictures -- and her autism is one of the reasons she is able to relate to and work with animals.

C. and I had tears streaming down our faces because it hit so close to home -- but also because it showed us so much hope. 

The professionals can tell you, until they are blue in the face, to prepare for boarding school and group homes for a child, because he's different and won't be able to take care of himself later in life. They convince you - yes, even in this highly advanced age - that there is nothing to be done. Why? Because THEY don't know what to do.

Since I met my stepson, I have always believed that he would grow up, learn and succeed. I believe he can be self-sufficient. I believe he can have a career and be happy. I refuse to believe that we all should give up on him having dreams because he doesn't fit the norm.

I will post more on this later, I am sure. For now, I just want to put out into the universe my best wishes for my stepson, Jonah*. Today is a new beginning for him, and it is a day filled with much hope. Your daddy and I believe in you, kid.

* Names have been changed.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Snow dog

I was home sick yesterday (and the day before), but I started to feel better in the late afternoon. So, I decided to take my dog for a walk. It had started to snow, but wasn't coming down that hard yet -- so I decided to take a chance at walking the long path around the lake in the adjacent neighborhood. By the time we circled half the lake, the snow was really coming down and blowing sideways. My little brown dog was all white and my jeans were soaked through. I felt bad that I had taken her out in that, but really, we both enjoyed it. It was a stunningly beautiful scene and nobody was out...

Save for a little boy (about 8, I would guess) who had stopped at the stream on his way home from school. He was building some elaborate structure using the ice he had broken off the banks of the stream. He said hello, and went on about his serious business -- completely unfazed by the storm. Watching him made me smile. I remember being that intent as a child -- fully engaged in the moment despite the weather or anything else.

I try so hard in my daily life to have those Zen moments -- those moments of truly being in the here and now. The trouble is, adults have to try. Kids just do.

Once in awhile, like yesterday's walk with my pup, I have a brief interlude of being fully present -- and it feels amazing. If I can find a way to culitvate that, I truly believe I would be more at peace and more content.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Girl power

One of my biggest frustrations with my stepdaughter, Annie*, is her tendency to give up on herself and say "I can't do it!"

She is a smart and capable 5-year-old girl. Most of the time, she CAN do it, but doesn't give herself enough time or have enough confidence to try.

This weekend, she proved me right. She rode a bike without training wheels, solo, for the first time. C. and I gave Jonah* a new bike for his birthday, so Annie was trying out his old one. Turns out, the bigger sized bike was all she needed. C. helped her at first, but then let go and she took off -- balanced perfectly!

I was so excited for her. I remember the first time I rode my bike alone -- when dad let go (ha! yes, figurative and literal in a lot of ways). I was so proud.

Watching her say, "Yes, I can" rather than "No, I can't" was huge. I know she was really proud of herself.

Also, it's a big first that I got to share with her as her stepmom. It didn't happen on mom's time -- it happened on C's and my time with the kids. It was truly a good family moment, with C., Jonah and me all cheering her on.

*names have been changed.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Creativity (part 2)

Society quashes creativity early.

My drawing instructor made a comment that children don't have to use their imaginations anymore -- everything is already done for them in video games and movies. That made me sad -- because we always think of childhood as this immensely creative and imaginative time. It was for me -- I was always putting on "plays" in the backyard, dressing up like a pioneer girl, writing poetry and making up stories for my dolls.

I really hope children haven't lost that ability entirely.

When he made that comment, it reminded me of sitting at the table with my stepkids a couple of weeks ago. C. had bought them these amazing "doodle books." They are not your average coloring books. Each page has a small drawing or two in the corner and a question that "starts" a story: What is the dog laughing at? Why is the dinosaur scared? Most of each page is a big, empty space where the kid can draw something from his or her own imagination.

Annie*, who is five, turned to a page that featured a stage outline. It was her job to create her own characters and play on the stage. She promptly drew a boy and a girl and said, "This is the prince and princess."


Anyone who knows me well knows that I hate the princess myth. (I also hate pink and buying shoes -- I missed a female gene somewhere.)

I hate the myth because: a) How many princesses have you ever met in real life? b) Gee, great aspiration; grow up to be pretty and sweet and wait for a man to rescue you.

(Did I mention that Annie's mom sent her to Princess Camp last summer? Gah!)

It occurs to me now, though, that I hate it for an even bigger reason. These pervasive stories that we tell our children (princesses for girls and superheroes for boys) are sending a message that these characters are the prototypes on which to base your dreams. The stories are all the same: Pretty girl gets the guy; Strong good guy beats the bad guys. There's little deviation from the original and our children start to regurgitate these stories, rather than creating their own.

C., bless him, drew a cactus on Annie's stage and said, "You know, you don't just have to repeat a story you saw in a movie. You can make your own story; maybe it's a prince, a princess and a cactus."

I said, "Ooh, and if there's a cactus, maybe they are not even a prince and princess. Maybe they are a cowboy and cowgirl."

She's a smart girl -- you could see her wheels turning after that. I hope that we can help teach both kids that they are allowed to have their own dreams, tell their own stories, create what they want to create because it comes from inside them and expresses who they are. 

Also, I hope to convey that being an average human being is much cooler than being some storybook princess or comic book hero. Average, everyday people are doing amazing things. Life is cool. Let's teach children to see that and enjoy that early.  

* Names have been changed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Art and Creativity

I am four weeks into a drawing class. (I haven't taken a true drawing or painting class since 8th grade. I thought it would be a good way to recharge my brain.)

Each week, we have homework. We are learning to tell a story with our drawings, vary perspective and be more keen observers of the world and its details. I did last week's homework on my lunch break the other day, while sitting in Starbuck's; and I felt something I haven't felt in a long, long time -- my creative streak "surged," for lack of a better word.

It felt wonderful! I reconnected with a part of myself that I thought was long gone. I have the ability to see the world in a unique way and express it creatively.

I am not a great artist, by any means; but it gives me something to aspire to. I can practice -- and that "practice" time can also serve as time to get to know myself again.

Only two of us showed up to class this week, and we were discussing this idea of creativity and making space and time in our lives for art and our passions.

The other lady was lamenting the fact that she feels guilty taking time away from her kids to work on her art. The teacher and I both agreed that she needs to take that time -- not only does it enrich her own life because she's doing something with passion, but it will ultimately enrich her children's lives. They will benefit from seeing mom excited about something, and they will learn that it is important for all people, even parents, to take time for themselves. At the same time, they will learn to entertain themselves for a bit, while mom is working on her art -- also an incredibly valuable life skill for all humans.

My heart really went out to her (as it does to all moms I know). She gave up her job to stay home with her kids, and she says she feels like she lost herself. Now, she needs to give herself permission to find herself again -- and not feel guilty about it in the least.