I have a stack — more like a Mt. Everest — of paperwork telling me my daughter doesn’t read so well. That’s the easy way to explain her learning disability in ”memory recall,” which affects her reading comprehension, basic reading, and fluency. She’s at risk for depression, anxiety, learning problems, withdrawal, and somatization — when your anxiety is so intense, you begin to experience physical symptoms without an organic cause. Like, for instance, telling your teacher ”my stomach hurts” everyday for three months so you can go to the nurse and blank out instead of trying to understand a critical thinking concept when you can’t even read. And then having the teacher think you’re lazy so she fails you as a ten-year-old.
I went through the roof when I saw that final fifth grade report card. I flew down to the school, fired off emails — I lost it. I made calls, I contacted people district wide — higher-ups and non-profit advocates. How could one teacher — without notice — fail a child with a learning disability? If you think Congress does nothing, try and manage the bureaucracy of a public school — you have a better chance of spinning your hair into gold and living comfortably for the rest of your life. Try and tell a principal that a teacher does a horrible, very bad, no-good job and you might as well be blowing in the wind. No one wants to hear it. There are tests the regular track students must master for funding and highest achiever honors to give to the gifted. If your child is designated special education, your family is effectively sitting bench in the baseball game of education — you’re part of the team in so far as you don’t speak up and dare to participate because you’ll bring everyone else down.
Trying to fight this fact will overtake your life. As a parent with a special education student in a school that doesn’t give a shit, you’ll spend almost every waking moment monitoring your child, your child’s teachers, the administration, grades, attending meetings, signing papers, writing and responding to emails, and feeling isolated from anything you’ve ever done before or hope to do again. If you want to never have a life, try having your child taught by a teacher who doesn’t care.
A long time ago, I thought I’d become a teacher — it’s normally what women with English degrees do. I wanted to teach in Philadelphia, but without a teaching certificate, and with intense competition, I never made it past the second round of invitations. My aunt has been a kindergarten teacher for 40 years and up until two years ago, I would never have believed there were actually “bad teachers.” I would have argued that it was structural inequity that led to failing schools. Ask me now, and I’ll admit readily teachers are a problem as much as an overemphasis on standardized, high-stakes testing. And many other factors that will bore you.
If schools now are all about data, ours speaks for itself: in the two years my daughter attended schools in Georgia, her reading level didn’t move a point. She left fourth grade almost reading at grade-level and returned to Pennsylvania as a sixth grader reading at a third-grade level. If that’s not an indictment, I don’t know what is.
Now, my daughter attends a charter school with a focus on special education. I’m grateful I had a friend who told me about the school, I’m thankful we could regroup and move our lives back to Pennsylvania, and we’re lucky the school is free. But every time an email arrives in my inbox, I remember how good we had it until we didn’t — that a ”good” education depends more on where you live and who’s standing in front of you than I wanted to admit. There were a lot of expensive cars in the drop off line in Georgia, more than I’d ever seen in Pennsylvania. It lulled me into thinking, well, if this is good enough for fifteen Range Rovers then I must be crazy. But I wasn’t — not all inner city schools fail and not all suburban schools thrive. Not all teachers care, but most of them do. Not every parent is a hands-on volunteer or flighty know-nothing. But one thing I do know for sure, if you think a teacher is failing your child — follow your instincts.
(photo: Getty Images)