It’s just…normal. It’s not an autistic thing, it’s not a neurotypical thing, it’s just a normal human thing.
It’s just…normal. It’s not an autistic thing, it’s not a neurotypical thing, it’s just a normal human thing.
People like reading advice. They like hearing about how someone got through a tough time, and similarly, about how they might get themselves through.
But over the course of writing posts, and reading blogs, and tuning into myself, and thinking about the texts and emails and messages I’ve gotten following different things I’ve written, I’ve come to realize that there’s something people like to read even more than advice:
They like to read about a person experiencing it. Being in it.
Which isn’t to say that we like to know someone is struggling. But there’s something so powerful about hearing about someone who is in it – someone who is living it, someone who Gets It.
It’s why people like Jenny Lawson and Glennon Doyle Melton have such a following. Because they don’t just write about recovery or having overcome x, y, z. They also write candidly in the middle of hard times, real times. And that’s usually the piece we are drawn to – we love the inspiration of victory, and the hope that it could be ours. But the part of the book, or speech, or post, where they write honestly about what the Hard Times were like – that’s the part we most connect to. Ah. Yes. Someone understands.
I strive for that on this blog, and I’d like to keep moving towards it even more.
Because sometimes, in the hardest moments, it’s not helpful to hear “this will pass” and “you will feel better” and “here’s what you can do to help yourself”. Because sometimes in the moment, you just can’t believe that you’ll ever feel better. That you’ll ever stop hating your body, that you ever won’t feel traumatized or triggered, that you ever won’t feel a pull toward alcohol, that you ever won’t go back to a bad relationship, that you ever won’t feel hopeless.
Whatever it is for you.
In those moments, when someone cheerleads, (well-meaning, of course. This is not at all about malicious intent) sometimes you want to retort back, “Prove it! You can’t, can you? You can’t prove to me that I’ll feel better, that it’ll get better, that the outcome will be the one I desire. You can’t promise me it. So stop. Just stop. Because I can’t trust it.”
So I thought about what helps me in those moments, because I sure have them, I think we all do, when I don’t want a cheerleader. What helps me, what people have done for me and said to me, and what I will say to you, whoever you are, now, is:
I know. I know it hurts and I know you’re afraid and I know it feels like it won’t ever go away. I’m not here to tell you it will. But I’m here to hold you – literally or figuratively. I’m here so that you can tell me everything, all that you feel and fear and think. And I’m not here to tell you it’ll go away but I’m here to embrace it because this is where you are right now and I love you and I will love you through this. Tell me, say what you need to say, and I will hold your gaze and I will hug you and I will be right here. I know this feeling. I know this place you are living in. And maybe that will bring you comfort that I get it. But this, right now, is about you. I will understand even if I don’t understand. I am right here, meeting you on this path that you’re on, and I will walk it with you.
That’s all any of us need.
MCAS round 2 begins tomorrow.
I am dreading every minute of it.
I hate MCAS for all kids, but I REALLY hate it it for our special ed kids.
(I know, I’ve already written about this.
I’m going to write about it again.
It’s that’s important.)
So I need to talk to you about it.
Dear parent/out of district coordinator/service provider/person across from me at the table in a meeting:
I know what you were going to say before you said it. You looked at last year’s MCAS scores listed in the IEP, and I saw you stiffen and swallow and open your mouth to speak. And I know exactly what you’re going to say, and you do:
“So I’m a little concerned about Student’s MCAS scores. Scores are low/the same as last year/show regression/don’t show improvement/are still in the Warning range.”
We sit and nod, because we see the scores. We aren’t shocked. We aren’t surprised. So you look around at us some more, adjust your papers, and go on.
“I’m very concerned about this. We need to talk about why Student is not improving in their scores.”
This is the part where I sit up straighter, clear my throat, and begin to speak. And even though I want to shout from the rooftops, I calmly say my piece. I tell you that MCAS is a long, exhausting test. I tell you that yes, of course we provide the accommodations given to Student in their IEP. I explain that usually Student puts forth 100% effort on the first part. But there are multiple parts. And it’s exhausting. And so effort falls to the wayside. And also, Student is still in elementary/middle school. And we’ve told Student that on MCAS their job is just to try.”
And then you nod, and agree, and sometimes move on and sometimes ask more questions.
But what I REALLY want to tell you, what I REALLY want to say, is this:
MCAS is a grade-level test. Student cannot read grade-level material or comprehend grade-level material. In fact, Student cannot access grade-level material without significant modifications and language-based teaching, repetition, spiraling, and breaking down concepts. Student has sensory processing difficulties, attentional difficulties, and executive function challenges. All of which make even modified material challenging. That’s why Student is at our school, and why Student is successfully learning at our school.
Yes, we provide Student with their accommodations. But having extra time, being allowed to type their answers, and being given access to spell check are not going to magically make them able to complete grade-level material, are not going to make their attention, anxiety, or executive function issues disappear. Oh, I wish I had that magic wand, but I don’t. And so, of course, their scores are low.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it. You know that I adore this child. SO much. But I adore this child for who they are, and where they are. And where they are is not on grade-level. I am not a professional tennis player, and so I would not be able to win a professional tennis match. I know a few French words but I can’t hold a conversation in French. Despite any modifications I may be granted. But maybe some day I could. Right now your child’s MCAS scores are low. Maybe they’ll improve some day. In fact, I have high hopes that they will. Because I am good at my job, and my colleagues are good at my job, and we work with students to make miracles happen at this place.
But here’s the thing. You are looking at a number, which tells you nothing helpful about Student. And so, please, let me tell you about Student. Student has been raising their hand. Volunteering. Taking learning risks in class. Volunteering to read out loud, even when they stumble over words. Student is sitting with others at lunch time. Having conversations. Accepting help to problem-solve social situations. Student is more positive, happier, and more relaxed. Student is remembering what they learned in previous days. Student is starting to recall strategies. Starting to apply them. Accepting help. Taking feedback. Student is funny, and always makes others laugh. Student is energetic and sweet and puts a smile on everyone’s face. Student said to me the other day, “I don’t hate going to school anymore.”
That’s what you need to know about Student. Student is going to be just fine, and accomplish great things in this life – whatever the right things for them end up being. Maybe Student will go to a 4-year college. Maybe take classes at community college. Maybe do a vocational/transitional program. Maybe Student will work in retail, or with animals, or in a cafeteria. Maybe Student will live at home, or alone, or get married, or live in a group home. We don’t know yet, and MCAS scores don’t give us the answer. And also, Student is still in elementary/middle school. I sure didn’t know the answer to those questions at that age, and I scored proficient on MCAS.
So what you need to know now, is: Student is a brilliant, incredible human being. One that I am privileged to work with. One who will make this world a better place. One who, with your help, and with all of our support, is going to be just fine.
And that’s what you need to know. That’s what we should focus on.
All my best,
I turned 28 last week.
I meant to write a blog post on that day. Something heartfelt or meaningful or even something simple but still something.
But between packing, cleaning, moving, unpacking, and attempting to get back into some semblance of normal amidst the chaos in our new house, I haven’t had a single second to sit down, let alone blog.
(I miss writing.)
In thinking back to the past year of my life, one theme weaved throughout: telling stories.
My 27th year was spent telling my stories. I told stories in therapy. I told stories to my husband. I told stories to my family. I told stories to my friends. Some stories were about my grandpa, and about my grief. Some stories were from years ago. But all were ones I hadn’t expected to need to tell.
Over and over again, this year, I spoke the chapters of my life until I could breathe again.
I first reached out. To those ones. I made coffee dates and dinner dates. I shamelessly invited myself over. I texted. I embraced being real.
And then over the next few weeks: I sat in a friend’s living room with her and her toddler. I sat in the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car. I sat across from a friend in a coffee shop. I FaceTimed friends. I talked on the phone. I snuggled under blankets with a friend in her living room and she looked into my eyes and it filled me with love and compassion, and said, “I am just hear to listen to whatever you want to say. And it is so safe, that you can even look me right in the eye as you say it.”
One evening with a friend, we ate and laughed and talked work and life. And then as the hours passed, darkness fell, everything quieted down, and I began to speak. “The thing is,” I said. “The more I keep something quiet, the more I don’t talk about it, the more the days and months and years pass without me speaking of it, the bigger it gets inside of me. Until it becomes this huge big awful secret, but really, it isn’t. And I need it to not be that anymore.”
“Just say it,” she told me. “You’ll feel so much better once you do.”
And so I did.
A text she sent me the next day contained these words: “I refrained, as you should, from calling it a secret. It’s not and when you call it that you give it far more power than it deserves. It’s your story and for good or bad it’s part of what makes you you. It doesn’t define you as you are in control of that.”
Yes. So much yes to that. I have held onto those words.
My secrets are out, and they are no longer secrets. They are just pages in chapters of the book of my life. We all have stories, and there is no reason – none – to keep them hidden as secrets.
27 was the end of secrecy. I want to spend 28 continuing to tell stories. To more friends, to more people, to the blogosphere. I am learning so damn much from talking.
It’s freeing. It’s shame-dissolving.
The details matter, but they also don’t.
Talking doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.
It brings you closer to the ones you speak it to.
People understand, even if they don’t understand.
May we all continue to tell our stories and be freed in doing so. May we allow our friends to hold us – figuratively and literally. May we allow ourselves to heal. May we release everything into the wind. May we continue to speak until we can breathe. May we all make that shift from secrets to stories.
Briefly at one point I touched on how I find the difference between being met with sympathy and empathy so fascinating.
And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately – the difference between how I feel after talking with certain people, the questions I have about why, the people I gravitate towards in the middle of different situations.
What I find extra interesting is that there isn’t necessarily a rhyme or reason to who these people are. We might have best friends who sympathetically hear your story but they’re not the ones you will turn to in times of crisis. Because they’re the ones who sit in front of you, and nod as you’re talking, and say “I’m always here for you!” and it’s very sweet but in your gut you know it’s more of a script they’re following and less of a from-my-soul-I-mean-this. They’re the ones who you leave often feeling just as anxious, unresolved, and maybe fearful about how you were perceived.
What we really need in our lives are these friends, the ones who meet us with empathy. Compassion. Love. Who don’t just hear us but listen. Who sit with you and nod along with you. These are the ones who look deep into your eyes and say, “Call me. Anytime. I am here.” And your core just knows – yes. They mean this. I could, and I might, take them up on this. And you feel loved, and heard, and wrapped in a blanket of compassion. And your fears about judgment and blame and disgust and shame go out the window because in those moments, in those conversations, there was no space for them to exist.
And different people serve different purposes in our lives and I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that. But I encourage you – find one or two people, who in your gut, you just know – they will hear me. They will listen. They will love me through it. They will say they’ll be there and they will show up and they will mean it.
These are the people who will make you lighter. Stronger. Who will hold things for you when you can’t carry them. Who want to hold those things for you. Who will love you through it – any of it.
These are the people.
Who lift us up, propel us forward, carry our stuff.
These are the people we need.
Today, I left work angry, frustrated, and discouraged.
No, this is not typical.
But today, MCAS began.
Today, I sat with my sweet little 3rd grade student from 9 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, while she struggled through a test that she shouldn’t have to take.
Since she qualifies for special education under a language-based learning disability, she is eligible for some MCAS accommodations.
She was allowed to use a place marker to keep her place while reading.
But she couldn’t decode all the words. Let alone comprehend them. Because she’s a third grader with a severe LLD.
I was allowed to clarify directions. But “Yup, so you read the story and answer the questions,” doesn’t help when she has no idea what she’s reading.
She was allowed to type her responses. But that didn’t help when she couldn’t comprehend the story or what the questions were asking.
She doesn’t qualify for the “read aloud” accommodation. Because, to qualify for that, you have to be a “virtual non-reader”. Being significantly below grade level isn’t enough. Because, if I knew the Russian alphabet and could read a few basic words, I should be able to comprehend stories, right? Not to mention the fact that even if she could decode everything, which she can’t, she’s not comprehending. Because she has a disability.
So today, I sat with her while she struggled to sound out each word in about 10 2-4-page stories. Tried not to tear up when she tried to read the questions, and then laboriously re-read the story, trying so hard to figure out the answer. Tried not to bang my head in frustration on her behalf when she looked at me and said, “I don’t know what this is even saying.”
I tried not to think about how detrimental this is. Because although I made light of it (by the end I was “woo-hoo!!!-ing every time she answered a question, and saying things like, “Only two more yucky questions!” to make her smile), she’s not stupid. In fact, she’s one of the smartest little kids I know. She knew she couldn’t do it. She knew she was supposed to be able to. She knew that if I had been able to help her, encourage her to use strategies, read it to her, she would’ve been able to do better (she said as much). She took breaks where I’d do what I could to make that little perfectionist girl, who hates getting anything wrong, smile as best I could. But it didn’t stop her from sighing, resigned, and saying, “It’s fine. I’ll just keep going.”
And then by the end, when she had given it everything she had – she had to do the sample PARCC session. Which really made MCAS look like a piece of cake, and that’s saying something. She looked at me and said, “This is so hard. I don’t even understand any of it. I’m just going to guess because I can’t do this.”
If we strive for language-based teaching, PARCC is the exact opposite.
“I think they’re hard, too.” I offered.
She looked up, skeptical. “Really?”
“Really.” And sadly, I wasn’t lying.
And so for yet another year, I think, there has got to be a better way. A better way than wasting our teaching time and their learning time on this test. A better way than having testing send us backwards in self-esteem and self-confidence. We spend so much energy teaching our students that having a learning disability doesn’t make them stupid, but really, we might as well be saying, “You’re not stupid. But! You’re going to have to spend some hours doing things that yes is for kids in your grade and yes you’re as smart as them but no you’re not going to be able to read most of it or answer most of it, but don’t even give it a second thought, you’re so smart and this means nothing!”
And we do what we can, and we joke and smile and stay calm and get through it. Year after year after year. There’s no other option.
But it shouldn’t be this way to begin with, where we struggle in this way. Where intelligence is measured by this test. Where a successful education is measured through this test. This test doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t capture how smart my students are (and they are often smarter than me). It doesn’t capture their personalities. It doesn’t capture their strengths. It tells us nothing valuable.
There’s got to be a better way.
The following are snippits of conversations that have transpired between kids over the past few months.
The following snippits are proof that things are changing (for the better).
The following snippits give me hope.
“I’m going to draw the kid and the mom and the dad.”
“I have two moms.”
“Do you have two moms?”
“Nope, I have a mom and a dad.”
“Bruce Jenner is the man.”
“Dude. You can’t say that anymore. It’s Caitlin Jenner and he’s now a girl.”
“I can still call him Bruce.”
“No, you really can’t. He’s a woman, and his name is now Caitlin.”
A problem-solving scenario reads: “A student made fun of a boy for liking the color pink.”
“That’s so mean. And it doesn’t even make sense. There’s no such thing as boy colors and girl colors.”
“Yeah. Like, at the hospital, they only picked pink and blue to tell the boys from the girls. But those aren’t even boy and girl colors, it was just a system they came up with.”
“Can we use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘him’ in that example?”
“So for example, if a boy was wearing a suit….”
“At my sister’s school there are a lot of transgender students. Anyone can wear anything and some people are boys and some are girls and some aren’t really either.”
“Ooh, can I be purple?”
“You like purple?”
“Yeah, it’s the best color.”
“That rainbow you’re drawing is SO beautiful.”
“You like rainbows?”
“Oh yes, they’re magical.”
“I like rainbows too. We have that in common.”