Happy Holidays! I’m the Room Parent. I Know You Have Never Heard of My Kid, But……

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Pinterest success for a classroom party.  Though, watch out for that reindeer in the second row on the right…he clearly is up to no good.

How we got to December already is beyond me.  I feel like I just put up my Halloween decorations on the house and made my contributions to the Harvest party at school, yet the red and green bins from the basement are now out and I am filling out Evite forms and combing Pinterest to figure out what I will ruin three times before bringing it to the holiday party at school.

I am a working mom with  a 5th grader and a 7th grader.  In the last 7 years, I have:

  • been a room parent 7 times (including the year I was room parent in BOTH my kids classrooms)
  •  planned 9 Halloween classroom parties and 10 winter holiday class parties.
  •  baked an estimated 1000 gluten free friendly treats for classroom and school wide events.
  • been a chaperone at EVERY  Walk-a-thon, school celebration and field trip (one year at the Valentine’s fair in school I lost a kindergartner….and in all fairness and disclosure, no one told me he didn’t speak English….and I found him…)
  •  volunteered weekly in 4 different classrooms, shelved books in the library for 3 years and worked the cafeteria snack table
  • sold crappy novelty items no kid NEEDS at the school store weekly for 4 years
  • stapled, folded, stuffed flyers, envelopes, book fair propaganda, changed out bulletin boards, helped clean the building before summer break, cut out thousands of shapes for projects, hole punched writing projects, graded math papers, labeled book shelves, organized folders, passed out ice pops, redirected children, gave out hugs to kids I didn’t know, tied shoes, located ice packs, made meals for teacher appreciation days

I think you get the picture.  An estimated 2000-2200 hours of my time since 2009.  Basically….a 40 hour a week job for one full year. I rarely see my child during any of these hours spent at school. And before anyone thinks I am judging the non-volunteer moms, I am NOT a sanctimommy. And no,  I do not want a cookie, a prize or personal recognition from anyone.  Other than to say this….

I have had to land my helicopter on the roof of the school for two simple reasons. I have a child who doesn’t have the capacity to tell me about his friends and a school that only recently took steps to discussing making that meaningfully different.

This is not an unusual phenomenon.  I had a conversation with a special ed coordinator in another school district about this once.  She also “lives in the field” like I do having a couple of kids on IEPs.  I mentioned this struggle to her at which point she stated “I understand, but at some point, this isn’t the school’s responsibility (to help special needs parents get to know each other).  Since I was visiting her district professionally, I didn’t say much mostly because I had a feeling that her IEP-ers at home are verbal.

I didn’t start off this way.  I was your regular, run-of-the-mill, elementary school, product of divorced parents volunteer mom.  While the 1970s were not known for tales of excellence in parenting,  as a child, I was aware of the presence of the other moms who volunteered or were there for events during school. I promised myself I would one day figure out how to be one of the moms who ran the mimeograph machine on Thursdays.

Then Autism came along and and early on  I realized volunteerism wasn’t going to be a once-a-week-show-my-kids-I-care kind of activity.  My youngest was turning 8 and for the first time expressed excitement over his own birthday. “CHUCHEE CHEEE!”,  he exclaimed after I asked him where he would like to have his party.  Since he had not been invited to any  birthday parties since starting school, I wrote several school staff asking if they could help with names.

The only response I got was from the regular ed teacher with a polite reminder that due to confidentiality, she could not tell us the names of his friends.  She also reminded me that she would not be able to pass out any invitations if we weren’t inviting the whole class.  And that was it.

I was perplexed.  She did know my child had a severe communication disorder, right?  I politely acknowledged the ramifications of what she was saying and pondered in the follow up email if there were anything she could do to help us figure out a solution.

No response. So after a week,  I wrote again but with a much more explicit message.

My message was: “As far as I know, it’s not a confidentiality issue when one child approaches another for their name and phone number.  That’s how typical children do that.  We have programed the following into his talker (speech generating device):

“My phone number is ***-***-****.  Can you have your mom call my mom?”
OR
“Can I have your phone number?  My mom wants to talk to your mom”
Given its on his IEP –the need to prompt him to initiate social interactions as well as guiding him use  prompts on the talker, I am sure someone will find the right opportunity to help him with this interaction.  Its amazing to see how far he has come.  As any parent would be, we are so proud and excited for him.”

Fortunately, the principal at the time appreciated the value of enlightened self awareness and stepped in to make this happen. He had the most glorious time with his friends at his own party. While he was blowing out the candles on his cake, I took the instructions handed to me by the school on “intro to helicopters” and filed it away for later.

(For those of you who don’t know,there is nothing in FERPA (Family Education Privacy Act) that would actually prohibit a teacher from giving you the first and last name of any student your kid is hanging out with as long as it is directory information and there is no expressed exclusion in writing from the family, or if the child gave it on their own.  So no…its not “confidential”. This includes special education students…FERPA would prevent her from telling you that the child was receiving special education services, not from giving you their name…and I get it….I wouldn’t want my name and phone number handed out willy-nilly either…except my friend’s child with language hands hers out all the time simply because he can)

I am privileged to be self-employed and have a job that affords me the flexibility to work around my kids’ schedule and needs.  When you have a child with a disability, weekly mid-day therapy appointments, meetings and emergencies are part of the deal and already require us to be like Navy Seals.  We are flexible on a moments notice to switch gears and take care of whatever arises unexpectedly. But those 9-5 parents or single family households with special needs kids are truly super-parents….Space monkeys exploring uncharted territory  different than typical families with similar scheduling issues. They do not have a finite number of years in which they have to sweat it out every day, and they certainly don’t have an ounce more  flexibility to find time to sit glassy-eyed in an empty classroom pulling staples out of a cork board.   Volunteering for the purpose of  learning every nook and cranny and connecting with the people in my child’s world just to have a frame of reference would likely happen anyway for me but definitely not with the volume or tenacity.  I am lucky to have this as an option, but many…if not most working parents of special needs kids do not.  The onus is on the parent to try to figure out how to connect the dots to create a fulfilling world outside of school for their kid and many times they aren’t even given a pencil to do that.

So when you get that email or phone call that it is time to start collecting money for your teacher’s end-of-the-year-gift and its from the two moms of kids you never heard of (because each spend a total of 1 hour a day in the classroom), now you know why you don’t know who they are.  Reach out to them….because they don’t really have time to be collecting your money…but they will make all the time in the world to find out more about your child.

**The inspiration from this piece came about a month ago after yet another disheartening situation. A few weeks ago we had a meeting where I had to be very firm and direct to make sure this message was heard. I believe it was heard by most in the spirit it was delivered. Most of the team who work with my child have worked with him since the beginning.  Those direct workers are caring people for certain and they are working on a plan to rectify some of this type of issue.  Stay tuned…if you are in this dilemma for your child!

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Gratitude with an Attitude. The Bigger Picture of Advocacy.

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Lots of people have jumped on the November Thankful Challenge on social media. I see people try for 30 days to declare the things in their lives for which they are grateful.  As a therapist, I can tell you its an excellent exercise in mindfulness–a way to connect and be present for those things we tend to take for granted.  Soul soothing salve  in the bustle of every day life. It’s also helpful from a cognitive-behavioral standpoint.  If we take a few minutes every day to reflect on the things that are going right amid the trashcan fires of life all around us, over time we can actually retrain our brains to become more centered, less reactionary and supposedly just happier in general.  It becomes a good habit.  So, why don’t most people take appreciative stock every day?  Well…I believe its because most of us have what we need (most and need being our operative terms.). So even if you don’t have much, you DO probably at least have a roof over your head, access to clean water, some kind of education and likely at least one person in your life who cares when your birthday is.  When things are going OK and at least that bottom floor of Maslow’s pyramid is built, we can still say, “well….at least I have my health” or “I’m lucky I have food on the table”.  This doesn’t always feel so much like gratitude in comparison in our rich-kids-of-Instagram kind of society and when we are not bombarded by rampant poverty in the streets or young people regularly dying from things like dysentery or malaria. Yet as special needs parents or as a disabled people, we are often expected to display this type of gratitude and grace in circumstances that at times feel this imbalanced.

I have somehow won the life lottery…and I didn’t do anything to deserve that any more than some starving, orphaned toddler in a war torn country did to deserve his lot.  There are many people who might look at my family and think otherwise since we were dealt the hand of having a child with a disability.  We have a life that can be exhausting and lonely and sometimes just very scary but what I find is that when life is that way, it is rarely because of anything my child has done or his disability itself…its more about the circumstances around him that prohibit understanding, access, equality or equity.

And thus the rub of the special needs parent and the expression of gratitude toward professionals who serve their child.

If a surveyor asked my child’s providers,”Do you think A2’s mom is grateful for the services you provide her child?”, my guess is that at least 80% of them would answer “no”.  They would be completely wrong, but still.   If that same surveyor could time travel and go back year by year to 2007 when A2 first started getting help and ask the same question, I  suppose that the percentage who would answer “no” would shrink in proportion to year asked.  Regardless of how many holiday gifts, number of hours I volunteer, amount of money I donate, number of thank-yous doled out, at this point I am still going to be seen as a wistful pariah.

As A2 ages and the disparity in needs between he and his peers grows, so does the need for advocacy.  There is a pervasive belief system that exists that keeps those who are disadvantaged in some way from asking for more and it is through the guise of gratitude and the false belief that the basics are a form of entitlement.  You are lucky to get what you get….even if it is not meeting your needs.

  • 20 sessions of speech therapy for your non-verbal child?  Well…at least your insurance gives you that much…some people can’t get speech therapy approved at all!
  • I’m not really seeing progress in my child, but the aides are nice to him and he seems happy.
  • Keep a mastered list of  goals to probe yearly?  You’re lucky we can even work on her goals with as many as she has.
  • He doesn’t need a bus aide.  He can make noise so its not like it would turn out  like  that boy who died on his bus because they forgot about him all day….
  • Sorting nuts and bolts is a career for lots of people. She may have an above average IQ but she’s lucky anyone is willing to take a chance on her
  • Kids just love him here at school, but no….we can’t tell you who any of them are so he can invite them over and extend those friendships to the community.  At least kids play with him here, that says a lot about the kind of person he is.

When exposed repeatedly to systemic issues that shame you into to accepting less, you get a little crisp when it comes to the process of fawning over people doing the jobs they chose. Can you imagine for one minute being OK with your child failing a subject at school and then thinking, “well…at least no one is hurting him there”?  No…those things are not interchangeable.  Ever.  Or what if your child’s class was going on a field trip bowling, but because they didn’t have bowling shoes in her size they just didn’t even tell you about the trip? You are probably going  to get more than a little angry…and maybe even angrier when they suggest that all the kids who wear a size 6 shoe will get to go to for a tour of a widget factory instead at the end of the year, so what’s the big deal?  As parents, we want to always feel and show gratitude to those who we entrust our children…but when trust is bent it dulls the surface.

At the end of last school year, one of the school administrators let me know just how stinkin’ cute A2 is and how he brightens everyone’s day and how much kids just love him.  “He has made so much progress..he comes right up to me now and always asks to see the PA system!” she exclaimed.  I nodded and smiled and said nothing about how platitudes like that can ruffle the feathers of pre-adolescent special needs parents because, you know….gratitude and grace. We have to show ours a bit differently. It’s not that we don’t like the compliment, however very soon, that go-to strength of his of being little and cute, the thing that draws people to him and keeps people friendly  will be gone. Drinking out of a sippy cup with a full beard is not adorable….it will be confusing and odd to people who don’t know him.  And it scares the hell out of me. So instead I say nothing for fear of not seeming grateful for at least that.

“Yes, progress.” I say. “Though I worry. He still cannot read, we still have not cracked that code and he only has one more year here”.  She side eyed me with a friendly smirk , lifted her finger as if to gently stop me and said “Mrs. ASquared, you GOTTA focus on the positives.  You just gotta.  He’s a great kid”.

Do I though?   I keep getting taught that focusing on his deficits is how we move forward. And by the way…Yes, I do….and I do it all the time….but not  for the purpose of making sure other people can see the gratitude.  I unfortunately don’t have enough energy anymore to  make others feel good for doing their job .  Its not to be cruel, its so I don’t lose sight on how to do my job.

Focusing on the positives is why I have to advocate and ask for more.  More out of the box thinking, more time, more energy, more inclusion.  I see what he is capable of achieving all while being systemically reminded in quarterly meetings of things he still cannot do, how services won’t be expanded to accommodate that fact and how planning for a future where if we are lucky, he will get to be a marginal member of society. My child lives in a society that sees the deficits, that sees the differences and believes that the slightest hint of meeting his needs because of his differences is an entitlement.  A society that believes that being adorable is a strength. A society that makes heroes and saints and examples out of others showing my child dignity, when they come to work or are being a friend.  A society that doesn’t hashtag abuse, neglect, bullying and even murders against children like mine.

So team members…if you are confused about my level of gratitude for your involvement with my child, don’t be.  I am never short on gratitude, and when my child is happy and progressing, what our collective efforts are doing is working.  I too have a job where the pay is low,  the paperwork is tedious and 100% of my work is about helping other people. I too am rarely told thank you but that is not why I do what I do.  I am trying to make the waves to change systems and influence the way the world sees people who are at a disadvantage. By accepting less simply because we are told we should be grateful for what we get is the dysfunctional thinking that will keep things inequitable.. always.  I am doing the future of disability advocacy and everyone who works with kids like mine a disservice by this act as well. When I am sitting on this side of the table,  its my job to check and double check your work, ask questions and tell you when something isn’t working.  That is not the opposite of gratitude, that is showing you that what you are doing matters. Its the ultimate compliment.  My kid is your boss and I am trying to teach him to always get what he needs based on HIS different needs in this world.

I’m just trying to do my job as his mother, one that is universally never the recipient of gratitude is often met as if I am a villain and yet is still the most rewarding job in the world.

I would rather___________ than go to curriculum night.

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Many years ago when A2 entered the public school system he came from a private school that had a peer program and an ABA focus.  He is so influenced by his peers we thought maybe it would be a good time to bring him back to our school district while he was so young.  It was no small decision and perhaps ultimately made under the haze of xanax.  I waltzed into school on curriculum night, notebook in hand, mascara and lipstick reapplied. I waved and smiled at other parents I recognized from the neighborhood. We chatted about the end of summer homeowners association picnic and how nice the tennis court was looking now that they repainted it and we absolutely should get together for tapas sometime (how has that not even happened yet?!). The desks were so small and facing each other.  Tidy containers of crayons divided by color, posters on every square inch of wall space, shelves that housed bin after bin of books. Mobiles hung from the ceiling.  Not at all what his ABA classroom looked like…way too much to distract..but it was all good.  He will learn to adapt to this no problem…the neighborhood kids are all here!  Someone took the time to take all the crayons out of the boxes!   I found A2’s desk and it had a paper name plate with cartoon pictures of pencils and school buses just like everyone else.  There was an envelope on his desk with all the “getting to know your child” papers like everyone else.  There was a tidy blue folder with the agenda for the evening waiting for us just like everyone else.  Sure….my mother hips were hanging over both sides of the tiny chair and sure, the middle aged teacher greeted us and held her gaze with my husband much longer than she did with me…..but that’s what we do here in public school…normal, regular people stuff.  Then the teacher started talking.  And talking.  And asking us to turn pages in our packets.  And telling us what our kids can already do walking in the door on the first day and where we could expect them to be when they walk out on the last.  And the road map to get there sure as hell was not the road map to get to Italy or even Holland for A2.  Nope. Flyby right over Europe to the heart of Syria (which I hear is really, really nice this time of year….really nice. Hot.  But it’s a dry heat.). I did not see the person who punched me in the stomach. I didn’t even know that a sucker punch was possible in a mainstream classroom. Before I could find out if a bitchslap was next, I gathered my things and walked out.  That teacher never did follow up with me to find out why I left, or if I was ok or if my husband liked her new back-to-school-sleeveless-blouse.  A2’s intervention specialist saw me in the hall and gently said “..come with me to the resource room where he is a rock star. I’ll show you around”.  She meant well, but he could be a rock star at his other school.  I decided right then that the only way I would ever cope in another curriculum night was if I could sit at one of those tiny desks with a Big Mac and a bottle of stoli while listening to other parents ask questions like,”what if my child is above the standard for reading?”  or complaining at the lack of computers in a room he won’t actually get to be in. I might be able to get away with the Big Mac…but the vodka would probably be  frowned upon at the administrative level.

Don’t misunderstand…my boy is perfect in most ways to me (sometimes he is a bit of an asshole…no one is 100%)…I don’t fit a mold and when I realized I was going to be a mom 13 years ago I had no expectations my kids would either.  I embrace the weird and inappropriate and many days it takes all of my will to push my monkey brain back into it’s cage before it starts flinging poo.  I’m ok with all that.  What is hard is that the rest of the world generally is not.  While he gets the desk and cubby just like everyone else, he doesn’t get to have sleep overs, or bathroom privacy or even a way to ask  other kids if they will skype or text him later.  Due to “confidentiality” the helpers assigned to him are not allowed to tell me the names of the kids he would probably want to ask anyway.  He doesn’t get detention for talking out of turn or showing up to class late.  He doesn’t trade carrots for cookies with the kids at lunch. The bins of books must still be read to him and doesn’t get excited when he hears about the release of the newest Harry Potter book.  And curriculum night?  Well…all those things are written in the blank spaces between the lines on the syllabus.  The syllabus that is only visible to certain parents.  Not just like everyone else. The tiny desk is like a mirage.  Those things don’t happen because those are not the things that are important to the people who spend 7 hours a day with him.  Goals are set to reflect the things A2 CAN’T do rather than what he can whereas the curriculum for the rest of his peers are focused on what they WILL do.  And not just at 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 observed opportunities.  I spend my life cherishing the tiny accomplishments inching along unseen by the naked eye or letting hurtful comments roll of my back like water off goosefeather by people who meant no harm. I can sit through all of that, but it reminds me my child is lonely.  And I won’t sit through that.  So tonite, the very last curriculum night of elementary school for me ever….like a pro  I went in, signed my name on the volunteer list, eyeballed the room of parents , took 2 tums to settle my stomach in anticipation of the Big Mac in my mom-bag and walked out.

The bottom line is I would rather have heartburn and a hangover than go to curriculum night.  What would you rather do?

Here is a short list I had some friends help me compile.  Thank you Dava, Kelly, Anne, Carmen, Jessica and Katie

Express my dog’s anal glands

Watch another episode of Caillou

Make out with Donald Trump

Fall asleep in an Uber

Run 5 miles in the summer without chafe guard

Receive a text from Anthony Weiner

Wear truck nuts as a fashion accessory

Get through a Monday without coffee

Drive across country with my kids with a dead iPad battery

See my dad in a man-thong