Today Is My Redemption Day!

March 29, 2012

One year ago today, I was called in to meet with my son’s principal… and accused of “Educational Neglect!” In the eyes of the court, “Educational Neglect” is full-fledged child abuse.

How on earth could this happen to me?

You may know bits and pieces of this story from the past year. To celebrate our triumph, I am going to tell the whole story today; the back-story, the dark story, and the Story of Glory.

If you don’t have time to read all of the details, I’ll begin with the happy “ending.”

The Story Of Glory

My son, Mark, had several serious struggles as he started 1st grade last year. After a long battle with health and learning issues, including a diagnosis of dyslexia and ADHD, we are on a clear path of victory!

I am thrilled to report that Mark has returned to his happy, creative, endlessly curious, and healthy self! He’s taking a lot of initiative in school…and he’s reading nearly at grade-level! A year ago, he couldn’t read. Two weeks ago, he came home with a 100% on a grammar test that required him to diagram sentences. His progress is completely remarkable.

Knowing the misery I felt a year ago, I can’t help but celebrate today!

It seems appropriate that I will be spending this morning and evening at special events at Mark’s “new school.” We will be in the company of Ms. Dawn, Ms. Mary, Ms. Lori, and Ms. Kim…all outstanding teachers who embraced us when we were at a very low and near-hopeless point.

They have walked the fine line between treating Mark with compassion, yet holding him to high standards. They have also been very patient with my babbling and random tears over the last year. I am so grateful for their support and the Divine Intervention that helped us navigate our way through some highly unexpected challenges.

My experiences with Mark have renewed my commitment to education in ways I never would have imagined. Certainly, this experience has heightened my empathy for parents who are dealing with similar struggles. As a result, I have written two article series, The Cue to Reading and The ADHD Circuit® to help parents better understand the causes and treatments for these learning disabilities.

At the surface level, I will never be able to make any sense of Dr. Claude’s (the principal) accusations or behaviors towards me one year ago today. The only way I can make *any* sense of it is to view it as a strong kick in the you-know-what to dig deep, truly understand the nature of Mark’s challenges, and share my genuine support to other students and families facing similar struggles.

Please help me celebrate our Redemption Day by sharing the links above with any parents who may be struggling with similar challenges!

Now, for…

The Back Story

As Mark started 1st grade, I scrambled to get help from doctors, psychologists, and personnel at Mark’s school. It was clear that he had ADHD. He also had mysterious health problems, very wild mood swings, and extreme difficulty learning how to read.

I am a certified reading specialist. My husband is a highly respected teacher in Mark’s “old” school district. If any set of parents were equipped to deal with learning challenges, it would be us. I never dreamed we would have such an uphill battle!

Our greatest concern was Mark’s mood swings! If he were any older, my husband and I feared he would be suicidal. He would fall to the ground, crying “I wish I was never even born!” For many reasons, we knew this behavior was completely out of his control. It clearly seemed as if there were “chemical” changes within his body. In fact, there were times following severe mood swings when he clearly had no recollection of the trauma he had just endured… and created for the rest of us.

We were desperate for help!

We discovered that help from the medical community would be a very S-L-O-W process. Help from his school was non-existent. His teachers and principal did not know Mark well enough to notice the drastic change in his demeanor. They did not see his meltdowns. They did not suspect a learning disability. Clearly they thought I was a *loco* parent.

Mark also complained of frequent stomach aches. He vomited a few times, but had no other symptoms. We eventually realized that the stomach aches and mood swings may be connected; his disposition often (but not always) improved after a good snack. We were then advised to meet with a pediatric endocrinologist, who had a three-month waiting list.

When we finally met with the endocrinologist, he was just as baffled! He sent us on to a pediatric cardiologist. She had a two month waiting list. And this is how the whole year went: Long wait. No answers. Next specialist. Long wait, etc.

Mark missed a lot of school. There were many “sick days,” doctor appointments, and batteries of tests ordered by each doctor. Of course, I notified the school every step of the way.

At the same time, Mark was having difficulty learning to read. I may be biased, but I knew Mark well enough to know that he was too smart to be struggling so much. I suspected something was wrong and spoke with several teachers about my concern, but they shrugged my concerns aside. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry. He just needs to try harder,” they all told me. (I know now that “try harder” is a major red flag, as I described here.)

More than anything, my husband and I were concerned that we were “losing” our son. From infancy through preschool, Mark was always a happy kid. He was a bit shy, but gave smiles that made everyone he met feel like a million bucks!

However, by this time last year, that child was gone. In his place was a sullen, apathetic child… except when the mood swings crept in. Then, we had a sullen, angry child.

When I discovered an opportunity to take Mark on a special business trip to Hawaii, I snapped at the opportunity! As my husband said, “This is a no-brainer. Mark has to go. He has nothing else to look forward to right now.”

Mark missed four days of school for our special adventure. He attended a science camp on the island of Maui while I attended a seminar. It was a bit of a risk; I fully expected to get a call from the camp staff, saying Mark was having a meltdown. But, that never happened.

Instead, the trip became a miracle! I called home every day telling my husband, “We have our Mark back!” He instantly relaxed and had a wonderful time. His excitement for learning was reawakened and he had a blast at science camp.

He also loved being my special guest at a professional event. This opportunity gave him a sense of pride and ownership in SOAR®. He began asking some very thoughtful, pointed questions… and continues to have a vested interest in what he now calls, “Our SOAR.”

I have no doubt that our Hawaiian trip was the very best thing we could do for him at that point in time. As long as he was feeling so down, he would never be capable of learning anything in school.

I was thrilled to get my Mark back!

For a little while, anyway.

The Dark Story

As soon as we returned home, Mark’s sullen behavior returned. We started to wonder, “Could school be the culprit?” I volunteered in the school every week and thought I had a good sense of how Mark was coping with school.

Two weeks later, I was standing just outside Mark’s classroom door, getting ready for my volunteer duties. Suddenly, a teacher passed behind me, speaking to a child in a tone that was so mean and so rude, it stopped me in my tracks! Instantly, I thought, “What could a grade-school child possibly do to deserve a tongue-lashing like this!?” When I turned to see what was going on, my stomach sank. She was talking to Mark.

The teacher was a “reading assistant” I had not yet met. Obviously, I asked what was going on. She angrily retorted, “What do you care?”

“I’m his mother,” I calmly explained. Her jaw dropped! When she finally gathered her ability to form words again, she explained her frustration that Mark had not immediately returned to her class, after being excused to the bathroom. Instead, she found him checking his loose teeth in the mirror.

I do understand, of course, that Mark needed constant redirection and correction. But, her words and her tone were so completely inappropriate, my stomach still churns to think about it.

Later that same day, we received a letter from Mark’s principal, requesting a meeting over his attendance. We knew this meeting is “standard protocol” after a certain threshold of absences. We had kept the school informed of every single sickness, doctor appointment, and medical test, so we didn’t think anything of it.

In fact, I was looking forward to the meeting. I needed to explain that we were taking Mark to a well-known clinic in our area to be evaluated for a learning disability. I wanted to share my concerns and reasoning in a laid-back, non-threatening way. I am aware that my perspective of my own children can be jaded, so I never “flaunt” my credentials around their school. Instead, I truly value the input of the professional educators caring for my children. However, in this case, my maternal intuition AND professional experience told me I had to push forward with an evaluation. This was a conversation that would need some grace… more grace than I could execute in an email.

Obviously, my plan was foiled. Instead of a calm meeting between professional and rational adults, I was smacked with accusations of ineptitude and child abuse.

Dr. Claude* reached across the table, wagged his fingers just a few inches from my face, and shouted, “YOU are holding your son back! HIS MOTHER is the one holding him back!” He then issued a threat; if Mark had one more absence, he would refer us to the court system for Educational Neglect.

Yes, that’s right… he was accusing us of child abuse!

In our combined 25 years in education, my husband and I have NEVER seen anything so aggressive! And we’ve seen some pretty appalling situations. The behavior Dr. Claude displayed towards us does not come close to any actions we’ve ever seen taken against some truly neglectful parents!

(*I changed “Dr. Claude’s” name to be nice. I don’t FEEL like being nice escort, but I changed his name, nonetheless.)

I don’t exactly know what a nervous breakdown is, but I suspect that’s what I experienced that evening. I was completely and utterly stunned. I left Dr. Claude’s office in tears, nearly hyperventilating. I didn’t know Mark would be waiting right outside the office to see my miserable display of emotions. But, it probably didn’t matter since I couldn’t stop. I cried all evening and into the night. I managed to fall asleep a few times overnight, but always awoke in tears.

I was very hurt. But, even worse, I was deeply, deeply worried for my son. Between the behaviors I had just witnessed from Dr. Claude that afternoon and the obnoxious teacher just a few days prior, pieces of the puzzle began to snap together… Mark was suffering from extreme anxiety about school! “How did I miss it for so long?” I wondered, with great pangs of guilt.

Instantly, we were at a very difficult crossroads. Mark was close to many friends and we hated to yank him from school so abruptly. However, we didn’t want him to spend another day near Dr. Claude or the reading teacher. Besides, his “angel” 1st-grade teacher had just returned from maternity leave and Mark was so happy to have her back.

I am absolutely certain that I could have drowned the court in enough paperwork to make Dr. Claude look like an ever-lovin’ fool! But in the end, calm and logic prevailed. We simply could not leave our child in a position where Dr. Claude had the power to take him from us. Even if it was an idle threat, we couldn’t take that risk.

Having to fight to keep my child would feel like fighting for oxygen. I couldn’t let that happen! Considering Mark’s ongoing health challenges and debilitating meltdowns (often as we left for school), we could not guarantee perfect attendance for the last quarter of the year.

As my husband and I hashed through these options that evening, I continued to sob. It was killing me that Dr. Claude had put us in this position. I caught him speaking inappropriately a few months earlier. (I blogged about it that day. The story is here.) Was this a personal vendetta? If so, how could he use an innocent six year-old as a pawn?

Obviously, my mind was racing and my poor husband attempted to console me. “Sue, everything happens for a reason. I don’t know why this happened, but you’ll see, something good will come from it!”

Every step of the way, throughout the months of challenges leading up to that day, I had the very strong conviction that the struggles were not in vain. I instinctively knew that I was being put to the test for a reason. But, that didn’t stop the test from hurting. I looked at my husband through puffy eyes and replied, “I know that in my head, but my feelings are hurt. Right now, I just need to cry. Give me 24 hours. Then, I’ll be ready to fight.”

More On The Glory Story

But, I didn’t have the luxury of a full 24 hours. 16 hours later, with the crying in full force, I had to summon courage to call a “new” school. My husband, Mark, and I all toured this new location shortly after I witnessed the “reading teacher” fiasco. At that time, we all agreed that Mark would move to the new school for 2nd grade. Now, I was hoping we could move him a bit earlier. A lot earlier.

It was the last day of school, before spring break; I couldn’t risk waiting another ten days to make my request. So, I blotted the tears and dialed the phone. A giant lump crawled into my throat. Only a few hours before, I was told that I was a wretchedly horrible parent and was threatened with child abuse charges…it was so absurd, I hadn’t made sense of it yet. (I now understand that I never will.) How on earth was I going to explain my situation to the new principal without her thinking I was totally off my rocker?

Suddenly, Ms. Dawn (the “new” principal) was on the line!

I looked up to the sky and prayed, “God, give me the words!” Then, I quietly introduced myself. Thankfully, she remembered me, so I cautiously continued. “I know I’m about to ask something that may not be possible… and would likely be a huge inconvenience, but is there ANY chance that you would enroll Mark for the 4th quarter?”

Naturally, she wanted to know why I wanted to act so swiftly. In a fraction of a second, my mind whirled with questions… “Should I tell her the truth? She’ll think I’m crazy. But, I CAN’T lie…” Finally, I simply explained, “Well, I had a meeting with Mark’s principal yesterday and I am not seeing any progress with his reading. The principal does not see the same things I do; he is not concerned about a problem. Based on our meeting, I realized that waiting until September would mean missing another six months of potential progress.”

Whew…I made it.

Ms. Dawn was very open to my request and graciously welcomed us! In fact, she volunteered to meet us on her personal time, over spring break, even though she has three young children and had been dealing with a serious family illness for three long three weeks. She wanted to do some preliminary evaluations on Mark and acquaint him with his new classroom. She did a couple of reading assessments and immediately honed in on my same concerns. I wanted to lunge at her with a big hug! FINALLY, we were on the same page as another educator!

Mark adapted to the new school beautifully. His anxiety settled down and he was enjoying school. He told me, “I really miss my friends from (the old school), but I love it here!” After having a few weeks to demonstrate my sanity, I finally told Ms. Dawn the WHOLE story.She was very supportive and reassuring. By then, it was already apparent that Dr. Claude had done us a favor.

Six weeks after the school transition, we received results from the LD testing. Doctors from the clinic confirmed my suspicions of dyslexia and a previous diagnosis of ADHD. They congratulated us on catching the dyslexia so early. “Most people don’t catch this problem for several more years, after the child has struggled for quite a long time. You really did your homework!”

educational neglect

After months of slogging through quicksand, desperately crying for help, I had finally been vindicated! Once again, the tears fell, but this time, they were tears of relief. Now that I knew what we were dealing with, I knew we could deal with it.

And, have we ever! As I described earlier, Mark is thriving. Just two days ago, I was helping Mark practice spelling words, when *I* misread a word. Of course, he didn’t waste any time correcting me! So, I attempted to defend myself. “Gosh, Mark…I think *I* have the reading disability.”

He looked up with a serious, but happy smile on his face. “Mom…this is my reading disability (as he raised his right hand straight up) and this is me!” (As he cupped his left hand to form a “race car.”) His “race car hand” then blasted right through his “reading disability hand”… using all of the colorful sound-effects you would expect from an eight year-old boy!

I cried all over again. But this time, they were tears of joy! Pure joy.

-Susan Kruger


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