Thursday, April 30, 2015

This feels like progress.

Yesterday, my son and I had the most productive conversation we’ve ever had, squeezed into the ten to fifteen minutes it took us to drive from school to his social skills group meeting.  It started when he said to me, “You know how things take me longer to learn and I’m sensitive because I have autism?”

So I said, expectantly, “yeeesss…?”

“Well, I think maybe Axel (not his real name) might have autism too.”

“Why is that?” I queried, naturally.

“He’s kind of slow with learning some things, and he seems pretty sensitive too.  Does he have autism?”

“Well, I don’t know him or if he does.  Everyone with autism is different anyway.”

“Do you think HE knows about autism?”

“Well . . . let me ask you something: did you have autism when you were in third grade?”

Creative Commons licensed by Chris Costes (SOURCE)
“Yes. I have had autism my whole life.”

The world went slightly blurry just then, as I pulled up in the left-turn lane.

I then went on to say that maybe Axel does have autism, or maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he does and it has not been diagnosed.  Maybe he has a diagnosis but only his parents know.  Or maybe he and his parents know, but they’re not telling Axel’s classmates, like what we are doing right now in our family’s case.

In that moment, I was grateful we told Cameron about his diagnosis as soon as we learned it.  For us, it was absolutely the right thing to do.  In this moment in the car, I also chose to tell him about someone else I know who didn’t know all throughout elementary school that he has autism.  He was in sixth grade when his parents finally told him.  And they had the teacher help tell the kids one day when the child in question stayed home from school.

We arrived at our destination with me realizing that my helpless little baby is now a tween with his own self-directed personality with his own objectives and goals for his life.

I picked up on this conversation a little bit today on the way home from school.  We were already talking about some interpersonal stuff with my boy and his current friends at school.  I asked him if he thought he might ever be comfortable telling his classmates about autism and how it affects his life.  Not this year, I assured him.  But maybe next year in sixth grade, or perhaps the year after that.

“I don’t know. Maybe I will.”

Yeah, I’ll call that progress.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Superlative Disease

I live in Silicon Valley. And I work in one of the most prestigious private independent schools in the country. In Silicon Valley. So I am surrounded, it seems, by a culture of fastest, smartest, youngest, first, best. You would think that in a place known for innovators who took unconventional routes to success, we wouldn’t be so wrapped up in these superlatives we keep using to define ourselves and set ourselves apart from one another. You would think we could focus more on the journey than how quickly and amazingly we reach the destination.

My ex-husband used to say he planned to make his first million by age 30. Sad for him, I suppose, that instead he was bankrupt and divorced from an amazing woman (that would be me) before he turned 33. When we have these labels as goals, do we hurtle toward them at all costs? Do we miss the journey because we are hyper-focused on the destination? Do we forget to be human -- and to treat others humanely -- along the way?

I worry about my students, my advisees, and my son. My students took my class, for the most part, to avoid taking programming. They have already labeled themselves as being not inclined toward computer science. Is it because they feel they can’t be the “best” at it? I get one semester to dispel myths and transform mindsets. My advisees are wonderful, adorable freshpersons. They still have three more years of high school after this one. Three of them intend to take AP Chemistry as sophomores. I’ve been working on them and their parents. Is it really necessary? What edge do they think it will give them to take it next year rather than as juniors or seniors, if at all? And at what cost? The other six are, for the most part, enjoying high school as the final years of their childhoods. And I get to enjoy it with them. Don’t need no AP Mania harshing my mellow, y’all.

I think I have decided to not allow my son to take AP courses. His passion is history, and I think he’d be frustrated and bored in a class that is basically a year (or even TWO!) of preparation for one big test. Tests are not my kid’s friend. I want him to continue to enjoy and explore and interact with history. Not to see how much of it he can cram in his head and keep there until May. As for other APs, I’d need a pretty good argument. If I thought he’d pursue art, I’d let him do those.

And to what future doom am I cursing my child by denying him the choice of AP classes and all that stress? Gee, I don’t know . . . a life? My son will never be an amazing student. At least not as long as school is done to kids the way it currently is. But he already is and will continue to be an amazing person. And I will opt for that any day of the week. You know what his superlative is? Being the best HIM there is. I dare not do or say anything to squash that joy and wonder and, yes, sometimes struggle.

I had a ninth grader tell me she felt school was so competitive, so she always had to keep pushing herself. Why? I asked. Says who? I exclaimed. And then I told her she doesn’t have to play that game. She told me she wishes she was already an adult. No way! I uttered. I begged her to enjoy childhood while she still could. I told her that I try to act like a kid as often as possible to see if I can still get away with it. Childhood rocks. Adulthood kinda sucks sometimes.

But what about that spectre of competition she senses haunting her? It follows her home from school and creeps around when she’s trying to enjoy a tv show or read just for fun, I am sure. It keeps her up late studying and preparing and working. And it wakes her up early to get just a bit more studying in.

We need to exorcise these ghosts of a made-up belief system around education and achievement in our country. We have one side saying our kids aren’t competing on the global stage, and the other side making them crazy with worry about their future. That future is going to be filled with the kinds of problems you don’t solve by studying for tests. The drought in California? The global need for new fuel sources? Future food shortages? Climate change? All the A+ test grades and 4.0-plus GPAs in the world are not going to keep our species from destroying ourselves and our planet.