An Open Letter To The Principal, From A Special Needs Mom

For his entire life, everyone around him has been frantic about his future, while he has simply been delighted to be here. I see now that his potential is in his independent spirit and comical light.
Publish date:
December 13, 2013
elizabeth street, schools, special needs, special education

Dear Mr. Principal,

My son, Aden, is coming into your school as a ninth grader. I'd like you to know who Aden is, so that he is more than a number on your special-ed roster. His trouble with school started early. He cried every day in kindergarten until nearly Thanksgiving. His teacher lamented his high energy. The diagnosis of ADHD came as third grade started. We gave him the meds, but homework was still torture. And the rubber-stamp homework "success tips" did nothing to address the elephant in the room: A kid who can't read even close to grade level is not going to be able to do homework, which involves reading.

As junior high loomed, we convinced the special education committee that if a child has never been able to complete a single summer reading assignment, there's a big problem. He was slotted into a sixth grade inclusion class.

On July 4, 2010, we were watching fireworks when his head started twitching. We chalked it up to the late hour and the excitement. The next day his left arm started jerking. The tics got worse and by the first day of junior high, he was grunting and chirping. Tourette syndrome was diagnosed.

He was bullied on the bus, called a freak. One "joke" involved an attempt to strangle him. He still floundered in the inclusion class, so at the start of eighth grade, he was put into "self-contained." He squeaked out of junior high by so small a margin that we didn't invite relatives to the graduation until two days before.

He laughs often and loudly. He puts shorts on inside out and runs out before I can stop him. He wears a pink watch because the store was out of black. He's been known to go outside wearing a shower cap (which he calls his BOW-NAY, trying to read the French word on the little box). He rides a unicycle around the neighborhood. He can juggle wet bars of soap. He makes YouTube videos of himself doing acts of daring, like jumping off the roof of our shed. If something makes him happy, he does it, caring not what people think of him.

I've worried about little else but what people think of him. He used to have athleticism that caught the attention of teachers, coaches, and neighbors alike. We heard "that kid has potential" over and over. He didn't have academic smarts, but surely he'd be a high school MVP. Or he'd win America's Got Talent with a juggling/roof-jumping/unicyling act. One gym teacher said he was the fastest runner he'd had in 20 years, wondering why we didn't put him in track. Here's why: he didn't have the will to push himself beyond the point where he was having fun. Scrimmages were fun. High-pressure games and the repetitive drills of practice often were not. When coaches weren't looking, he'd turn cartwheels in the corner or show the other boys a magic trick he'd made up on the spot. I'd plead with him to live up to his potential. He'd look at me blankly, as if to say "Why so serious?"

I ran for tissues the other night when Timber Brown, the daring acrobat, gave a shout-out to his mom on America's Got Talent. I was crying because it hit me: I can no longer hope for the impossible. He's not going to excel academically. Nor athletically. So where does that leave him at school?

When we've had teacher meetings, we've heard everything that is problematic about him first off. I understood; they were being evaluated on student numbers. I apologized more than once for "bringing the school's numbers down." And then the teacher—they all have, at one time or another—paused, looked at us and said, "He is always so kind to his classmates; it's touching." Or, "He's got a unique spirit. There's something rare about him." Or "He makes me laugh every day." There it is! That's where he's left.

He recently blanketed his FB pages with fat cats, not giving a whit that he is too old and well, too male for that. He is a silly-willy little boy in a man's body.

Now, his size 12 feet stomp purposefully through our house, always up to something, plotting a new invention. He can figure out how anything works and recreate it out of whatever is around the house, like the alarm for his bedroom door. He does so wearing a BOW-NAY.

When he walks into your school for the first time on September 9, it'll likely be hard to pick him out. He'll look pretty much like the other freshman boys: gangly, a little shifty with nerves, wearing brand new Nikes.

Just know he had a rough start and never fully recovered. Know pressure and guilt over test scores aren't what he needs. He needs to have the freedom to be himself. He needs to know it's OK--no, more than OK--to skip the SAT and/or athletic track most of your students follow.

Getting a high-school diploma with passing grades, then acing technical school and getting a job using his hands is a good option. It's time kids who don't fit the mold were treated as more than second-class students.

Being a success, Mr. Principal, can mean so much more than acing tests and collecting sports accolades. Aden can feel proud and strong without conquering math facts at lightning speed or wearing a Varsity jacket. For his entire life, everyone around him has been frantic about his future, while he has simply been delighted to be here. I see now that his potential is in his independent spirit and comical light. I hope you and your staff do, too. Because I won't be apologizing for bringing numbers down again.

Reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Street. Want more?

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