One of the first things I heard as I entered in adoption of an older child was, “You’ll need to advocate for your child in school.” Little did I know, this would become my part time job. I first met my son, 14 ½ year- old RD, when he was wrapping up 6th grade. When I met the nice lady sitting at the front desk and told her I was there for a conference with his teacher, she said, “Oh my. If RD is planning on coming back to this school next year he’s going to need to toughen up.” That was my first school experience with my son. I learned in that 30 minute meeting that RD’s teachers thought he was a nice boy who had emotional problems. He had only attended the school for 30 days; they “knew” him from his IEP and previous school records. It was clear to me that they were basing their opinions off of what the previous school wrote about him, and had no intentions of truly getting to know him. After all, here is a kid who has never gone to one school a whole school year. Chances are he wouldn’t be going back to that school, so why invest the time and effort to get to know him?
Imagine not knowing how to learn? This was what my son’s life was like. He was passed from school to school, with notes in his file about his inability to perform his work. Never a solution and never any follow up. I’ll never forget reading a teacher’s note that said ‘Ronderik continues to spell his name incorrectly’ when in actuality, the school system had it incorrect (they were adding a C!). Those same negative and sometimes false notes followed him from school to school, with no real education advocate. Yes, he had a great case manager and guardian ad litem, but those folks weren’t with him every day and had no way of knowing the severity of how far behind he was. They did the very best they could to be his advocates, but without truly knowing the extent of his issues, it appeared that he just simply was not a good student.
RD had visited with me all summer, and he was moving in to our home just two weeks before school started. By now I knew that in the 12 homes before me, he’d never had a real foundation of learning. I initially considered a charter or private school for RD, but decided on the middle school in our subdivision. I was a brand new Mom in a brand new world, and what I soon came to learn was that RD has a learning disability that was never addressed. Not one of the schools he attended took the time to get to know my son. He was held back a couple of times in elementary school, but then was promoted year to year, even though he was not learning. How could someone spend time with this child and not know he needed special attention? After about three days of him living with me, I knew he struggled with things that should normally come natural to a kiddo entering the 7th grade. He’s smart as a whip, and has adapted in such a way that, unless you ask him a question that has to do with time, money, or other forms of measurement, you’d never know he struggled with those things. But, if you paid attention to him and really listened, it was clear that he needed some help.
That first year, I learned a lot about what it’s like to be a teen in middle school. Man, are those kids mean. Through RD’s eyes, it seemed grueling at times. Here he was – the new kid going to a “subdivision school” where most of the kids had grown up together and spent their school lives together. He was a black boy with a white mom and all he wanted to do was fit in. He was the odd kid out in a lot of ways. Thankfully the very first day, we met Ms. M. She took RD under her wing and learned all there was to know about him. She made the choice to review his IEP, but reserved all judgment until she truly got to know him. She treated him with kindness and respect, something he wasn’t necessarily accustomed to coming from a teacher. She recognized immediately where he fell short compared to his grade level expectations, and she made great accommodations for him to learn based on his abilities. Had it not been for Ms. M., I don’t know how we would have made it through middle school. Still, with all of her compassion, advice, and expertise, I found myself in the school or on the phone about once a week.
For several years leading up to becoming a forever family, RD was prescribed several psychotropic drugs. The day he moved in, with the guidance of his psychiatrist, we decided together that we’d have a fresh clean start and see how he did off of them. That being said, those first few months of school were difficult. My son had never had the chance to feel his emotions, because they were chemically suppressed. Then, he was in a brand new school, in a brand new home, feeling a deluge of emotions he’d never been allowed to feel! We spent a lot of time talking about feelings and how it’s okay to have them, it’s all about how you respond to them. And needless to say I was on a first name basis with the administrators of the school, advocating for RD, explaining his background, and convincing them all that this was his real first opportunity to learn how to learn. After the newness of experiencing feelings started to fade, RD was finding his way and learning how to deal with his emotions. He went from needing a cool down period every day to a couple times per week, per month, then very rarely. I’m proud to say that to this day, he is doing fabulous living without psychotropic meds.
8th grade started with much fanfare because RD was no longer the new kid, and was an upper classman. Ms. M. was still his internal advocate and also had him in her class. He was also fortunate enough to have my high school best friend and first college roommate as his science teacher. It’s rather amazing how when there is a connection, a feeling of safety and security with a teacher, a child will thrive. I’ll never forget the day RD’s Pre-Algebra teacher Ms. V. called to tell me he’d scored a 100% on a test. This was his first EVER perfect score on a test in his entire school career. It was an evening of joy and celebration in our home. He ended that first quarter with a B on his report card IN MATH, the highest grade he’d ever had in that subject. This was the product of him starting to have stability in his life, experiencing unconditional love, having amazing teachers who cared about him, and in my opinion, having a mom who was relentless about advocating for him, making sure he was truly getting the education he deserved.
Enter the search for the right high school. RD was born in November, so he was always going to be one of the older kids in his class. Add to that he was held back two years, and that means he’d turn 18 (and would have aged out – such a bone chilling thought to me) in the second quarter of his sophomore year. Going to a public high school with 1,800 kids did not sound appealing to either him or me, so we decided on a private school. This school caters to each student’s individual needs and builds upon their strengths, and three weeks in, RD loves it. There are strict rules and this is something I’ve found my son truly thrives in.
One of the other reasons RD and I were both so excited about this school, is that he was finally going to be able to try out for a team sport. This was something he wasn’t able to do in his past because once he finally got to middle school, he was ineligible because of his age. Last week RD tried out for the flag football team. I was so excited for him and made sure he knew if he gave it his all and never gave up, no matter what I’d be proud of him. I wanted to be that mom shouting from the stands as he crossed the goal line with the game winning touchdown, “THAT’S MY BABY!” After his second day of practice, I started gearing myself up that he was not going to make the team. He was doing his best and working hard, but I knew the signs based on what the coach was telling him. How do you continue to want to build your child up, help him gain confidence he’s lacked all his life because he was abused, abandoned, and neglected, and still help him through a valuable life lesson? Yesterday RD came home and told me he didn’t make the first cut. Talk about a hard conversation to have! He was disappointed, more so than he was letting on. He could have pouted and gotten angry, but he didn’t at all. We talked about the fact that most of the boys who are on or will make the team have been playing and practicing their whole lives. I believe the concept of “practice” for a sport or hobby is one that’s tough for kids of the foster system to grasp. There is so little stability in their lives while in the system, that the thought of doing anything repeatedly or on a schedule is foreign because they never know when they may be going to a different home or school.
For now, we will cheer on RD’s school football team, and I’ll let him explore just how badly he wants to be on the team. If he wants it, he needs to practice. Maybe he’ll try for the soccer team, or join the drama club. Maybe he will pick up his trombone, or practice singing the 50 different songs he says he wants to learn. Maybe this will be the year that he takes a step forward in math and learns how to combat his LD with the help of tools and a very focused and tailored education, just for him. Any way it turns out, I’m here for him; always advocating, always helping him through life’s tough lessons. One day, RD is going to change the world and I’ll be somewhere on the sideline yelling “THAT’S MY BABY!”