I want to tell you a story.
It happened a few years ago, when we looked into placing Eli in a school.
Let me tell you about Eli. He’s incredibly bright. He’s hard-working, empathetic, and intuitive. He’s also dyslexic. And… he’s odd.
I was too, as a kid, in mostly the same ways. Socially awkward. Lost in my own world. Messy. Clumsy. The sort of kid who attracted teasing. Not a popular kid.
Take all of that and add that Eli’s unique and brilliant brain makes frequent, unconventional leaps that result in conversation that is hard to follow sometimes. Plus, he has a sort of verbal or mental tic that causes him to repeat himself, sometimes a dozen times, before he finishes a thought.
Needless to say, a person like Eli requires a special sort of environment in order to shine. Homeschool has worked fine, but what if we could find a school that would feed his curiosity, provide him with the structure he craves, and honor his uniqueness while providing him plentiful opportunities to socialize?
Once upon a time, we thought we’d found just the school. It advertised its inclusiveness. Its materials talked of honoring the spirit of each child, of each child’s unique giftedness. The headmistress spoke of a creative and nurturing environment that welcomes all children.
She assured me that they could work with his reading difficulties, make time for him to have a reading tutor, make accommodations much the way they accommodate the child who walks with crutches, or a child with any other learning disability.
She invited him to visit.
I was only mildly put off when I discovered… in a late-night email from the headmistress the night before… that there was a $90 “application fee” associated with the day’s visit. This should have been my first red flag. Instead, I let it slide, paid my fee, packed him a lunch, and dropped him off smiling.
He had a great time. He came home excited. He told me about the activities and, most of all, about the other kids. Their habits, their hobbies, what they talked about. “Do you think I’ll get in?” he said, worried as usual about his personal worthiness and performance. My heart broke a little. Of COURSE he would get in. It’s not like the school was judging him. They just wanted to meet him.
“Honey, it’s not about you getting in or not. It was just a visit, to see if you like it and if it’s going to work for you.”
“I like it! It works for me! When can I start?”
The next day, I received a call. Eli would not, after all, be welcome in this school.
“I’m not sure I understand…”
“He hasn’t been taught to read,” she explained. They’d had their “reading specialist” sit with him, and she determined that he hadn’t been given good “reading strategies.” (He was later diagnosed with a “reading specific learning disorder” and two other related disorders, which, combined, adds up to the popularly denoted “dyslexia”–but at this time we had no official diagnosis, only a former-teacher-turned-homeschool-mother’s professional opinion. Which apparently is useless compared to a twenty-minute session’s judgment from their “specialist.”)
He would have to be taught to read–by a properly trained educator–and then perhaps they would reconsider his application.
I was angry. Angry at the insult. Angry at the deception. But she wasn’t done yet. There was more.
“Plus, we have some pretty extroverted kids here,” she said (smiling smugly to herself, in my mind’s eye). “But Eli didn’t seem to … fit in. We fear he may be socially delayed.”
These other kids had been going to school together all year, and Eli had only been there for a few hours. But apparently he’s socially delayed.
Eli remembered their names and their hobbies after only a few hours. Obviously, he’s socially delayed.
This is a school that prides itself on inclusiveness and “honoring the gift that each child is.” Your child is socially delayed.
I was stunned. Knocked off my feet. This school, that touted itself as loving and open-minded and honoring of children, that happens to (in outward appearance and form and speech) align itself with my faith and tradition which also honors uniqueness and seeing “that of God” in each other, THIS school had found my child unworthy. I was devastated. If THIS school saw no value in him, then who ever would?
And how could I tell him? How could I go to my bright, sensitive, worried child, and say, “Actually, you know how I said it wasn’t a test?…”
I called my mom crying. Bawling. She thought someone must have died, I was that hysterical. She was so relieved when I finally got my story out that she laughed out loud.
Then she set me straight. The problem, dear Heather, is NOT your child. The problem is not your beautiful, unique, stunningly amazing child. The problem is mean people.
And you know what? My child doesn’t need that kind of negativity in his life.
So we’ve continued to homeschool, and mostly it’s been good.
This weekend, Eli and Carey–who now does most of the homeschooling–went to the state Envirothon competition. Eli joined the team after one of their members had to quit, and they performed exceptionally well, placing 7th out of the 45 teams that made it to state level.
But that’s not what I want you to know about them. I want you to know that these kids embraced Eli as one of their own (that’s him on the right. Leaning in, welcomed in, the bigger kid’s arm around him. Grinning. My heart melts).
These kids had been going to practice every week for a year, and Eli had spent only a few hours with them prior to their trip. They treated him like a beloved brother.
These kids are all considerably older than Eli. They trusted his instincts and expertise.
Eli is Odd. They called him super sweet. They said he deserved a spot on the team.
These kids could have blocked him out of their clique. They could have looked down on him for being a “little” kid. They could have poked fun at him, excluded him, made faces at him… they could have been mean.
Eli was so busy all weekend being included, he didn’t even have time to say “hi” to his dad.
Together these kids made one of the most successful Envirothon teams in the state this year. In my heart, they’re the best Envirothon team in history.
(Please don’t ask me how my homeschooled children will ever be socialized. I might be slightly bitter and sarcastic with you.)
And what about you. Have you been excluded? Excoriated for being odd, or weird, or not up to par in some way? Has someone failed to see what is beautiful and wonderful and gorgeously YOU about you?
Frankly, my dears, you don’t need that kind of negativity.
You need people like the kids in that picture. Find them. Be them.
(P.S. The mean school is not doing so well these days… karma? Oh, look, maybe it’s vindictive, but hey… I just looked up their Good Schools rating… it’s two stars. All they’ll ever be is mean…) (You gotta sing that last bit with a little twang and a fake microphone, so you don’t sound rude. We’re just singing a song, for goodness’ sake, don’t be so sensitive, mean people! Nobody needs that kind of negativity…)