This past week, David received an award at school, a “Personal Achievement Award” for the quarter. In our world, this is a BIG deal!
Anyone who knows David will be thrilled for him and so proud of him but I don’t think they will be surprised. Because anyone who knows David knows just how hard this kid works to overcome things that most of us can’t begin to imagine.
David is only eight. In his eight years, he has been unwanted, rejected, mistreated, neglected, abused, bullied, nearly broken, rescued, delivered, redeemed, wanted, accepted, valued, cherished, loved. To quote the beautiful song “What Love Really Means” by JJ Heller, “he’s the kid with the story no one would believe”. A story like that leaves scars. They are not always scars that you can see but they are there and they are painful and debilitating. Scars like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Anxiety and Attachment Disorders. Scars that on good days make “normal” functioning hard and on bad days, nearly impossible. Throw ADHD on top of all of that and you have a boy who fights a daily battle for self-control, focus and just a little bit of peace.
From the time this sweet boy first came into our lives at the age of 20 months, we have loved him. I have thanked God for the blessing of being his mom and have agonized over the struggles we have had. My husband and I have fought for him, worried and lost sleep over him, cried out over his loss and rejoiced at being reunited with him. We have protected him, rocked him when he cried or raged, sung to him, felt his pain, struggled to parent him, done battle with him, and celebrated small victories with him. We have cried with him, we have cried for him and we have cried because of him. We have laid hands on him and prayed, and prayed and prayed.
And, I have wrestled with my own fear, my own unwillingness to let go and with my desire to keep him protected and at home, safe in our bubble all the while knowing that God has a purpose for him in this world and I need to let him find it. He is not mine to keep.
I think most moms know what I mean when I talk about the “bubble” but I have no doubt that moms with children who have special needs or struggles know exactly what I mean; especially when it comes to education.
School. One word that strikes right at the heart of all moms with challenged kids. How do you fight so hard for them and then stand helplessly by while they walk out that front door into a world that doesn’t love them like you do? A world that doesn’t understand their needs, what they have been through or how they struggle.
At the beginning of each school year, my inner voice tells me “maybe I should just home school him. He’s been through so much. There will be time for him to learn to socialize, to make friends, to discover that home isn’t the only safe place … next year, we’ll do that next year.” And then the gentle voice in my heart whispering “trust Me, I will protect Him, I know what is best for him, I love him too, I loved him first, let go and just follow me.”
And so I am following and He has been faithful. I am trusting and He has provided, even when I have doubt and am not sure the next moment of grace will come. It always does. In spite of my uncertainty and my fear and in truth, my need for control (which is really just an illusion anyway, isn’t it?), He has truly provided and my son is thriving, even at school.
You see, David received this award not just because he deserves it but also because he has a teacher who sees beyond the challenging behavior of his hurts and special needs to his heart. She sees a child who fights hard everyday to do his best, even when his best for that day might just mean that he kept his hands to himself, didn’t pour milk on anyone’s head, did most of his work and only got out of his seat 6 times instead of 16.
When I heard that David would be receiving this award, I started thinking, reflecting and realizing just how blessed we have been by the teachers God has placed in his life. I thought about how David got this same award last year from his first grade teacher who also saw the perfectly beautiful child beneath the imperfect behavior. I thought about how four years of school (two years of kindergarten, first grade and now second) have brought into our lives not just one or two gifted teachers but many, including a few great aides, principals and support staff. I am overwhelmed to see how these people have not simply accepted the role of educating our son but have put in the time and care to reach out to him and to help him heal.
That is God at work.
That is the answered prayer of a mother on her knees giving her son to God, asking for His help and trusting in His provision.
“I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2
These are people God has called to stand in the gap for us when we can’t be there to help our son self-regulate, or to diffuse the building anger and frustration or to bring him out of a dissociative episode that seems to come out of nowhere. When we can’t be there (because we can’t always be there), they have been. How do you thank someone for that?
They have accepted David for who he is and have met him where he is. They have expected his best and have not made excuses for him but they have also recognized his limits and given him the help he needs. They have worked with us to find the best solutions for him so that he can be successful. And most importantly, they have made school a positive place for him and have helped him to begin to realize that home is not the only safe place or the only place where he is loved, valued and wanted. How do you thank someone for that?
How can I begin to thank Ms. Vaudt, his first Kindergarten teacher at the wonderful little Christian school he attended right after he had come back to us and he was hurting so much. How do I thank her for holding him while he cried or for the countless tantrums she soothed through a year where his mind was not open to learning but his heart was open to healing. How do I thank the principal of that school for the day I came in to pick him up after he had been aggressive with another child on the playground. When I walked into her office expecting to hear how he was at the very least suspended or possibly wasn’t welcome there anymore but instead found her rocking him in her office chair and comforting him. When I apologized to her for his behavior her response to me was “there is room for God to work for all children in this school.” That school was a special place and it broke my heart to leave it when we moved out of the area at the end of the school year.
Our next school was also a small Christian school where we had David repeat Kindergarten. He was still having a very difficult time emotionally and had a lot of challenging behaviors that the school was not equipped to manage. His teacher, Mrs. Roach, however, loved him and never gave up on him. In the end, the school was not a good fit for us but I can never thank Mrs. Roach enough for her willingness to work with David and for helping him through such a difficult year. She is a wonderful teacher with a heart of gold and I will always consider her a friend.
After a lot of prayer, reflection, research, discussion and advice from friends with experience in IEPs and 504 plans, we decided that public school was the best answer for getting David the help and services he required. We are beyond blessed to live in an area with a fantastic neighborhood school and so, we enrolled David in first grade and were given one of the most remarkable teachers I have ever met, Ms. Alfonso. I can’t begin to tell you how this gifted teacher turned school around for my son. She is exactly what he needed; loving and kind but firm in her expectation of what he was capable of. He LOVED her (actually, he still loves her and so do I) and he started to love school. He continued to have trouble with less supervised times (lunch, recess, etc.) but thanks to a caring and accommodating principal, Mrs. K, he was allowed to keep a back-pack of Legos in the office so that he could spend those times quietly playing instead of being overstimulated in an unruly environment he longed to be a part of but wasn’t ready for.
Suddenly, our son began to excel. His needs were met, we had an IEP in place and he started Resource Classes to catch up on some reading challenges and get whatever behavioral support he needed. Which brings in Mrs. Walsh, David’s Resource teacher. Mrs. Walsh has advocated for David and has helped him to “catch up”. She is sweet and professional and puts him at ease by offering him a safe, calm and accepting environment to retreat to when he needs it – as all children with trauma issues do (I don’t have a picture of her yet but I will).We ended last year on a huge high and spent the summer swimming, fishing, relaxing, visiting family and gaining a little weight (sadly, not just David – his was needed, mine not so much) while he was off of the ADHD meds.
As the summer came to an end, second grade began to loom over us and my old fears began to creep in. What do we do? How will we make it without Ms. Alfonso? Can we beg her to teach second grade? Should we research every teacher and request the one that we determine is best? He’s had such a great summer, should we keep him off of the ADHD medication? Should I just home school (it is always in the back of my mind)? And here’s the kicker, we will have a new principal. Does Mrs. K not know what her leaving to improve her quality of life and increase her time with her own family will do to my son’s progress? Anyone who deals with special needs of any kind will tell you that when you have a great team in place and you lose a valued member of that team, it is haaaaard! Before she left though, she promised me that the new principal was great and that we would love him.
Him? A guy? Could you repeat that please?
All of our amazing teachers, our team, up to this point have been women. I’m not against him (or hims in general for that matter, I’m married to a pretty awesome him). I know some fantastic male teachers, I just don’t know this him. Will he have the compassion and understanding my son needs? Will he be too strict, too demanding, too unrealistic in his expectations? Oh, why does the summer have to end?
In the end, all I could do was have faith – which, as always, is what I should have done all along. I met with our new teacher (Mrs. Skinner), Mrs. Walsh, and the new principal (Mr. K), before the school year started. Mr. K was very nice, straight forward and to the point, very Mr. like but approachable and considerate. He didn’t even seem too uncomfortable when I established myself as a crier in front of him, which I hate and I’m pretty sure he does too; or too hurried when I talked A LOT longer than most Mr.’s normally allow time for. I left that meeting feeling pretty positive about the upcoming year, realizing that once again, God had provided for our son.
So now, we are through the first quarter of second grade and we have certainly had some difficulties. It was hard for David to begin a new school year. His fear and anxiety were high and we had decided to try school without his ADHD medication. Many children have great success managing their ADHD without medication. For David, trying to manage ADHD, anxiety and other trauma related disorders, proved to be too much. The first few weeks of second grade were terrible, old behaviors and anxieties resurfaced as did my fear and uncertainty and his anger and frustration. But through all of it, Mr. K, Mrs. Skinner and Mrs. Walsh worked with us and came up with solutions that have helped to get David get back on track. We did put David on a new ADHD medication which is working well for him and the school has provided him with a wonderful aide, Ms. Julie, for the transitional times he still struggles with. He is happy and has settled into a great routine. How do I thank Mr. K, Mrs. Skinner, Mrs. Walsh and Ms. Julie for what they do for my son everyday?
How do I thank any of them? The truth is, I won’t ever be able to offer thanks enough. But David will.
That JJ Heller song I mentioned earlier also goes on to say “He prays every night ‘dear God won’t you please … could you send someone here who will love me?’ ”
He will thank them by growing up to fulfill his potential. He will thank them by become the man God intends for him to be. He will become that man because of the people God works through to love him and that includes his teachers.
So often, we focus on the challenges that come with educating our children and become frustrated by negative experiences. No one likes standardized testing or timed tests, homework is always a battle, we’ve all had to look on math.com for the current methodology involved solving long division (methodology that seems to change on a yearly basis) and we ALL want to hang up the phone when we answer to hear “Hello, Mrs. __________, this is principal __________, we’ve had a little problem today …”.
But what we sometimes fail to recognize is that there are truly amazing teachers, people, out there who give so much of themselves for our kids and ask little in return. In fact on the numerous occasions I tried to find the words to thank Ms. Alfonso last year, her answer to me was always, “stop thanking me, you don’t have too, I’m just doing my job.”
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach …” Romans 12:6-7
I love her gracious and humble heart and I will say this because she won’t. A gifted teacher is not simply doing a job. A gifted teacher answers a calling and in so doing, allows God to work through her (or him) so that a little boy with a broken spirit can feel valued simply because he is doing his best.
Someday that little boy will grow into a loving man who values others because he was loved and valued in spite of his challenges and that will be thanks enough.