As we start to settle in just slightly to our new “this is what learning is to us now” rhythm, I’ve been thinking a LOT lately about my own educational experiences. In some ways, I’m very different than Sarah – and that can be hard – but in a lot of ways, the more I think about it, the more I realize that if our personalities are different, well, our educational experiences have an awful lot in common! This was supposed to be the second half of the two-part event, but I realized well into it that it should be a trilogy; if you haven’t already, before reading today’s post about the first part of Sarah’s educational journey, please read this post to learn about MY educational background and how it influenced me, and follow today’s post up with a read of the conclusion here! It’s long, as was the first part, but I promise cute pictures and, hopefully, a better understanding of how we’ve found ourselves where we are!
Sarah was an incredibly easy-going baby and toddler. She was born while I was in my second semester of college and working full-time, so I consider this a complete sign that there is a God and he cares about my life. I would truly not have made it if she’d been the kind of baby who didn’t sleep, who cried all the time, who hated to be left with a sitter.
In fact, Sarah was the opposite of all of that.
This was the baby who slept 12 to 14 hours a night, so much so that I took her to the doctor and said, “Are they supposed to do that?” (He thought I was nuts.)
This was the baby who had no problem leaving me to go to a sitter, which was good, because lacking the ability to afford actual daycare, Sarah spent a lot of time with friends and friends of friends and friends’ parents and friendly coworkers. No matter where I left her, she had a big smile when I dropped her off and an even bigger one when I picked her up.
I became a full-time single mom when Sarah was about a year old and her biological father and I split up, and even that didn’t seem to be “a big deal” to her. Not because she didn’t miss Josh – especially at first, I think she did – but she was truly resilient, and we were lucky to have some great friends in our lives who really filled the gap. (Funny story: I have a friend – ALSO named Josh, different guy, though – who is several years younger than me, and who I call my “little brother.” His parents were Sarah’s regular babysitters for quite a long time, and he doted on her as well. Sarah would get confused about the name, though, and when THIS Josh’s parents would take her along with them to his soccer games at his Catholic high school, she’d run along the field yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” I admit some slight delight in the awkwardness of this.)
Anyway, Sarah was what I always considered to be above-average, especially in an intelligence sense. She would learn things quickly, and she seemed to really pay attention to things around her. (“Mom, picture moved. Why moved picture? Not moved picture!” So much for furniture rearranging with a toddler.)
The photo above is from Sarah’s kindergarten class; she’s the smiling girl in the yellow-topped dress, second from left in the second row from the bottom. She absolutely loved this class, especially her teacher (at top right) and teacher’s aide (top left).
Preschool and kindergarten
We spent a lot of time reading with Sarah, and by the time she went to preschool at our church, she knew her letters and numbers and some basic sight words. She could write her name and some other things – though she was completely reluctant to settle on a dominant hand; she’d pick up the pencil with whatever hand was closer. She also didn’t write or read “right-side up” exclusively. The best way I can explain this is that she saw her name – SARAH – as one big “shape,” and she could make that shape either starting from the left and working to the right, or from the bottom and working to the top, or from the right and working to the left.
For about three years – from when Sarah was about a year and a half old until she was about four and a half – I dated a very nice guy named Jerry, and he and Sarah were very close. I actually credit him with Sarah’s early love of learning; he was the kind of guy who, not having a lot of experience with kids, treated her basically like a small “whole person,” meaning if she asked a question, he’d just answer it straight up, no dumbing it down. From Jerry, Sarah “inherited” a love of all sorts of music, especially percussion – Prince, David Byrne, Paul Simon, all of whom used tropical or African drumwork. He wasn’t the right “forever” guy for us, but he’s a good person, and Sarah really cared for him a lot.
At this point, I have to take a moment and give a MAJOR shout-out to my husband, Chris. Chris and I had been coworkers since shortly after Sarah was born, and we’d become friends over the years. At the time I was going through my breakup with Jerry, Chris was my boss as well as one of my closest friends, and one night, he delivered a wonderfully-composed soliloquy telling me how much he truly cared about me AND Sarah. Incredibly long story short, we started officially “dating” right at the start of Sarah’s final year of preschool, were engaged on November 1, and were married six months later, a couple months after Sarah’s fifth birthday. By November of that year, 2005, when Sarah was in kindergarten, Chris had adopted her, and we were officially “The Ottos.” As you read the rest of this story, please know that I had no idea what I was getting Chris into, but he has stood by our family every day, in every way possible, and I could not do any of this without him.
Back to Sarah’s story… Chris and I talked a lot about the best moves for her future, and because she was doing so well in preschool, when it came time to enroll her in kindergarten, we thought a full-day program would be a better fit for her, so rather than enroll her in public school in our district, which only had half-day kindergarten, we enrolled her at the Lutheran school across town, which offered whole days. (This was among the reasons I was enrolled in private school in kindergarten myself, some years earlier!)
Well, Sarah loved it, in large part because of her excellent teacher and teacher’s aide. Those women were such a blessing; I can’t even imagine what Sarah’s educational outlook would have been without them. Sarah had a great year; she improved her reading, learned many math facts, made friends, and honestly enjoyed going to school every day. She played tee ball and soccer with the school’s intramural teams, and to this day she still talks about how fun soccer there was! She did have a few months of speech therapy, but she didn’t seem to mind it, and our ability to understand her speech grew like crazy. (She had a really interesting “thing” of putting extra syllables at the beginnings of words, often “be.” My friend Amanda was “Be-manda.” A giraffe was a “be-jaffe.” If you spoke Sarah, it was no big deal, but strangers had a lot of trouble at first!)
Because of how well Sarah’s kindergarten experience went at private school, Chris and I decided to continue there for first grade. Within a month and a half, we had unenrolled her and registered her at our local public elementary school. This was the first place where things “just went wrong,” and 90% of this had nothing to do with Sarah.
You see, it turns out that Sarah’s first-grade teacher lived next door to Sarah’s biological dad for decades as he was growing up. Never mind that we had parted as amicably as two teenagers with a kid could do. Never mind that, by this point, he had terminated his parental rights. And never mind that Sarah was visiting her grandparents, Josh’s parents, once a month or more. I was NOT viewed as a good mom, and Sarah was viewed as lacking in good role models and discipline. She went from being one of the top students in her kindergarten class in terms of participation to the kid who was “losing tickets” in the school’s behavior system almost daily for “misbehaviors” like giving a friend a hug. You know, does not keep hands to herself.
It got to the point that Sarah cried about going to school. She cried about doing her “homework.” And she just didn’t like anything any more, not even reading, because she’d been criticized for it at school.
We were quick to respond, and not just because of the money private school cost. We just wanted to find the right fit for Sarah. After considering several options, we removed Sarah from private school and enrolled her in our district’s public school, which offered a small K-1 building, then a second- through fifth-grade building. Her first-grade teacher there understood the situation and tried to work to build Sarah’s confidence back up. I’m not quite sure how, but Sarah tested behind the public school’s first-graders in reading and spent a marking period receiving remediation and reading support; by her second marking period in the public school district, though, she was back out of that program.
This year’s report cards were interesting. They were a real mix of Sarah being advanced, proficient, basic or below basic in her mastery level of various skills, and they included comments like “I am especially pleased with her progress in reading,” but also “Sarah does not always work to her ability and often needs encouragement.” At this point, I waved off that sort of remark as a casualty of the beginning of the year and didn’t think much of it.
This year made us think, “Oh, public school was the right choice.” Sarah started reading at home again – and writing stories of her own, often with Chris. She’d dictate, and Chris would type; later, Chris’s dad, Sarah’s “Pappy John,” took the stories and provided fancy fonts and graphics for them and sent them back, which Sarah absolutely loved to no end.
Sarah’s grades were almost entirely advanced and proficient, and her teacher’s comments included things like “Sarah has done a super job this year! I am so proud of her writing that she’s been doing on her own at home!”
We were all pretty happy. We started, at this point, a pattern that would continue for a while… a good year, a rough year, a good year… and next up came a rough year.
I’m not sure exactly how it started. Well, maybe it was the headaches Sarah started complaining of. Maybe it was the first marking period note on Sarah’s report card: “I am looking forward to discussing Sarah’s progress with you at our conference.”
Either way, this ended up being one of those years. Sarah kept saying that her head hurt – but not like a headache. She said her head would bother her, and then she wouldn’t know what was going on. She was irritable in class when it happened, and never seemed to feel quite “right,” even at home. Homework was a total fight, day after day. We saw the eye doctor… no vision problems.
Then Sarah saw the pediatrician, who tested several factors and eventually sent us for an EEG; he thought it was possible that Sarah was having micro-seizures, in which she’d “blank out” for a few moments, then be disoriented and uncomfortable after the seizure was over. Talk about scary. Sarah handled the test admirably well, and thank God, no seizure disorder. But we were back to square one, and the school was starting to get, let’s just say, a little impatient.
Their next step was to have Sarah observed during class. The school district’s perception was that Sarah was on task about 40% of the time, compared with a classmate who stayed on task about 92% of the time. This was when we first heard attention-deficit disorder mentioned, but the counselor was quick to say he could not make that call, so it was back to the pediatrician.
Several “surveys” later, we ended up with an ADHD diagnosis, and the idea that what Sarah was describing as her head “bothering” her might be an attempt on her part to describe her struggle to focus. I still have no idea if that’s really the case or not, but we started the ADHD medication process, a long ordeal, and by the end of third grade, we’d come to at least a modicum of normalcy. Sarah didn’t love school, but she didn’t hate it either, and we’d made it through the year with, again, a mix of grades across the board.
This was probably the first year where Chris and I truly thought Sarah might not pass. In fact, we were, at this point, a little bit OK with that. But as I mentioned, the grades were basically acceptable, and instead we met with the district and tried to map out a strategy for fourth grade; it was at this point that homeschooling first came up as a thought, as did a return to a private school of some sort, because we knew we couldn’t take another year like this!
As per our pattern, this ended up being a GREAT year with what I consider Sarah’s best-ever teacher. “Miss O” was patient, kind, loving, organized, understanding… every good thing you could want. She really cared about Sarah as a person, and Sarah just blossomed with that kind of treatment.
Her grades, all year, were entirely proficient and advanced academically. Her report-card comments included things like “Sarah is off to a great start… she pays attention during lessons, works cooperatively with other students and follows all school and classroom rules.” Later, it was “Sarah has progressed wonderfully… she is a well mannered and respectful child who is a joy to have in class. She should be very pleased with her report card.”
This was the Sarah we wanted the school district to see… the one we knew. The one who loved to learn; the one who was more than the sum of her generally mediocre test scores and her sometimes erratic behavior.
We truly believed then – as we do now – that Sarah is gifted, that she can and will excel if planted in the right soil, that she wants to succeed.
Thankfully, Miss O. believed the same thing, and we had a truly amazing year. Sarah worked on all sorts of projects, learned to write in cursive and even scored highly on our wonderful state-mandated tests, the PSSAs. (Sarcasm intentional.) Homework wasn’t a picnic, but it wasn’t the fight that it had been in third grade, and if we did have a bad night, it was no problem at all to stop before things got out of hand and send in a quick note to the teacher, who had no problems letting it go without actual punishment.
At this point, we thought, OK, any issues earlier were from ADHD and now that we know how to work well with Sarah, things will be fine! We were incredibly hopeful about the next year, which would be Sarah’s last in elementary school, and Sarah at this point said she loved her school, so … off to the next grade she went!
Fifth grade, part 1
Well, then fifth grade happened. Fifth grade was interesting. It was not a totally bad year. Sarah loved her teacher and did well on a lot of her assignments and group projects. Homework, though, was a train wreck. A fight every night. Tears (and not just from Sarah.)
Early in the year, it became really clear to Chris and to me that Sarah wasn’t “acting her age.” I don’t mean in a bad way, necessarily. But for all that she was 10 at the start of the year chronologically, in every way that we could figure, she was closer to about 8 years old. Her interests, her physical size, even her dentition (she had only lost maybe a handful of baby teeth at this point!) Certainly her maturity level and ability to make decisions and plan for large tasks weren’t at grade level.
She continued to struggle with her reading when tested, especially with comprehension – which seemed weird to us, because she was reading things at home like issues of National Geographic, adult nonfiction library books on gardening and birdwatching, and all sorts of other things, and discussing them intelligently. She clearly could read, but she was just all over the place with it!
The teacher (who, again, really liked Sarah) said, “Oh, lots of kids start fifth grade this way; just wait, she’ll be fine after Christmas break, they really mature a lot.”
At this point, we’re thinking: OK, in another year, middle school… really? Really? And that’s when we started to look outside the school district for ideas about what was really going on in Sarah’s world.
That’s where I’m going to leave our story for now… but I hope to bring us “up to date” within the next week or so. I didn’t realize how hard telling this story would be on me, if you want to know the truth; I feel like I’m reliving some of our family’s hardest times, and I’m going to need to handle the “crisis” part, which is yet to come, on another day for my own sanity!
Thank you so much for reading this far. I can’t wait to share the rest of our story!