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 Ashar – 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 Ashar’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!
Ashar was an incredibly easy-going baby and toddler. He was born while I was in my second semester of college and working full-time, so I consider this a complete sign that some higher order is looking out for me. I would truly not have made it if he’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, Ashar 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 him 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, Ashar spent a lot of time with friends and friends of friends and friends’ parents and friendly coworkers. No matter where I left him, he had a big smile when I dropped him off and an even bigger one when I picked him up.
I became a full-time single mom when Ashar was about a year old and his biological father and I split up, and even that didn’t seem to be “a big deal” to him. Not because he didn’t miss Josh – especially at first, I think he did – but he 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 Ashar’s regular babysitters for quite a long time, and he doted on Ash as well. Ashar would get confused about the name, though, and when THIS Josh’s parents would take him along with them to their son’s soccer games at his Catholic high school, Ash’d run along the field yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” I admit some slight delight in the awkwardness of this.)
Anyway, Ashar was what I always considered to be above-average, especially in an intelligence sense. He would learn things quickly, and he seemed to really pay attention to things around him. (“Mom, picture moved. Why moved picture? Not moved picture!” So much for furniture rearranging with a toddler.)
Preschool and kindergarten
We spent a lot of time reading with Ashar, and by the time he went to preschool, he knew his letters and numbers and some basic sight words. He could write his name and some other things – though he was completely reluctant to settle on a dominant hand; he’d pick up the pencil with whatever hand was closer. He also didn’t write or read “right-side up” exclusively. The best way I can explain this is that he saw his name as one big “shape,” and he 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 Ashar was about a year and a half old until he was about four and a half – I dated a very nice guy named Jerry, and he and Ashar were very close. I actually credit him with Ashar’s early love of learning; he was the kind of guy who, not having a lot of experience with kids, treated Ash basically like a small “whole person,” meaning if he asked a question, Jerry would just answer it straight up, no dumbing it down. From Jerry, Ashar “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” person for us, but he’s a good person, and Ashar really cared for him a lot.
At this point, I have to take a moment and give a MAJOR shout-out to Chris. Chris and I had been coworkers since shortly after Ashar 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 Ash. Incredibly long story short, we started officially “dating” right at the start of Ashar’s final year of preschool, were engaged on Nov. 1, and were married six months later, a couple months after Ashar’s fifth birthday. By November of that year, 2005, when Ashar was in kindergarten, Chris had adopted him, 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. We actually got divorced in 2015… and still live together, because we are still a family.
Back to Ashar’s story… Chris and I talked a lot about the best moves for his future, and because he was doing so well in preschool, when it came time to enroll him in kindergarten, we thought a full-day program would be a better fit, so rather than enroll him in public school in our district, which only had half-day kindergarten, we enrolled him 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, Ashar loved it, in large part because of his excellent teacher and teacher’s aide. Those women were such a blessing; I can’t even imagine what Ashar’s educational outlook would have been without them. Ashar had a great year; he improved in reading, learned many math facts, made friends, and honestly enjoyed going to school every day. He played tee ball and soccer with the school’s intramural teams, and to this day he still talks about how fun soccer there was! He did have a few months of speech therapy, but didn’t seem to mind it, and our ability to understand his speech grew like crazy. (Ash 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 Ashar, it was no big deal, but strangers had a lot of trouble at first!)
Because of how well Ashar’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 Ash and registered him 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 Ash.
You see, it turns out that Ashar’s first-grade teacher lived next door to Ashar’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 Ashar was visiting his grandparents, Josh’s parents, once a month or more. I was NOT viewed as a good mom, and Ashar was viewed as lacking in good role models and discipline. He went from being one of the top students in his 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 himself.
It got to the point that Ashar cried about going to school. He cried about doing his “homework.” And he just didn’t like anything any more, not even reading, because he’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 Ash. After considering several options, we removed Ashar from private school and enrolled him in our district’s public school, which offered a small K-1 building, then a second- through fifth-grade building. His first-grade teacher there understood the situation and tried to work to build Ashar’s confidence back up. I’m not quite sure how, but Ashar tested behind the public school’s first-graders in reading and spent a marking period receiving remediation and reading support; by his second marking period in the public school district, though, he was back out of that program.
This year’s report cards were interesting. They were a real mix of Ashar being advanced, proficient, basic or below basic in his mastery level of various skills, and they included comments like “I am especially pleased with his progress in reading,” but also “Ashar does not always work to his 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.” Ashar started reading at home again – and writing stories of his own, often with Chris. He’d dictate, and Chris would type; later, Chris’s dad, Ashar’s “Pappy John,” took the stories and provided fancy fonts and graphics for them and sent them back, which Ashar absolutely loved to no end.
Ashar’s grades were almost entirely advanced and proficient, and his teacher’s comments included things like “Ashar has done a super job this year! I am so proud of his writing that he’s been doing on his 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 Ashar started complaining of. Maybe it was the first marking period note on Ashar’s report card: “I am looking forward to discussing Ashar’s progress with you at our conference.”
Either way, this ended up being one of those years. Ashar kept saying that his head hurt – but not like a headache. He said his head would bother him, and then he wouldn’t know what was going on. He 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 Ashar saw the pediatrician, who tested several factors and eventually sent us for an EEG; he thought it was possible that Ashar was having micro-seizures, in which he’d “blank out” for a few moments, then be disoriented and uncomfortable after the seizure was over. Talk about scary. Ashar handled the test admirably well, and thank goodness, 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 Ashar observed during class. The school district’s perception was that Ashar 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 Ashar was describing as his head “bothering” him might be an attempt on his part to describe his 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. Ashar didn’t love school, but he 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 Ashar 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 Ashar’s best-ever teacher. “Miss O” was patient, kind, loving, organized, understanding… every good thing you could want. She really cared about Ashar as a person, and Ashar just blossomed with that kind of treatment.
His grades, all year, were entirely proficient and advanced academically. Report-card comments included things like “Ashar is off to a great start… he pays attention during lessons, works cooperatively with other students and follows all school and classroom rules.” Later, it was “Ashar has progressed wonderfully… he is a well mannered and respectful child who is a joy to have in class. He should be very pleased with his report card.”
This was the Ashar 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 his generally mediocre test scores and sometimes erratic behavior.
We truly believed then – as we do now – that Ashar is gifted, that he can and will excel if planted in the right soil, that he wants to succeed.
Thankfully, Miss O. believed the same thing, and we had a truly amazing year. Ashar 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 Ashar, things will be fine! We were incredibly hopeful about the next year, which would be Ashar’s last in elementary school, and Ashar at this point said he loved his 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. Ashar loved his teacher and did well on a lot of his assignments and group projects. Homework, though, was a train wreck. A fight every night. Tears (and not just from Ash.)
Early in the year, it became really clear to Chris and to me that Ashar wasn’t “acting his age.” I don’t mean in a bad way, necessarily. But for all that he was 10 at the start of the year chronologically, in every way that we could figure, he was closer to about 8 years old. His interests, his physical size, even his dentition (he had only lost maybe a handful of baby teeth at this point!) Certainly his maturity level and ability to make decisions and plan for large tasks weren’t at grade level.
He continued to struggle with reading when tested, especially with comprehension – which seemed weird to us, because he 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. He clearly could read, but he was just all over the place with it!
The teacher (who, again, really liked Ashar) said, “Oh, lots of kids start fifth grade this way; just wait, he’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 Ashar’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!