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Testing Day: We Don't Need a Label

labelgirllabeledAs I applied mascara to my eyelashes this morning, I thought I might regret this application. Wouldn’t I cry at the learning disabilities testing results meeting?

I’m a professional crier, schooled in crying in public, at work, and in private at inappropriate times. I had been dreading this one-hour meeting ever since the testing process began in January. Heck, I’ve had a few panic attacks that are a direct result of the entire process and thanks to my sensitive nature. OK, life was also piling on other troubles, but hearing about my daughter’s social tics from three different professionals was not so fun.

Still, this morning I quickly painted on makeup despite my fear of raccoon eyes later. I said my “I am still” mantra followed by “this is not cancer” and marveled at the crazy weird, scary dreams I traveled through last night.

I sat next to my husband as he drove to the University of Washington and listened to his calm wisdom. How he was going to take all this information with a grain of salt, that he knew this was one person’s perception of Annie, and that she is doing great right now. And although I kept repeating my mantra, my stomach lurched and I felt like throwing up. Last night a friend asked what I thought Annie would be labeled with today. I answered, “Dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, maybe even Tourette syndrome.”

I have been practicing accepting these labels over the last few weeks. Since one of my goals with testing was to figure out if Annie’s school was right for her, I have been researching schools. I’ve been talking with people who have kids further along in this journey to gather hope and sustenance for this morning’s meeting. I packed Kleenex in my purse.

We arrived at the UW. We walked up the long, concrete staircase. We noted that it was the university’s spring break as there were hardly any students around. We climbed the stairs to the 4th floor of Miller Hall. My husband Chris met the tester named Chris. We sat in chairs in the room that Annie spent three long mornings in, taking really boring tests.

And the tester gave us both an incredible gift. He started with words that I have said to myself ever since I started thinking about doing more testing of my girl. (She was tested for developmental delays at the Seattle Public Schools three years ago.)

“This is just a snapshot of the days that Annie was here for testing. Your daughter is shy, she was sick one day, and since testing has started it’s clear she is already not the same child as she was then,” tester Chris said.

Then he did something many special education professionals forget to do in meetings. He praised Annie. He told us that Annie opened up to him as testing continued, letting her shyness fade. He said he observed her at school three times and by the last time her social skills had vastly improved. He said he could tell her reading skills were growing stronger and that he felt she would be making big leaps in this area soon, and she has super strong story-telling and story-recall skills.

As an editor and a writer, I have learned the beauty of leading with the positive, but this rarely happens. People forget that compliments are good way to actually help someone grow and change. This tester, even though he is a student in grad school, knows how to talk to parents.

There was a chance my mascara would stay intact for the entire hour.

Yes, he followed his good news with the bad news. The tester Chris has actually prepared me for this news during our last session when he told me he wouldn’t be telling me anything new in the results meeting, that I knew my girl best and he was just going to give me new words so I could help my daughter. Chris walked us through the IQ testing, which they no longer call IQ testing. He pointed out the discrepancy between the IQ testing and the math testing.

“This is what makes math a learning disability for your daughter. Her testing scores are below her IQ scores,” he said.

A learning disability in math was the thing I already knew. At her individualized education plan meeting in February, the educators and I discussed how we need to help her learn math; she is back there in preschool with her math levels.

For years we have been focusing on reading with Annie. I can’t even begin to total all the hours we have spent on helping her learn her sounds and letters and how to blend these sounds into words. Last week I caught Annie sitting in her room reading a book out loud with a piece of paper underneath the sentence she was currently reading so she could focus on just one line of text. The book was way above her ability. She didn’t care. She was reading it, to herself, out loud. Later she told me she has always loved to read. She has leapt into reading.

As Chris the tester said, “She loves books. That love isn’t going to go away.”

He wrote down some words for me. He told me that when we have Annie tested next December at the public schools (because she is already in their system, she has an automatic learning disabilities test coming up), I need to focus on her math testing. Here was the label she should fit within so her special education services don’t go away, and so math help moves to the forefront of her tutoring sessions.

I could go on and on. We talked about her shyness and her anxiety, but how we can see how she is moving into a more confident version of herself. We talked about her school, and the tester told me he had observed her three times, and how she is known there and cared for there, and listed all the good things about her environment. Yes, he thinks a smaller school would be really good for her, but he seconded my feeling that her comfort level and the fact that she is learning now means that her school is a good place for her in the here and now, in this current snapshot of time.

We reached the end of the meeting and he asked for our questions. What about labels, like dyslexia, I asked. I had thought he would affix stickers to Annie’s head: dyslexic, attention-deficit disorder, and numerous social tics meaning possible Tourette syndrome. I didn’t want to ask, but isn’t this why I was here, to stick some labels on the girl?

The tester Chris explained that dyslexia was just an umbrella term that means someone has trouble learning to read.

“We don’t need to give Annie labels. We just need to come up with ways to help her with her learning disabilities. Yes, you need to work with her on phonetics and comprehension, but I think within the next year or two she is going to make huge leaps in reading. And yes, she needs help with math, but we just need to look at the to-do items, we don’t need a label,” he said.

I prepared for weeks to hear labels regarding my girl, even though we have been on this journey for three years, I thought hearing labels would activate some deeper grief inside of me that I haven’t even touched yet.

Instead, the tester handed me an air of grace and a list of action items for our path forward. No tears for me. I didn’t cry at the testing meeting. I left that small room with exuberance, which is the exact opposite emotion of how I thought I would feel. I walked down the stairs with my husband at my side, and we both had more tools and words, but no labels.

When we were smack in the middle of this process, I really regretted having my girl tested. The experience was much harder than I imagined, I had thought, as I tried to breathe through a panic attack one day.

Yet today, here I am, out the other side, grateful, full of the gift of grace, with one more snapshot of my girl to put in my memory bank.

nancy-altonWriter, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton is finishing the last draft of her memoir about the beginning of Annie’s learning journey. She is co-author of two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When not navigating parenthood, she uses her brain power to write, edit, and fact-check articles for websites and magazines. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two elementary-age daughters. Find her blog at Within the Words.

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