Recently I took a long walk with a new friend from my tween daughter’s K-8 school. In the middle of our jaunt, I mentioned my Annie and her special needs. “Wait — what do you mean ‘special needs’?” she asked.
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Join a conversation with Nancy Schatz Alton and fellow author Kristin Jarvis Adams, both moms of kids with special needs. Alton and Adams will speak at the University Book Store on Thursday, May 18, at 7 p.m. for a reading followed by an open conversation about what it takes to find good support, no matter what kind of child you parent.
I realized this mom wasn’t around when a special education professional told me my 6-year-old daughter displayed the cognitive abilities of a 3-year-old during testing and that her severe developmental delays meant she might be diagnosed with dyslexia later. She didn’t know Annie went to school early twice a week for tutoring to learn her multiplication tables. She’d never witnessed my daughter’s tears or wondered what her face looked like because it was buried in her chest, covered by her shoulders. She'd never heard the gossip about the mama who had a panic attack on the playground on the day the teacher told her it was best for Annie to repeat kindergarten. She didn’t know that in third grade, my daughter had scored in the first percentile in math on her yearly national standard test scores.
I fumbled for words as I tried to explain an 8-year journey in one short paragraph. And I also realized that Annie was no longer our school’s poster child for special needs. As new students and parents filter in every year, I’m no longer the-go-to mama for parents with questions about learning issues. I’m just the mom of a quiet girl who likes her mama to walk her to school.
What no one tells you about having a kid with learning disabilities is that the first step to founding a village to raise your child is learning to love that one child well — to really see her. When Annie repeated kindergarten, I was so busy looking at all of her old classmates starting first grade that I thought my heart would explode. It was so easy to focus on the other student that taunted her from five feet away with “Annie’s repeating kindergarten!”
When I looked at the child teasing Annie, I heard my blood pounding in my ears as I fought to breathe more deeply. But when I turned to look at Annie holding my hand, I realized she choose not to hear this former classmate. She was looking at me, waiting to walk to class after her tutoring session. Annie was the only person in our family who wanted to repeat kindergarten. She patiently waited for me to see her standing there.
Yes, I am Annie’s parent but in many ways she’s the one teaching me. Years ago, I began to conscientiously follow her lead. What was she trying to tell me? What were those who worked with her — her tutors and teachers — trying to tell me? Your Annie is sweet, they said. She’s an easy girl to love, they added. Annie’s going to be alright; anyone who works that hard will get where she needs to go. She’s funny and wow, can she memorize stories word for word.
I knew this but I was having a hard time really hearing it. It seemed so much easier to be the parent of a kid who tested well. But that distraction meant I was missing all there is to marvel at about my Annie — like how she can sing in tune, pitch perfect, quietly and beautifully. How her dance moves are enviable, but she’ll only dance when she knows no one is watching. How she can precisely describe a sign she saw at Pike Place Market three years ago and how she has an uncanny talent for reading the emotion in a room.
As I walked her to and from three, four, five tutoring sessions during the school days between kindergarten and fourth grade, Annie and I created a village — population: two. Our relationship became a rock solid base from which Annie and I continue to learn and grow. Of course, our village has no boundaries. It expands and contracts on a daily basis, welcoming tutors and friends and family and teachers. But when they say “it takes a village to raise a child,” I know in my heart that the stone our village is built upon comes from Annie and me.