An Open Letter To The Summer School Teacher

August 11, 2015

Summer school ends at one. Right as the blistering afternoon sun is climbing to its peak. Who thought this was a good idea? Too early for afternoon activities and too late to catch the cooler morning. But the letter said due to test scores this was mandatory, so here we were. Walking into the school at the end of the first day my stomach was in knots. The whole school year had been a battle. Over placements, therapy, services, diagnosis, IDEA, LRE and a few more acronyms with which I had recently become all too familiar. So I was ready for it. Nerves worn thin, exhausted, frustrated, but still ready for another round, because it's what moms do. The sting was still fresh from the last meeting during the waning days of the regular school year where the people who worked with my son for the entire year let me know how incredibly far he had come only to remain completely behind. The final assessment became an enumeration of all he couldn't yet do. Where he fell short, no matter how hard we had all tried. It was never enough. It might never be enough.

So I inhaled. "How was the first day?"

What I wasn't ready for was, "He was wonderful and brings so much joy to the class!" I wasn't ready to find it had taken a while for him to open up and participate and talk. Talk?  His goals still say to work up to several word phrases and greater intelligibility. Yet he was telling actual stories on day one. Maybe what hadn't happened in three years had happened on one humid late June morning. Maybe, just maybe, my real child had shown up for school.

"Between paradigms" was how the occupational therapist phrased it. They were the experts who knew and wanted me to accept that he might never quite thrive in a regular class. Yet he didn't belong in the class for disabilities either. But you, summer school teacher who has known him for a week say to me, "Did you know your son is gifted in math." I am sorry, I know at that point you went into great detail about your strategy and the modifications you were using but I only heard the first part. The sound of some of that fear for his future that had closed in around my mind like a wall one discouraging brick at a time cracking and crumbling made it hard to recall the details. There was something about highlighter, choices and whiteboards. I'm sure it was excellent. Maybe I can get that in an email later.

The next meeting, the one where you spoke up and told everyone that "he is a storyteller" and giving him the space and opportunity and permission to draw those stories out on his own terms will give him a desire to write not just to but beyond the standard. We just met, so you didn't know his father and I are both storytellers. We are people who know words are life and this struggle to find his words has made me wonder in dark moments if his feet will ever find firm footing. You didn't know that by labeling him by his strength instead of reinforcing deficiency you gave reassurance to my faith that, yes, he would take his place in that family tradition of creativity, teaching, building and exploring. "Storyteller" - I will take that label. You didn't know. You just saw the reports and saw him, and decided the reports must be wrong.  

During the last week you displayed the children's' paintings. Impressionistic homages to Monet. "His is the most abstract. It didn't quite follow the instructions but he did his own thing and is actually my favorite. Definitely frame-worthy!"  You could not have known how much I love Monet. Not just for the art as we experience it now, in greeting card sanctioned conventionality -- but for the way the artist fought despair and self doubt to paint the light between things as it had never been done and painted his greatest works through darkening eyes and died fearing he’d failed. Will we ever remember that seeing the standardized way isn’t always seeing more, or better? I was worried my son would disrupt class or not follow instructions. I was really only expecting he would retain some skills and hoping his uniqueness would be tolerated and no one would question whether he really belonged. I never expected you to see him through an entirely different frame. Not less. Not different. Fully capable and fully worthy.

You showed me things about my child even I had never seen. (Gifted in math? Really?) You showed my child he could just be a student and not "that kid" who was either picked on or pitied and you let me exhale and just be a proud mom and not “that mom." You could have just shown up, clocked in your hours and gone on to enjoy your summer. But instead, you showed me what a teacher could be. The other teachers have been good teachers, even great teachers, but in their concern to address my child's needs they missed my child. They trained a laser focus on the things he could not do so he could begin to do those things marginally better but you looked instead for the places of capability and passion and showed him (and reminded me) that operating within those will bring greater success in every area.  

Rita Pierson has said, "Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be." Perhaps your job was to be his teacher for a few short weeks of a long, hot summer, but he needed more and you became more - you became his champion. 

My child is not the only one fighting to find their words and the courage it takes to simply tell our stories. My child is not the only one needing a reminder of the choice always before us:  to walk forward in one's giftedness and strengths or fixate on one's weakness and fears. You reminded me to keep fighting, but also to re-focus and celebrate that light which shines and dances and soars as it defies and disrupts paradigms. The world needs such light.
Frame-worthy indeed. So, thank you, summer school teacher.
This is for every teacher who sees the child first and not the challenge. Who goes beyond what is simply called for to call out giftedness. You are amazing. 


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 I'm a designer, wife and mother of two.  I post my work and on the places where creativity and life’s clutter intersect. Looking for inspiration and finding balance.  Join me on the journey.

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TwitterRachel4My name is Rachel. Good to meet you. I like caramel coffee, the way patterns of light or color or ideas fit together, and mornings at the ocean. Dislikes include: political ads, conspicuous wealth and mornings in general. Together, my husband Buddy and I are daily challenged and blessed as we raise two children and run one business: By His Designs.

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