By: Shannon Ralph
Yesterday afternoon, as I was rummaging through my eight-year-old son’s messy backpack in search of his second grade homework, my heart sank. In the middle of that mess sat a nondescript sheet of white paper emblazoned with the Minneapolis Public Schools logo. For the second year in a row, my son was being invited to attend summer school. For the second year in a row, his teacher did not feel that he was making adequate enough progress during the school year and was recommending summer school. For the second year in a row, I was told that my son was not measuring up to the other kids in his class. My son was struggling.
When Lucas was born and I was handed that chubby little 10-pound, 6-ounce (well, not so little) bundle of wriggling and screaming joy, I thought he was the most perfect child I had ever laid my eyes on. He was the only blonde newborn I had ever seen. His skin was the most perfect shade of pink. He had dimples that engulfed his entire face. He had sweet little folds of fat in all the right places. Chubbiness that begged for tickles and kisses. I could not imagine in that moment that he would ever be anything but an exceptionally brilliant, talented, creative, beautiful, perfect child.
As Lucas grew and his infant cries morphed into toddler giggles —and his GI Joe-style belly crawling turned into cautious stepping and then unrestrained leaping —he only grew more magnificent in my eyes. His toddler inquisitiveness was nothing short of brilliant, as far as I was concerned. He absorbed knowledge like a sponge. By the time he was four years old, he knew the names of every dinosaur that had ever walked this Earth. He loved books and wanted to be read to all the time. He was a happy boy. He was a content boy. You could sit him on the floor and walk away and he would cheerfully be sitting there an hour later still entertaining himself. He was one of those rare children that was not only an easy baby, but a perfectly pleasant toddler. There were no “terrible twos” —or threes or fours, for that matter —where Lucas was concerned.
When Lucas started kindergarten, he was thriving. He enjoyed school. He learned to write, although his penmanship was that of a small child. Messy and completely inaccurate. We assumed it would improve and we were happy with the progress he was making. First grade proved to be a little tougher for him. He struggled with reading and fell behind a bit, though his teacher assured us he would catch up. Now Lucas is in second grade, and his reading and writing skills are considerably less advanced than his peers. He attends a specialized “reading lab” once a week at school with a 6 to 1 teacher ratio. He also attends an after-school tutoring program twice a week for three hours. Despite these interventions, he still struggles. I hate to say it, but he pretty much despises reading. He has been known to cry when I tell him it is time to do his reading homework. I know he hates it because it is so very difficult for him. His reading is choppy and restrained and painful to listen to, at times. It is no wonder that he hates to read.
I often blame myself for Lucas’s struggles. When the twins came along, life seemed to suddenly become so much more hectic than it had ever been before. Though I made a concerted effort to spend individual time with Lucas, many of our rituals —our daily mom-and-son routines —were eclipsed by screaming hungry babies who managed to constantly poop and puke at the most inopportune of times. My happy, sweet little boy’s needs became second fiddle to the twins’ needs. As is often the case, the louder child got mommy’s attention. Story time became shorter. We had less time to spend with him learning the alphabet…practicing his writing…teaching him to read. We were merely trying to survive life with a toddler and two newborns. If we made it to the end of the day and everyone was relatively dry and fed and no one had been mortally wounded, we considered the day a success.
Part of my own struggle with Lucas’s reading woes is that I was such an avid reader as a child. Reading opened up so many worlds to me. Books were my escape. My solitude. My joy. My elation. Through books, I learned that an entire world existed outside of my small town in my tiny little corner of the Earth. I learned that I could do and be anything I wanted. I could go anywhere I chose. The thought of Lucas being denied the joy of books is incredibly heart-wrenching for me. I realize that he may never be the voracious reader I was. I may be expecting him to be something that he simply cannot be. I know I need to accept that. However, I simply cannot accept him falling behind or missing out on everything education can bring to his life because he doesn’t like to read. So I will keep advocating for him to get additional help with his reading and writing. I have even contacted the Special Education Department at his school to try to have him tested for learning disabilities. (There is a history of dyslexia in Ruanita’s family.)
Despite his reading problems, Lucas has many other strengths. He is a kind and loving little boy. All of his teachers have indicated what a joy he has been to have in class. He is artistic. He spends hours upon hours drawing. He makes his own comic books. He is a math wiz. He loves science. There is nothing he enjoys more than watching Nova and Nature on PBS. He doesn’t even care what branch of science is represented. He once oohed and aahed his way through an entire hour-long documentary on seismological shifts in the Earth’s crust while I fought to keep my eyes open. He most definitely has strengths that will help him in the school arena. However, reading and writing —the fundamentals upon which all other school success depends —are difficult for him, at best.
It is painful, as a parent, to admit that your child is not perfect. Your child cannot necessarily do anything and everything you want them to do. Your child needs “special” education. Lucas has strengths, of course, but like the rest of humanity, he has weaknesses as well. He has struggles. As parents, we do not want to see our children struggle. We want to be the parents who raise children who are strong and intelligent and successful. We desperately want perfect children. However, we all know that no one is perfect. As parents, imperfection is often our standard operating procedure. At least, in my personal experience. It only makes sense that this imperfection extends to our children, as well, though we often do not want to admit it. Despite the innate parental desire to declare our children perfect, I believe it is vital that we recognize and accept their weaknesses. It is only in accepting our children’s shortcomings that we can teach them strength and resilience. And isn’t that our job as parents? To teach our children to navigate this world to the best of their abilities, fully utilizing all of the unique talents and gifts they have been given. So yes, Lucas struggles with reading. He is not a strong reader, and his writing is barely legible. By admitting this, I can find ways to help him. I can focus on his strengths to help him overcome his shortcomings. I can call his school and raise seven kinds of holy hell to get him the specialized help he needs. In essence, I can be the mom my son deserves.
In my eyes, Lucas is still my chubby little blonde toddler with the infectious dimpled smile. Despite his struggles —despite not being perfect —he is perfectly wonderful.