Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What if my kid doesn't want to read road signs or decorate cakes?

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago when I first visited my son's high school. My fears about the school have been realized and I wrote about this at Dark clouds clearing earlier this week on the BLOOM blog at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

What if my kid doesn't want to read road signs or decorate cakes?

When I was in Grade 9, I took a test to see if I could get a scholarship to the Toronto French School. It was an exclusive private school that prepared students to write exams that would get them into the most prestigious universities in the world.

One of the questions on the exam was about the value of a university education – whether the goal was to get a job or if there was something intrinsically worthwhile about higher education.

I wrote an essay about the value of education in and of itself – of higher learning for the sake of bettering oneself – entirely separate from getting a job.

I got the scholarship.

Today I am sitting in an old, run-down school listening to a guidance counsellor talk about how the goal of my son's high school education will be to get a job.

There will be no reading of To Kill a Mockingbird in this school. We'll be lucky if they learn to read road signs.

Everything is to be experiential learning – no physics or geometry or literature. Math will be taught by counting bus tickets.

My son can stay here until he's 21. But he won't earn a high-school degree. He's not smart enough.

The student population is made up of two groups: those who score in the 5th percentile for intelligence, and those who fall below the first percentile. She makes a point of explaining that this means that if you take 100 kids, ours are at the bottom of the heap.

The program is focused on life-skills, the teacher says. They learn how to prepare food, make a doctor's appointment and ride the bus. Their homework is 30 minutes of reading before bed. Most read at a Grade 1 or 2 level. One of their innovations is a cake-decorating course.

What if my kid doesn't want to read road signs or decorate cakes?

The library in the school is remarkably bare. School and books. Don't they go together?

They have a café where the kids learn to prepare food that everyone eats for lunch. There are computers, but they seem few and far between.

The staff are very nice and obviously dedicated to their work.

A teenager shows us where they eat lunch and tells us that they're not allowed outside (unless they have permission from their parents).

Unlike other high schools, there are no kids hanging around in cliques all over the property. The smokers, the jocks, the nerds. The building is tucked in from the street and feels like a place that is both protective of its students and forgotten by the world.

I begin to feel queasy, picturing my son at a segregated school where any hope of him furthering his academic abilities will be kissed goodbye. And I'm afraid, wondering how he'll navigate this world where everyone is twice his size and his dwarfism will be even more pronounced? What if he's bullied? What if no one understands him? What if he can't tell me what happens?

"I really don't have many options for you," the special ed person says before we leave.

“I don't know what our decision will be,” I tell him, surprised to hear my voice crack. I hope he doesn't notice that if I'm not careful, I'll cry.

D'Arcy and I share a joke. It's a choice between this school for kids with mild-intellectual disability and the class for students with developmental disabilities we visited a year ago. It was in a dark room with no windows in the basement, accessed through the caretaker's room.

Sometimes black humour is our only reprieve.

As I drive back to work, panic and anger set in. My chest tightens, my eyes burn and my feet get pins and needles. Why must my son and others like him be hidden from the world?

"Don't show your ignorance" pops into my mind, a British saying my father was fond of when I was a child.

"What did you think?" my daughter asks when I return home.

"He might go there," is all I can muster, trying to convey a complete lack of concern.