Tuesday, February 21, 2012

That Old Arbitrary Routine

Many, many years ago, when I was a wee slip of a girl (18? 19?), I worked in the infant room of large daycare center whose owner was quite adept at preventing reality from intruding on her worldview.

Hence, rules like this: all the babies have to move from the infant room to the toddler room during the week of their first birthday.

Also: no babies may move from the infant room to the toddler room until they are walking.

The fact that only about half of all babies are actually walking by their first birthdays? Why, those babies who don't walk are allowed to be lazy! Their parents carry them everywhere and they have no motivation to do the hard work of learning to walk!

See what I'm saying about reality?

My first run-in with this set of conflicting rules had to do with a baby who I'll call Jana. She was an adorable baby, with thick, dark hair and thighs like giant slabs of beef. Oh, she was a juicy chunk. But she crossed the magical 12-month mark and she was still crawling like the lazy little slug that my boss's worldview said she must be.

Liz (my boss) started hounding us constantly, "Teach that baby to walk!", so although I knew it was a ridiculous thing, I started holding that baby's hands and walking her all over the baby room until my back screamed at me to stop. Jana didn't mind a bit, but when I let go, she crawled away, which all but enraged Liz.

Not long after her birthday, Jana's parents asked Liz when she would move to the toddler room. They wanted her in the more stimulating environment with the other one year olds. In the baby room, there was only napping, eating, and the waving of rattles, whereas in the toddler room, there was napping, eating, and the smashing of crayons onto pieces of paper.

Liz told them that their deficient and lazy baby would not be allowed to move until she got up on her hind legs and walked there herself, at which point Jana's parents joined in on the relentless harassment. "Walk, baby, walk over here and give me a kiss!", they begged. We tempted Jana with cookies and shiny toys. Her parents bought some kind of harness that Jana wore while an adult held the straps. Our backs breathed a sigh of relief, but Jana did not walk.

After watching Jana's dad carry her out to the car one evening, Liz stormed into the baby room and said, "Fine. If those parents want their baby to crawl away to kindergarten, I don't care anymore. We'll move her to the toddler room tomorrow and if she gets stomped by the other kids, there's nothing I can do about it."

We moved her the next morning, her shame-faced parents hanging onto Jana's hands as they walked her across the center as if they had failed some fundamental parenting task. Two months later, long before she was eligible for kindergarten, Jana, via the magic of brain wiring, muscle development, and the alignment of the stars, stood up and walked. She had not been stomped by the other 1 year olds, most of whom were too small and too wobbly on their feet to be any kind of danger to anyone.

Jana has maintained an outsize prominence in my memory circuits all these years, both because the whole situation made me so angry I saw dancing red spots behind my eyes whenever I thought of it, and because Carter has been up against similar arbitrary standards all his life.

When Carter was still in public school, I used to be afraid I would stand up and scream during his IEP meetings, "If any of you compares his abilities to this "grade level" bullshit one more time I will start slapping people!"

Oh, of course I know it's what the system requires, and most of the individuals who worked directly with Carter were concerned much more with his progress than they were with numbers on forms, but still, those numbers (and the few people who insisted on paying more attention to those numbers than the little boy in front of them) were a torment to me.

I remember one of our very last IEPs, during the spring of Carter's first grade year. He had done kindergarten twice, so it was his third year at that school. The lead special education teacher (who didn't actually work with Carter but had started showing up at all our meetings after my husband and I made several calls to the district office to complain about IEP noncompliance on the school's part) started reviewing the numbers: Carter should be at 1.8 (first grade, eighth month) or ahead, since he repeated a year, she said. He's at K.4 in math, K.2 in reading, and his writing abilities are what we would expect from a child who hasn't even begun school.

Was it my imagination that there was a bit of a tone? A little hint of Liz's old blame-the-parents routine? I could feel it under the words: he's absent too often (never mind the six doctors' letters I'd offered as proof of the many reasons Carter missed school), you don't push him hard enough, you don't drill him at home. Maybe it was my imagination, but certainly there was no love lost between us.

This practice we have of comparing children to arbitrary standards is of some use in identifying children who need help, but I've never perceived it as anything but a stick with which parents and children may be smacked. Compounding my distress during those IEP meetings was the fact that, at that time, my life revolved around Carter: getting him appropriate medical and psychological help, guiding him through explosive meltdowns, nursing him through frequent episodes of cyclical vomiting syndrome, studying special education law, on and on and on. I had begun to accept that Carter's many limitations extended into his academic life, but I was nowhere near healed enough from the painful process of gaining that acceptance to deal with having it flung around the room in an insensitive manner.

To be looked at sideways by that woman was really more than I could bear.

So I spoke up in that IEP meeting and said, "I know he's behind grade level. I don't want to talk about that anymore. How is he doing? Is he making any progress?"

His special education teacher (the one who was actually with him more than half of every day) jumped in then, telling me all that he had learned, and while most of it was indeed preschool and kindergarten material, he was learning! He was making progress, albeit slow. I never would have known that he wasn't sitting at a table and drooling all day if I'd not asked my questions and we'd remained focused on how he compared to grade level expectations.

All I want is for Carter to be challenged in appropriate ways. Is he learning and making progress (no matter the pace)? Is he happy at school? Is he curious and eager to learn new things?

If the answers to those questions are yes, I don't care one bit how he measures against a list of things kids should know at any particular age. I don't know where he's going, but I'm convinced he won't get there faster if we hit him (and me!) over the head along the way.

Adrienne Jones lives and blogs in Albuquerque, NM. You can find her at No Points for Style.


  1. Oh, this strikes home! (but makes me grateful, as well, that most of the teachers my kids have dealt with have focused far more on on their progress than on arbitrary standards). How many times have I caught myself wishing everyone else could just hold still and let her catch up a bit!
    The worst is that my older daughter, who's now eleven, combines learning disabilities with keen social intelligence---so she's cuttingly, crushingly aware of how she measures up compared to the "regular" kids.

  2. Adrienne, thank you for this post, and for all that you've written. You are the person I think of when I can't sleep for worrying, when the dentist lectures me (again) "you've been grinding your teeth for some reason," because you deal with so much more than I, and with far, far greater grace than I can ever muster. You compel me to be a grownup and to deal, and that is no mean feat. Thank you.
    Noah's issues are a walk in the park -- on a clear, sunny day -- compared to what you deal with with Carter, but there's enough going on that we do have to deal with IEP and INSR meetings. Which, in spite of the wonderful, well-meaning people, by virtue of sheer ratio of "experts" to parent, are harrowing to the point of feeling abusive at times. By far the worst one was the time when two "experts" enumerated everything that was "wrong" with Noah right to his face, which had him crying so hard the tears flew horizontally across the table. But even now, at his sweet Montessori-esque charter school, the tone is "Well, he's academically advanced, and he's well-behaved in the classroom, so that's a relief. Now what are we going to do about this terrible problem child who can't write legibly and who slumps in his seat?" Which has me just about in tears. Until I think of you. And then I get it together. Thank you. Thank you so, so much.