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A Letter to My Special Needs Son’s School Principal

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Dear Mr. Principal,

My son, Aden, started seventh grade today. He's the one who often sits in his guidance counselor's office because he's too nervous to go to class. Remember, the kid who got two days of suspension because he broke your  "personal space" rule by touching another boy's necklace he thought was cool?  I want a fresh start this year, so it's time you heard who Aden is.

His trouble with school started early. He cried every day in kindergarten until nearly Thanksgiving. His teacher, on her last year after 36 with the district, put him at a desk alone, facing the corner.  To keep us from figuring this out, she moved his desk back on open school night and parent-teacher conferences  (during which she lamented his high-energy and "incorrigible" attitude). We found out in May, when my husband walked into the room unexpectedly with a forgotten snack.

The diagnosis of ADHD came as third grade started. We gave him the meds, which his teacher appreciated. Still, homework was a battle. The teacher sent us notes, full of obvious tips she must have thought we were too incompetent to have considered, like setting up a homework spot and providing a snack. These rubber-stamp homework success tips did nothing to address the elephant in the room: the fact that a kid who reads at a level several grades below the one he’s in is not going to be able to do, say, the social studies homework which involves reading a textbook.

Soon the medication’s effects wore off. And the thing was, it was too late for any pill to make him love to learn anyway.The next three years proceeded in the same way: We spent the first half of the year being scared by threats of his being left back, predictions of his never graduating high school if he didn't read more, even becoming a "troubled teen." Then with spring came the state tests, which he passed, literally, by a point or two. I was mystified, considering that he flunked nearly every in-class test. I asked how this was possible, and never got a straight answer. We pleaded for him to go to summer school, and the answer was always "He's fine! Summer school is only for the kids who don't pass the tests. See you next year."

So we paid a tutor each summer.  We knew she couldn't work a miracle, but her unspoken role was to praise his efforts, something few adults did. We gladly paid her for that.

As his academic abilities floundered, though, his athletic abilities grew; he was an all-star basketball player every year, MVP twice. At practices, the other moms would drop their sons off. I stayed for the hour and a half, all alone, watching. Do you have kids, Mr. Principal?  For a couple of hours a week, he wasn't a problem. He was a star. Basketball saved him...and me. 

On July 4, 2010 , we were watching fireworks when his head started twitching. Then his arm started jerking. The tics got worse and as the first day of fifth grade approached, he started grunting, chirping, and meowing.  Tourette syndrome was diagnosed. The kids that year, having known him all through elementary school, were pretty tolerant.

At the end of fifth grade, I was finally able to convince the special education committee that a child who has never been able to read a single grade-level summer reading book is not "fine." He was put into an inclusion class as he moved into your school.The kids in junior high, though, weren't as kind as the ones in elementary school.  He was bullied on the bus, called a freak. With all due respect, your "zero tolerance anti-bullying policy" is crap. A kid got off the bus at Aden's stop, and then attempted to strangle him. He got two days suspension, after which he commenced taunting my son as if nothing had happened. Ironically, that was the same punishment Aden got earlier in the year for admiring that shark tooth necklace a little too closely.

And then, with your "classes come first" policy, Aden couldn't play basketball anymore. As you know, no extracurricular activities if a kid is in danger of failing any subject. No exceptions, even for special-ed students. I lost my all-star point guard, and Aden lost the one thing that made him feel good about himself.   

Maybe if he had been allowed some extracurriculars, he might have perceived school to be more fun, and tried a little harder. Just a thought. 

Now you know the story of Number 49 on your special education roster: He looks like any other 12-year old boy: gawky, a little bedraggled, yet usually smiling, with braces. But he had a rough start and never fully recovered. He often says "I'm stupid," or "Everyone hates me," and sometimes, "I don't care anymore." 

In summer school last month, he got a 70. A pleasure to have in class, they said. So there is hope. He's not the norm in your school, but he's one of yours, still. Please make room for him, and kids like him, in your policies and your attitude.

And if he's still in danger of failing something come October...can you bend your rule for basketball? If we work together, we can prove that elementary-school teacher who saw him as a future troubled teen wrong. But time grows short.

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