A 13 Year-Old’s Holiday Plea

Milly, my 13 year-old daughter, is a very serious girl.  She always has been.  Yes, she is on the autism spectrum, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue anymore.  Sure, she has an IEP.  Yep.  She has a social skills class.  Of course, she thinks that it’s all a big ol’ waste of time.  She experiences the world differently.  Why do her peers preen and wear make-up and worry about their hair? Why bother impressing the boys? They are so unimpressive right now anyway according to her.  They are nothing like the totally impressive K-Pop boys of EXO and Super Junior who Eadaoin, Milly’s sister, has been more than happy to introduce us to.

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Super Junior

Milly prefers to watch Good Mythical Morning , read books, build massive LEGO structures, and watch important documentaries that make her feel “uncomfortable”, as she puts it.  She says, “Mom, I know that this is hard to watch, but I feel that it’s important for me know this because I’m a part of the world.  And, I need to know about things even if they’re hard to know.  How else will I ever be able to help?”

Something crystallized for her this morning when she saw the photos on the cover of the New York Times.

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A starving Sudanese girl in 1993 (Kevin Carter/Sygma via Getty Images)

 

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Phan Thi Kim Phuc after an accidental South Vietnamese napalm strike near Trang Bang in 1972 (Nick UL/Associated Press)

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The body of Alan Kurdi in Bodrum, Turkey (Agence France-Presse)

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5 year-old Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo in August (Mahmoud Raslan/Aleppo Media Center)

My daughter saw these images this morning as we sat in our local Caribou waiting for school to start and asked, “What…is…this? What is happening?”

I explained.  Syria.  Civil war.  The refugee crisis.  She started crying as she looked around.  She banged her fist on the table.  She then asked, “May I take this to school? I need to show my teachers.  They aren’t telling us any of this! We aren’t learning about this! Everyone talks about wanting new this and new that.  But this? I bet things would be different if my peers knew about this! I might get in trouble, Mom.  Is it okay if I get in trouble for this?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

She came home looking defeated.  “No one seemed to really care, Mom.  Everyone just wants stuff.  People are dying.  People have died.  I can’t live with it.  The school wants us to buy gift cards for all the staff.  What if we donated all that money to the refugees instead? Wouldn’t that do something?! I’m so angry.  I wrote this in class just to get out my feelings, but I have nowhere to put it.  I wish I could post it or something.”

“I’ll post it,” I told her.

This is what she wrote:

SCHOOL: “Shower your staff with gift cards!” NO! Donate to Syrian Refugees. YES!

Kids here want new phones.  They want new outfits and hate school.  Why wouldn’t parents educate their children about this? They’re teaching their kids to be racist and unkind (there has been racist language used in Milly’s school by other students).  There are kids in Syria who are being killed and left for vultures.  I think at least half of the kids at my school don’t know anything about this.  They say that they hate school.  Look at our school.  We have iPads! Kids in Syria would do ANYTHING to go to school, to have nice clothes, to be SAFE.  We need to do what we can to help.  Donate.  Do something.  Or at the very least learn about it to understand what’s going on and how privileged we are.  We need to make a change.  Our school wants us to “shower our staff with gift cards”.  Why do that when we could help people who need it? Children are struck with terror running for their lives and being publicly humiliated.  And our school wants us to donate gift cards to the staff.  Our staff already has homes, clothes, food.  We should be giving our money not to our staff but to help Syrian refugees who need it.

Donald J. Trump doesn’t want to help them.  He says that “they will steal our jobs”.  They don’t want to steal our jobs.  They just want to be safe and to survive.  We should be letting them into our country and we should help.  Our country should create more jobs and that would help the economy grow.  Kids say that immigrants are bad and that they will take our jobs.  They say these things because this is what they were taught.  We need to make a change, to be kind, and help other people who are less fortunate than we are.

The 7th grade Social Studies curriculum is ridiculous because there is no current events taught.  Instead we learn about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the presidents which are all important, but we could at least talk about what’s going on a little bit.  That’s why it’s up to us, the students, to make a change.  Before today, I barely knew anything about what’s going on in Syria.  No thanks to our school who didn’t teach us anything about what’s happening there.  Today I looked at the New York Times and was shocked to find out what is happening.  In school we are supposed to learn.  It doesn’t have to be a part of our curriculum.  If more kids learn about what is happening, the more help Syrians could get.  So, do your part.”

Strong opinions from a strong-minded girl, but she’s a girl of action.  She asked me to forgo giving her this month’s allowance and donate it instead.  She also asked me not to spend any money on gifts for her this holiday season.  Instead, she wanted any money I spent on her to go to the Syrian refugees.  She didn’t need anything.

All politics aside, she is right.  If we have more than we need, then we are blessed.  Stop for a moment and think about what you might be able to do.  Donate $10? Do it then.  Millions of human beings have been displaced.  They have lost everything.  They are no different from you and me.  It is our obligation as human beings first, all other views and opinions second, to come alongside them and help.  As Milly said, “Do your part.”

This is how you can:

The White Helmets Hero Fund

The White Helmets captured international attention through their bravery, and were reportedly in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. The 2,900 strong group of civilians have been carrying out rescue missions after government airstrikes since 2013, united by their motto of ‘to save one life, is to save all of humanity’.

The International Rescue Committee

IRC aid workers are meeting people who have fled Aleppo as they reach the nearby town of Al Dana, one of the many neighboring areas bracing themselves for the influx of displaced people driven from their homes in the city. Donations will go toward providing families who have escaped the city with food, fuel and emergency supplies including mattresses, blankets, soap and towels.

Hand in Hand for Syria

Hand in Hand for Syria was set up soon after the beginning of the war in 2011, and uses its extensive networks on the ground to implement aid in some of the most difficult-to-reach places. Some of the organization’s members living in Eastern Aleppo were forced to abandon their work after pro-government forces took control of the area. Donors can contribute toward the emergency appeal for families fleeing from the city, which will provide food, medical aid and winter supplies.

International Committee of the Red Cross

The ICRC and its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), have remained committed “to act as a neutral and impartial humanitarian intermediary” throughout the Syrian Civil War. Donations to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have enabled food and medical deliveries to those in need, and the two groups issued a plea on Tuesday to those involved in fighting “to put humanity ahead of military objectives.”

Save the Children

Save the Children has been working to provide children and their families with warm clothes, shelters, protection, clean water and emergency care. In a statement on Tuesday, the charity said “Families who are desperate to leave are being shown no dignity or humanity. We must at least now end this carnage and safely evacuate the remaining civilians.” (courtesy of TIME)

Milly’s originally penned Letter to Everyone

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How to Advocate

If you’ve followed our journey here at Empowered Grace for any length of time, then you’ll know we have had our share of struggles within the education system.  Anyone who’s had to fight for an IEP can empathize with this.  This isn’t, however, what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about experience with teaching staff who perhaps should no longer be teaching.  Remember Miss Lydia or perhaps the school principal whose mediation at which I testified? The school principal was ultimately fired as was the nefarious Spanish teacher.  Miss Lydia was moved to another department much like a pedophile priest.

It’s a bit weird to think about, isn’t it? We hope that when we send our kids to school the teachers and staff will be safe people.  We trust that they will be.  When we step back and look at that assumption, we must see the flaw in our belief.  If we break down the staff at a school district into a percentage, then what is the likelihood that 100% of the people working in a school district will be well-adjusted and healthy? When you look at it through that filter, you start to see the problem.  What percentage of the staff might have a personality disorder? What percentage might have health problems that affect their ability to effectively teach? What percentage might struggle with depression or mood disorders? What percentage might be living with or caring for someone who meets these criteria thusly detracting from their overall well-being as individuals?

Or, let’s be honest, what percentage of the staff might just be assholes? I’m not sure when the DSM will consider ‘asshole’ as a psychological pathology worth treating, but I think someone should put it on the table for discussion.

It’s hard to be an effective teacher.  I would not want that job.  These days you aren’t dealing with just the kids.  You’ve got the parents, too, and this makes teaching that much harder particularly if you teach at a private school.  I get it.  Nothing is simple anymore in terms of ‘going to school’.  The Columbine shooting changed everything, and the arrival of the Helicopter Parent perpetuates entitlement and immaturity within student populations almost tying the hands of educators, it seems.

Still, what do you do when there’s a bad apple in the bunch? What happens when the bully isn’t another kid but an authority figure? And, what do you do when said authority figure targets vulnerable youth?

This is our situation at Milly’s new school this year, and the ‘bad apple’ is her case manager who also happens to be one of her math teachers as well as her social skills class teacher.  It’s not a situation I’ve ever come across before.  Usually, a case manager is a social worker working in the special education department.  I have never met a case manager who doubles as a teacher.  It feels like a conflict of interest to me because social workers often act as liaisons between students and teachers.  The social worker is the soft place to land for the student.  Teachers are there to educate and adhere to state requirements.  They are authority figures.  They discipline in the purest sense of the word.  Social workers are the nurturers.

A few red flags cropped up with this teacher/case manager, and I have been documenting her behavior.  Milly came home, sometimes crying, about certain interactions that occurred in her social skills class.  She continued to say that she felt worthless after every social skills class.  A red flag.  I notified the principal and laid before her what I had documented.  Sometimes this is all it takes.  A teacher decides to try a new approach.  They don’t know how it’s going until someone says something.  I’m often the one who says something particularly if children are getting hurt.  The principal responded quickly, spoke to Milly’s case manager, and resolved the situation.  She spoke with me and said that this woman seemed remorseful and had even cried.  The teacher said that she never meant to hurt anyone.  Good, I thought.  All taken care of.

A few weeks later, Milly informed me that nothing had changed.  This woman was still yelling at the class for not holding their paper in math class in a very specific way.  She demanded that the entire class “write neatly”.  She roamed the class looking at every student’s work and even erased papers in their entirety if she found handwriting that didn’t meet her standards–even the papers of special needs students.  This smacked of obsessive behavior which, to me, was another red flag.

Milly then came home sobbing after an incident within her social skills class led by this teacher which was, to say the least, beyond the pale.  I documented everything and contacted the principal yet again.  Once again, the principal acted quickly, but this incident was more serious.  It took longer to resolve, and Milly was becoming more fearful of her case manager/math teacher! This teacher sent me a personal email asking me to contact her directly with concerns.  She did this for two reasons: 1) to appear personable and 2) to avoid future entanglements with the school’s administration namely the principal.

This was yet another red flag.  How do you deal with a person who is subtly manipulative like this? Call their bluff.  This particular teacher is highly anxious.  She cries all the time.  I knew that she was not stable because Milly reported that she would often hijack the social skills class to sit and talk about her own life and problems–to a group of ASD elementary students no less.  Another red flag.  She would often break down during her personal rants in front of these students in her attempts to garner sympathy and hugs from them.

How did I call her bluff? I did, in fact, email her directly about one of my concerns–her insistence that students hold their papers while writing in a very particular way.  In her classes, a student isn’t allowed to hold their paper in a way that suits them.  They must hold down their paper in a way that suits her–even if it hurts the child to hold their hand or arm that way.  I asked her if should would allow, at a minimum, the special needs children in her classes to hold down their papers in a way that suited them so that they could change their focus to the content of what they were writing rather than how they were writing.  She replied that she had never done such a thing to Milly dismissing Milly’s perceptions as ‘internalizing’.  She herself would correct her the next day.

Red flag.  

This situation blew up fast simply by my doing as she asked.  I emailed her a concern, and she personalized it.  She victimized my daughter the next morning by getting her alone for 20 minutes and confronting her about the contents of my email–something my daughter knew nothing about.  Her anger was displaced.  She cross-examined her.  She gaslighted her.  She wept in front of her.  And then she went on to do what no teacher or caregiver should ever do.  She made Milly make a deal with her.  She told her that she was no longer to share anything that bothers her or even happens in her class with other teachers or even her parents.  She was to keep it between the two of them.  “We are going to make that deal, okay?” And she wouldn’t let her go until she promised to make that deal with her.

That isn’t a red flag.  That’s a fire.  That’s a move out of the abuser’s handbook.  Deals? Secret keeping?

I’d like to say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in schools, but it does.  I’ve run into very suspect behavior in every school in which my children have been enrolled.  It isn’t because educators and staff are innately bad.  It’s simply because human beings are flawed, and human beings populate schools.  One must get used to the idea that every school is a microcosmic representation of what’s “out there”.  There are great people, average people, a few assholes, and even a few predators.

So, what do you do when one of the predators happens to be one of your child’s teachers? Find one of the great people because all schools have great people working there, too.  More than that, there will be more great people working at a school than there will be predatory or abusive people.  If that isn’t the case, then there is something wrong with the school district itself, and my advice is to leave that district as soon as possible.  That’s a systemic problem that one person cannot fix.

In our case, Milly’s new school is full of amazing staff.  Her primary teacher is a gem, and her school principal has award upon award for performing her job.  She is a stellar school principal.  Milly spends at least half an hour a day with the school principal.  They have lunch together.  They check in with each other.  So, when Milly’s primary teacher found her in the hallway crying after she was ambushed by her case manager, this teacher wasted no time.  These women have circled the wagons around Milly.  I was called.  The Director of Special Education was called.

I don’t know what is going to happen, but I have learned a lot after all the issues we’ve had over the years raising children with special needs in the public school system:

  • Establish a line of communication with the administration of your child’s school.  Get to know staff.  Get to know your child’s case manager.  Form a relationship with your child’s teachers.  Let them know that you are there to answer questions should they have any.  Having a relationship with teachers and staff at your child’s school gives your child a sense of empowerment, and it can add support to the people teaching and supporting your child as well.  It also adds accountability to the mix.
  • Listen to your child.  Believe your child.  If your child is continually telling you the same thing about a certain teacher, then pay attention.  If your child tells you that s/he is afraid of a certain teacher, then find out why.  Make simple statements like, “Why are you afraid?” and “Tell me more.  I want to hear your story.”  Don’t tell your child what to feel or ‘should on them’.  Active listening is powerful.  Abuse in schools does happen.  A former teacher at Grace and Milly’s school had been emotionally and physically abusing students for years.  Students had been reporting it to parents through statements like, “I’m afraid of her.  She’s so mean,” but parents often overlook statements like these because they feel that it’s just part of being a kid.  They had to tolerate mean teachers, too, so why shouldn’t their children? Investigate.  There can be a mile of difference between a strict teacher and a truly mean teacher.
  • Document, document, document.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  You can’t approach administration without evidence.  You can’t ask that changes be made in the way of speaking to a teacher, correcting bad behavior, or even investigating questionable behavior without good documentation.  Good documentation means writing down the date of your child’s complaint, the complaint itself, and any other observations your child made.  The more details that you can record the better, and those details are far more powerful than an emotional phone call from a parent.

The best outcome in most cases is that a teacher is made aware of their less than desirable behavior or teaching method, and they correct it.  There are a plethora of reasons why teachers fall back on excessive shaming, yelling, manipulation, ambushing, and even physical abuse.  It’s all wrong, but there are reasons.  The teacher who was abusing students at Grace’s elementary school actually had a long-term back injury, and she was in constant pain.  She was losing her ability to manage her chronic pain, and it was, therefore, coming out sideways.  I’m not justifying her abuse.  I’m merely explaining it.

In the end, you can never forget that you are your child’s best advocate.  You are their voice when they have lost theirs, and you are their intercessor as it were.  You stand in the gap for them when the gap becomes too wide for them to straddle or even leap.  It is not an easy job because it requires vigilance, and you never get a break.  Ever.  As they get older, they learn better self-advocacy skills, but, if they have special needs, they will need you for a lot longer than a neurotypical child.

So, be brave.  Don’t be afraid to speak up.  And, remember what Doireann’s sixth grade teacher told me when I was just learning to advocate for my kids in the public school system:

If you don’t speak up for your child, then who will? You get out there and give ’em hell.  That’s your job.

 

 

Get It in Writing

I am back in the middle of the IEP process, and I have one piece of advice: Get it in writing.

Grace has something of a novel for an IEP, and she is set.  I don’t have to fight for her services anymore thanks to the Department of Education stepping in and politely slapping our school district for breaking the law.  They just smile, nod, and say, “Whatever you want.”  This is a happy ending to what was a horrible, horrible process.

Milly has a new and improved IEP, and it’s actually implemented.  I am very happy about this.  We had to open enroll her in another school district for this, but one does what is necessary for a child with special needs.

Eadaoin’s new school was on the ball from Day One in terms of recognizing that she had anxiety.  I got a call on the second day of school from someone in the Special Education department declaring that we needed to meet and discuss a 504 plan until an IEP evaluation could be started.  That’s a rare thing.  Schools don’t usually do that.

Eadaoin, however, was in the middle of neuropsychological testing at one of our local pediatric specialty hospitals.  I did not want anyone doing an IEP evaluation without the results of her neuropsychological evaluation.  Why did this matter?

  1. A school cannot repeat testing that has already been done within the same year, and tests like the WISC-IV, BASC-II, and the Woodcock-Johnson are often done on both neuropsychs and IEP evaluations.  I would rather have a neuropsychologist from a pediatric hospital administer and interpret these tests rather than a school psychologist.
  2. A neuropsychological report is almost always more in-depth than school testing providing more information for a better sense of your child’s learning, processing, executive function, and recall as well as IQ dynamics.
  3. Neuropsychological testing provides insight into how mental illness impacts learning, and this is key.  Illnesses like bipolar disorder have a direct impact on executive function, and this is vital to emphasize for educators.  I have yet to meet one educator who knows this.  They are only now beginning to recognize that ADHD impacts executive function, but, sadly, even the school psychologists are ignorant.
  4. An OHI-IEP is an appropriate IEP for a child with a mood disorder, but most educators do not know this.  IDEA 2004 even states that mood disorders fall under the requirements for Other Health Impairments.  Why? Once again, this is the case because the symptoms of mood disorders impact learning, retention, and often one’s ability to even sit in a classroom.  Why does this matter?
  5. SPED staff will often want to subject students to a Functional Behavioral Analysis which is required for an EBD-IEP.  An FBA is appropriate when assessing anxiety, but an FBA is not appropriate when assessing a mood or psychotic disorder because mania, clinical depression, and psychosis serve no function.  A child cannot “CBT” away the mania and replace it with a better behavior.  A child cannot will away psychosis and bring a better behavior to a classroom.  Putting a child through an FBA is, therefore, useless and often painful.

Eadaoin’s neuropsychologist recommended a 504 plan for her in writing on her final report.  As we were discussing it in person, she said that an OHI-IEP would be appropriate, too–whichever met her needs to the most appropriate level.  She failed to put that in her report.  She failed to put that statement in writing.

I sent a copy of this report to Eadaoin’s school, and I received a call from the new special education person yesterday.  She’s new.  She probably has a lot to do.  She is probably overworked, underpaid, and tired like most educators.  I do understand that.  I don’t and will never understand, however, the stonewalling and almost feigned lack of intelligence that I encounter in so many special education departments.  The system might be broken, but people are not:

“No one told me that there was a full evaluation already done on Eadaoin,” said the new SPED woman.

“I emailed the person you replaced.  He knew.”

“Oh.  Well, there’s no need to do a full evaluation then.  The report says that she should have a 504 plan.”

“It should be noted that her doctor also told me in our meeting that a 504 plan or an OHI…whatever accommodated her the best.”

“But, she isn’t learning disabled.  She has a high IQ.”

“What does a learning disability have to do with an Other Health Impairment IEP?”

“But she isn’t learning disabled. The report shows that.”

“Once again, what does one have to do with the other?”

“The report says that she needs a 504 plan.”

“Yes, I read the report, and I was with the doctor for an hour as she interpreted the report for me.  Once again, she also made other recommendations.”

“The report says that she needs a 504 plan.”

“….”

“According to IDEA, a person with a mood disorder qualifies for an OHI-IEP.  Her reports shows that she has a mood disorder.  Ergo, would an IEP serve her better? That is my question.”

“She isn’t learning disabled.”

“Gifted children have IEPs.  Clearly, they are not learning disabled.”

“The report says that she needs a 504 plan.”

I think you get the point.  If the illustrious 504 plan is what Eadaoin needs, then I’m all for it.  504 plans travel to college which can be really good.  IEPs do not.  If she were to actually need an IEP, however, then my chances of getting one for her now are very low because Dr. Berg did not write her verbal recommendations in that damned report.

Assume the worst.  Assume that you will have to fight for every accommodation that your child needs.  This is why Wright’s Law exists.  I have had two experiences–a nightmare and a daydream.  In the end, I was able to get each child what she needed because of the documentation.

Always, always, always get it in writing.  Always.

 Resource:

The Functional Outcome of Bipolar Disorder: The Big Picture

If schools were more aware of the ideas presented in this article on the same level as they are concerning ADHD or even ASDs, then how might those students with mood disorders do as they move towards matriculation? It would be a different educational world to be sure.

IEPs and Sexual Predators

I had a very interesting day yesterday.  I want to share the good news first.  I’m not sure if I’ve posted here that I open-enrolled Milly into a different school district this year.  I removed her from our home district at the end of the first semester of her third grade year in order to enroll her in a virtual school where she would no longer be subject to the culture and mistreatment of our home district while also preserving her IEP.

Simply put, our home district wouldn’t implement her IEP.  These days, it feels like it takes an act of God through the appearance of Moses himself to get a district to give you an IEP.  It’s as if they view themselves to be Pharaoh.  Entirely above the federal law stated clearly in IDEA and explained even more clearly in the Federal Registry.  At least that’s how my district behaves.  They finally gave Grace an IEP after our state’s Department of Education, at the bidding of The Office of Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities appointed by our governor, rang them up early one morning and slapped their wrists for “bad behavior”.  Illegal behavior really.

Milly wasn’t ready to return to a brick and mortar school last year, so I did the unthinkable.  I homeschooled an autistic girl.  She needs social interactions to reinforce social thinking scenarios as well as practice, but her anxiety was so high that she wasn’t able to socialize much if at all.  So, we pursued academics at home while we worked on skills independently.  Finally, at the end of her fourth grade year, she told me that she was ready to return to a public school environment, and she was even ready to go somewhere new even if it was hard and meant making new friends.  So, that’s what we did.

But her IEP had expired which meant that we had to start all over again with evaluations.  I hate IEP evaluations.

Yesterday, I went to Milly’s IEP meeting wherein we discussed the evaluation results.  She got her IEP! What’s more, everyone at this school is there to help her.  This school is nothing like her former school.  Her teacher adores her and fully understands autism spectrum disorders.  Milly takes her breaks in the principal’s office with the principal who helps her with breathing exercises.  The environment of the school is validating and cares for the well-being of children.  I feel so much better sending my daughter there knowing that she is cared for and about, and she will now be guaranteed services appropriate to her needs.

One topic that was raised during the IEP meeting was the notion that Milly had good boundaries around adults which was unusual for a child her age.  She was reluctant to disclose information about herself, and she did not willingly go with staff members whom she had not met to another place in the building even if said staff person insisted that they were trustworthy because they were a teacher or school employee.  Milly was suspicious because they were a stranger.  It was pointed out by the autism specialist that this was an important quality to have particularly for an ASD girl.

Special needs children and adolescents are often targets for abuse particularly sexual abuse because they often cannot read social cues or discern the intent of another person.  They are often too trusting of others–even strangers.  Or, due to an inability to communicate, they are abused simply due to predator hubris–“I’ll hurt you whenever and however I please! It’s not like you can tell anyone!”

This was on my mind yesterday when I left the meeting.  I have four daughters.  I have and continue to raise them to be aware of themselves and others.  The world is full of good people, but there are people out there who are not good.  People who mean to do harm to vulnerable innocents.

And, wouldn’t you know, I met one yesterday at my local Caribou.  I took Milly out for an afternoon coffee beverage.  She thinks the Vanilla Coolers are fairly awesome so she begs me to take her to our local Caribou almost every day.  I had a jones for coffee (my constant state of existence) so I relented.  That local Caribou has become my Cheers.  I dropped my grey pashmina in there last week, and two employees yelled my name while waving it in the air.  I was both embarrassed and comforted.  First of all, how often do I wear that thing, and, secondly, how often am I there? Everyone really does know my name!

While I was licking the whipped cream from the top of my coffee drink, I noticed a man staring at me.  Not glancing.  Ogling.  With his mouth hanging open.  I made eye contact with him.  He continued to stare.  He stared at my mouth.  He was seated in such a way that his back was supposed to be to me.  In order to watch me drink my coffee, he had to turn his entire body around.  I felt more than a little disgusted by his behavior.  As soon as Milly started licking the whipped cream from her straw, his eyes darted to her mouth.  He leaned in to his stare and shifted in his chair.  She’s 11 for crying out loud! I watched him watch my daughter drink her coffee beverage, and I felt anger with a mix of fear.

This man didn’t hide.  Oh no, he started rubbing himself as he watched my daughter continue to lick her straw.  Right there in a public place! He shifted and rocked and rubbed all the while staring with his mouth hanging open.  He never blinked.

I had seen him before.  I brought Eadaoin, Grace, and Milly to Caribou a few weeks ago, and he sat behind them in a corner.  He had done the same thing then, but I couldn’t see his hands.  I saw him shifting, rocking, and staring then, too.  We actually left because we were so uncomfortable.  He wouldn’t stop staring at us.  I had hoped to never see him again.

In the middle of his predatory ruminations, three high school girls came in, ordered coffee, and sat at a table just a few feet from him.  He looked like he might explode.  He was undressing them with his eyes.  He ogled their behinds, their chests, and continued to shift and rock in his chair.  Then a girl who looked to be about 10 years-old walked by him, and I saw him wrench his body in his chair to stare at her.  He behaved like a starving kid in a candy shop.  I wanted to vomit.

I stared at this man.  He made eye contact with me numerous times.  Milly asked me if I was okay.  She said I looked like I was going to kill someone.  Finally, I texted a friend.  I needed to do something.  He told me to tell the manager.  It took me a moment to find my courage.  I’m a survivor of sexual abuse.  There was a part of me that was irrationally fearful of him.  Instead, I pretended to text someone and took a picture of him with my phone.  I know the manager, and she was there! I walked over to her.

“Pretend that I’m showing you pictures of my kids and laugh,” I said quietly.

She looked alarmed.

“Just do it.  Laugh.”

She laughed.

“There is a man in here watching women, young women, and girls.  He sits in here, pretends to work on a laptop, watches these girls and women, and rubs himself or gets off by rocking and rhythmically shifting in his chair.  I’ve seen him do it today, and I saw him do it another time.  I’m going to show you a picture of him now.  Tell me it’s cute because he’s probably watching.”

She looked sickened but tried to follow along.  As soon as she saw the picture, she said, “I know who that is.”

I saw her jaw clinch.  She looked as angry as I felt.  I could tell that she was trying to figure out what to do.  The assistant manager is a male.  She was going to start by alerting him.  Most of the employees are women.  I then told her to laugh as I walked away.  It had to look like we were talking about something funny.  So, she laughed.  I laughed.

I went back to the table, got Milly, and left.

That’s not an easy thing to do.  I was trembling when I left.  It’s easier to walk away.  It’s easier to never return, but that’s my place! I go there! I’m not going to allow a sexual predator to “window shop” and do nothing! I also want my daughters to know that we can do something.  We don’t have to sit there and take it as women.  If a man is behaving in a predatory way, then we can and should say something.  We are right to do so because young girls and adolescent girls often don’t notice or notice but feel helpless to do anything simply because they don’t know what to do; or, they’re too scared to do anything.

I pondered the possibility that this could be a misunderstanding.  What if this man simply had a scorching case of jock itch and lacked any and all social skills? Then, someone needs to school him on how to behave in public:

  • It is not appropriate to scratch, rub, and rock oneself in public.  Go to the bathroom if you must repeatedly touch your crotch.
  • It is never appropriate to stare at people to that extent particularly while rubbing one’s groin.
  • Men should not ogle little girls, adolescent girls, and women.  If a man wants to stare at women for hours on end, then pay for that privilege and go to a strip bar.
  • If a man has an STI or some kind of health issue that affects “groin comfort” to the extent that he cannot even sit still, then stay home while the issue is being treated.

All in all, it was a very interesting day.  I hope today is boring.

 

 

 

A Lesson Learned from The Science Fair

Grace’s school had their science fair yesterday.  I’ve explained before that Grace attends an intermediate district that exists to serve the needs of students who could not be adequately taught in their home district.  The facility is absolutely gorgeous, and every staff member, Miss Lydia aside, seems to love their job and each student.  I’ve never seen a group of teachers, social workers, para-professionals, and school nurses more committed to the well-being of a population of students.

Eadaoin, Milly, and I went to the science fair, and Grace was so excited to see us.  It was held during the day so my husband was unable to join us.  Grace did her project on neuroplasticity.  She sculpted a neuron and explained what every part of the neuron did in the brain.  I watched her as she stood by her project and answered everyone’s questions.  She looked very proud, and I thought that it was oddly wonderful that she chose neuroplasticity as the subject of her science fair project.  Some of the latest research on schizophrenia is showing that neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to repair itself, may be an avenue for treatment.

I wandered around the gym taking a look at what the other participants had done.  Milly was particularly impressed by the baking soda/vinegar volcano.  I listened to the kids explain their hypotheses and how they followed the scientific method.  Many of the kids have cognitive impairments or emotional and behavioral disturbances so it requires a lot of patience, acceptance, and compassion to interact with each of them.  Some of these kids are suspicious of adults.  Some of them are overly friendly and have poor boundaries.  Some refused to look at me altogether, but they did a project.  They showed up.  I thought I should at least look at what they did.

In the middle of looking at all the projects a boy caught my eye.  He was sitting alone by his project.  I walked over to look at his display.  He had chosen Greek mythology as his topic.  Initially, I thought that his topic wasn’t very scientific at all.  I know, I know.  I was judging this boy’s project.  That was just the first thought that came to mind.  I let it flow out of my mind as easily as it flowed in.  I read his board.  It was hand-written in pencil, and it was messy.  There it was again.  My “judgey” inner critic.  I looked at his display to see his name.  His name was Jake.  “Hi, Jake.  Nice job.”  He just looked at me.  Suddenly, a teacher was right by my side.  She grabbed my arm and said with emphasis, “Why don’t you ask Jake a few questions about his project.  Wouldn’t that be a good idea?”  She then smiled at me showing all her teeth.  Right.  Got it.

“Jake, I see you’ve chosen Greek mythology as the topic of your science fair project.  Why did you choose that?”

He lit up.  “Oh, well, I really loved the Percy Jackson novels.  Have you heard of Percy Jackson? You know, they were written by Rick Riordan, and they are about demigods who are the kids of the Greek gods.  So, I wanted to know more about the Greek myths since I didn’t know very much about them.”

Jake’s speech patterns were awkward.  He had a cognitive impairment.  I adjusted my questions.

“Oh, I really like those novels, Jake.  Do you have a favorite Greek myth?”

“Oh, yes, I do.  I think I like the myth of Echo or maybe Midas.  Yes, I think I like Midas the best.  That’s a good one.”

“I like that one, too.  Do you have a favorite Greek god?”

“I do! I really like Poseidon.  He’s the god of the waters.”

“It sounds like you learned a lot doing all this research for your project.  Thank you for sharing this with me, Jake.”

He nodded.  He then looked at the teacher standing next to me and asked, “Have you seen my parents? Are they here? Have you seen my dad?”

His teacher leaned down, put her arm around his shoulder and said, “Well, there are 45 minutes left.  There’s still time for them to get here.”

Jake looked at her for a moment and then looked at his hands.  He shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and looked off into the distance.

That exchange hit me in my chest.  I wanted to cry.  Jake worked hard on his project.  He was excited about it, and he just wanted his mom and dad to see it.  He wanted them to see what he had been doing at school.  I looked at his teacher.  She looked at me.

I couldn’t fix this! My gosh, I wanted to do something to fix this, and I couldn’t.  I stopped and looked around the gym again at all the projects and all the kids standing by their projects.  There was only one other family present.  Eadaoin, Milly, and I and another couple.  That’s it.  This other family was making the rounds as well, asking each student about their project.  As I turned to find my daughters, one of Grace’s classmates hugged me.  “Can I hang out at your house this weekend? I’ll give you my phone number, okay? You can call me and ask my mom.”  Then, there were other kids hugging Grace’s classmate.  Then, it was one, big group hug.

I am easily overwhelmed when I see others in pain.  Sometimes it paralyzes me because I’ll not know what I can do to change anything.  If I can’t change anything, then what? But, I am observing more and more that our presence can change a lot.  Being the parent that shows up to watch the talent show and congratulating the students means something.  Being the adult that goes around to each science fair project, showing interest, and asking questions means something.  Presence is a powerful thing, and it affects others.

We might not be able to change the world or fix everything, but we can offer our presence.  We can show up daily, ready to listen, and ready to encourage.  We might not ever know if it changed anything for anyone, but what if it did?

What if…?

 

 

 

The Golden Rule

Relational aggression.  It’s an odd phrase.  Most of us are familiar with passive aggression.  Most of us have probably been passive aggressive at some point, and passive aggression doesn’t necessarily favor women above men.  I’ve met a fair number of passive aggressive men in my time.  Relational aggression, however, seems to be a uniquely female behavior designed to alienate, disempower, and undermine girls and women through their relational connections so that the aggressor feels empowered and superior.

When I try to imagine boys or men being relationally aggressive, a rather amusing scene materializes in my mind:

“Wow, John, those are really nice pants you’re wearing.”

“Thanks, Chris!”

“Oh yeah, John, I really like your pants.”

“Thanks, Mike.”

“I bet Christine will appreciate those pants, too, because they look so great on you,” Chris says while stifling a laugh.

“Okay, what’s going on?”

“What? Oh, nothing,” Chris says while looking at Mike who is now laughing.

“I feel like you’re both laughing at me.  What am I missing here?”

“Aaaaw, we would never laugh at you.  We’re your friends! Oh, look, gotta run.  Come on, Mike.  Well, enjoy those pants! I know I did.”

John can now feel excluded, insecure, and devalued for the rest of his day, and he’ll probably go home and burn those pants.  What’s more, he will avoid seeing his girlfriend wearing those pants, too, although he’ll have no idea why.  This is relational aggression at work, but it’s weird to read it in a script among men, isn’t it? That script would have been more believable if I had put women’s names in it.  A more appropriate male interaction would have been something like this:

“John, what the hell are you wearing?”

“Pants.  What the hell are you wearing?”

“No, I mean, you look like an idiot in those.  You should go home and change.  In fact, never wear those again.  Christine will never sleep with you again if she sees you in those pants.  Seriously, what were thinking, man? Hey Mike, take a look at John’s new wardrobe choice.”

“Holy shit, man! The 80s have called.  They want their pants back! Dude, where did you get those? What are those? Are you actually wearing parachute pants? Wait, wait…I have to get a picture of this.  This is going on Instagram.  The day John wore parachute pants to work and it wasn’t even Halloween! I’m dying…I’m dying…Chris, you have to take the picture.  I can’t hold my cell phone.  I’m laughing too hard…”

“Dude, I will totally take that picture! Okay, John, stand up! If you’ve got the balls to wear parachute pants to work, then you’ll be immortalized in the Instagram Hall of Fame for Worst Pants Ever Worn by John.  Say cheese!”

“FINE!!! I’ll go home and change.  I was just trying to be…retro.  You guys suck!”

“No, we don’t suck.  Your fashion sense sucks.  We’re actually saving you from a life of no sex and bad pants!”

::Chris and Mike high five each other::

Was there ridicule? Yep.  That’s typically male.  Did John walk away from the interaction knowing exactly what was wrong with his pants? Yep.  Were his friends straightforward with him? Oh, yes.  He looked like an ass in his outdated parachute pants.  A grown man should never wear parachute pants.  In fact, the boys that wore them in middle school looked like idiots.  Retro or not, they should never be resurrected and worn in public.  Mike and Chris did John a favor, and, even though John is embarrassed and mad, he didn’t walk away feeling excluded or disempowered.  He is just as much a part of his social group as he was before he decided to wear some of the worst pants ever designed.

Sadly, this is not how females operate.  Relational aggression begins around third and fourth grade and continues from there.  Once girls figure out how to manipulate other girls effectively, they do it.  The hierarchies begin to form.  Queen Bees emerge along with the Middle Bees who behave like drones doing whatever the Queen Bees dictate leaving behind the girls who don’t fit within that social hierarchy because they are either not wanted or chosen or because they don’t value or understand that sort of social interaction.

Grace’s BFF is becoming a Queen Bee, and her behavior is not without consequence.  Grace and BFF have been friends since fifth grade.  She faithfully stuck by Grace during the prodromal phase of her illness, the diagnostic phase, and even the lowest point of her illness.  I remember BFF’s mother calling me one afternoon, her voice trembling as she asked me what was wrong with Grace.  She was scared to allow her daughter to come over to our house because she heard BFF mention the word ‘schizophrenia’.  She didn’t know what that meant, and I was actually relieved to be able to explain it to her.

Grace and BFF, however, don’t attend the same school now, and BFF is making choices in her daily life that Grace would not make.  BFF is an only child.  Performance and achievement are the goals that are valued in her home.  From what I can tell, if she is getting all A’s and doing well in all her sports, then she is judged to be a successful human being.  That is not our measure of success.  I do, however, understand the temptation to equate success with performance.  I was an athlete as an adolescent.  I was the high achiever in my family taking all AP classes.  I was the varsity athlete swimming with the seniors when I was a freshman.  I lettered in theatre during my freshman year.  I was the first person in my school to do that.  I know what it means to perform and achieve a lot as a young person.  I know about pressure and high expectations, and I know that it is absolutely not a reflection of the content of one’s character.  It is not an accurate measure of a truly successful person.

What does it mean to be successful? If success is defined as having money, status, a great job, the admiration of others, and a hot significant other, then there are those who have arrived.  BFF is on her way.  I was on my way in high school.  I was on my way in college.  I had a scholarship.  I was admired.  I dated hot guys.  I once dated a guy that was so good-looking that a server completely forgot to take my order at a restaurant because she was so taken aback by his attractiveness.  He was a 10.  No doubt about it.  He was, however, dumb as a stump.  I’m not kidding.  He could barely read.  I almost had to order for him, the poor lamb.  The Law of Deficits and Benefits was definitely at work in his life.  I did not date him for long.  Honestly, I think he got together with the server which may have worked out for him, and I reevaluated by choices in boys after that date as well.  Anyway, if that is how we judge our own success–by exterior standards–then there are certain standards of success that we can never hope to achieve.

Look at Bill Gates.  Is he successful? If we are measuring people solely by the external rulers, then we have to exclude him based upon wardrobe, haircut, and appearance.  This is shallow thinking, but this is exactly the sort of thinking that fuels relational aggression.  Bill Gates is a brilliant thinker and incredible philanthropist.  It is a pointless endeavor to compare ourselves to him, but this doesn’t stop us from doing so.  How do we cut Bill Gates down to size in order to falsely create an accurate comparison? It might look something like this:

“I can’t believe how bad Bill Gates’ hair looks! Have you seen it? He is so frumpy! The man is a millionaire! No, a billionaire! What is it with billionaires and bad hair? I mean, I have better hair than Bill Gates! And his clothes!! I look better than he does.  Don’t even get me started on Donald Trump…”

Do we feel better about ourselves after we compare ourselves to him? Am I somehow better now because I have better hair than Bill Gates but less money and status? Comparisons between people make no sense because there are seldom valid comparisons qualitatively speaking.  Where one person is gifted, they are deficient in another area.  Comparing them to another person makes little sense because, while one person may be deficient in one area, another may be sufficient or even gifted in that very area.  It’s a question of values, and this brings me back to BFF and the idea of the system of values.

We live in a culture and educational system that place a high value on achievement and performance that also assess and measure said achievement and performance through excessive testing in order to produce a general score in order to rank and thusly predict outcomes for future success.  Historically, these scores have been generally lumped under the term “IQ”, and IQ has been the predictor for whether or not a person would be successful.  Let’s look at what Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University has to say about this:

Belief in a singular intelligence implies that humans possess a single general purpose computer, which can perform well (hi IQ), average (normal IQ) or poorly (low IQ). Belief in multiple intelligences theory implies that human beings possess several relatively independent computers; strength in one computer does not predict strength (or weakness) with other computers. Put concretely, one might have high (or low) spatial intelligence and yet that does not predict whether one will have high (or low) musical or interpersonal intelligence. (online source)

Dr. Gardner is a psychologist and neuroscientist who developed the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) in 1983.  He explains his theory thusly:

I developed MI theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In doing so, I drew on evidence from a wide variety of sources, disciplines, and research tradition. I presented the theory for the first time in 1983, in my book  Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. The theory is a critique of the standard psychological view of intellect: that there is a single intelligence, adequately measured by IQ or other short answer tests. Instead, on the basis of evidence from disparate sources, I claim that human beings have a number of relatively discrete intellectual capacities. IQ tests assess linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, and sometimes spatial intelligence; and they are a reasonably good predictor of who will do well in a 20th (note: NOT 21st) century secular school.

But humans have several other significant intellectual capacities. In my original book, I described musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal (social) intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence (understanding of self). A few years later, I added the naturalist intelligence: the capacity to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature. I also have speculated about two other possible intelligences: existential intelligence, the intelligence of ‘big questions’; and pedagogical intelligence, the intelligence that allows human beings to convey knowledge or skills to other persons (online source).

I think that Dr. Gardner is right, and I’m not the only one.  MI theory has gained ground since its introduction, and I’ve raised my daughters to view themselves through this lens rather than through the culturally applied filter which insidiously states that if one lacks good spatial intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence, then one is or will eventually be a failure.  Or, as is now so prevalent in American culture, if one isn’t gifted athletically, one is a loser.

How does this relate to relational aggression? Relational aggression comes down to two things: objectification and what we value in ourselves and others.  What do women value? How do we define our success? Generally speaking, women define themselves by their relationships.  Men define themselves by their achievements and the power therein.  Obviously, there will be exceptions in each gender.  The reason, however, that relational aggression is so potent among women is because it makes relationships the weapon.  Men use power in their aggressive engagements.  If you want to deprive a woman of her sense of worth, take her relationships away from her as well as her ability to control others through those relationships.  If you want to completely disempower a man, then symbolically castrate him.

I’ll give you an example.  This is not one of my finer moments, but it paints the perfect picture.  I once dated a boy in college who turned out not to be a great match.  I broke it off with him over the phone.  He lived 45 minutes away, and I wanted to end it cleanly and quickly (he kept flirting with other people when he was with me).  We only went out for a few weeks anyway.  He immediately became cruel and lost his temper.  He said awful things to me.  I felt very good about my decision after having experienced this part of his personality (I had to eventually hang up the phone in the middle of his angry rant).  A few weeks later I was on his college campus visiting a friend when I bumped into him.  He lost it.  He screamed at me, called me profane names again, and I felt threatened and, frankly, angry.  Yeah, I had issues with being a doormat, but how much was I supposed to put up with? He accused me of all sorts of unsavory things all because he couldn’t accept that I broke up with him.  A crowd of boys and girls had gathered to listen to his invective.  They looked at him.  They looked at me.  It was like Wimbledon.  Finally, I drew in a breath and said, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re really clumsy in bed! Like…so bad.”  Now, I never slept with him.  I was lying, and he knew it.  Like I said, not my finest moment.  I was deliberately humiliating him because of his horrible behavior.  I knew what I was doing.  I socially castrated him because, for him, sexual prowess equaled social status and social currency.  I just knocked him down to the bottom of the social hierarchy.  So, what happened? Well, there was a general “ooooh” that washed over the crowd; the mid-90s equivalent to “Oh snap!”, and he shut up instantly.  He glared at me.  He looked murderous.  I’m sure I looked smug, but that was the end of it.  He stomped off in a fury.  Of course, now all the boys were looking at me as if I knew what “good in bed” meant, and all the girls were looking at me judgmentally.  That’s how girls are–“So, she slept with him! Slut…”  My 19 year-old brain clearly did not fully understand cause and effect.  I wanted to punish him for his awful behavior and shut him up.  I wanted some justice, and, let’s be honest, some revenge.  I didn’t exactly think it through.  I learned a valuable lesson.  Don’t get justice at someone else’s expense.  Even if it’s a nasty ex.

This incident, however, provides a glimpse into the male experience vis-à-vis the female experience and how both girls and boys operate within differing value systems.  What does this have to do with Grace or her best friend or even you and me? Well, Grace’s BFF is athletically gifted.  Grace has hypotonia which makes her awkward.  She doesn’t do well in sports.  Her very poor working memory and executive function combined with the side effects of her medications can cause her to process information slowly.  This can get in the way during conversations and making plans particularly if one isn’t patient with Grace, and 13 year-old girls are not known to be patient.  If one comes from a family where performance and achievement are at the apex of the value system, then how will that translate socially? Let me ask this in different terms.  How would Grace’s relationship with BFF evolve if BFF was raised to view others through a filter of kindness and empathy? What if service was the higher value rather than competition? What if volunteerism and community involvement were part of BFF’s family value system as opposed to performance and high achievement? What if valuing people, preserving relationships, and character development were part of her family’s value system rather than getting ahead, looking out for number one, and academic success regardless of how its accomplished?

When we’re honest, we have to ask these kinds of questions because our culture is founded upon a value system that worships the individual and the pursuit of self at the expense of everyone else.  There is little room for mercy or compassion when competition, high achievement, and performance define you.  And, it makes sense, in terms of the market place.  But, let’s be honest.  Who do you want to come home to at night? Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle (one of the most narcissistic CEOs you’ll ever NOT be privileged to meet) or someone a little closer on the character spectrum to Mister Rogers?

On Sunday, BFF was at our house.  She has recently begun to mistreat Grace when no one else is around.  This tells me one thing.  She knows that what she is doing is wrong.  She might say something cruel about what Grace is wearing: “Ohmigod, like, what is that? My preschool cousin wears something like that.  The girls in my school would totally make fun of you for wearing that.  You look so stupid…”  She might behave childishly: “I wanna play a game on your phone! Come on! Come ooooon! Fine.  If I can’t play with your phone, then you can never touch my phone ever, ever again.  Like EVER.”  She might aim for her illness: “Yeah, I know you’re slow.  Like, I’ve known your brain processes information slowly.  Where do you think I’ve been for the past two years? So hurry up, okay!”  It won’t matter if Grace attempts to reason with her.  It won’t matter if she speaks honestly.  BFF doesn’t want to be told the truth or even corrected.  She wants her way.  Honestly, this is a parenting issue.

Girls who engage in relational aggression are more likely to have mothers who do it.  They learn it from somewhere.  Or, they are insecure, lacking in empathy or experiencing empathy erosion, and overcompensating for an underdeveloped or inappropriately developed identity in relation to their age.  What BFF is displaying is a poorly developed empathy response.  It’s up to parents to address that in their children and help their children develop that as they grow.  Not every child is a born empath.  We often nurture empathy at home through conversations, modeling, and shared experiences.  The American public school system with its emphasis on competition, testing, performance, and sports is not going to do that for us.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not against healthy competition or an athletics program.  I was an athlete and benefited from the programs available to me, but we have become an extreme culture with misplaced values lacking in balance.  An athletics program is not a substitute for good parental relationships and influence nor should athletes be off the hook for pursuing the highest level of education that they can achieve for themselves.  There is a legitimate problem when school districts spend millions of dollars on their athletics programs forsaking their special education programs and even general education programs in their districts not to mention some of the cover-ups that have gone on recently in an effort to protect star athletes from natural consequences due them associated with, at times, grievous misconduct (see article).

That being said, the first thing that needs to be declared in a family system is that empathy and its development are core values.  That’s only step one.  Step two is developing a lifestyle that promotes learning and developing empathy through conversation, shared experience, and relationships.  Step three is acknowledging that empathy is not enough.  Empathy is the precursor to compassion which is an action taken to better someone else’s circumstances.  Once compassion has been achieved, then all forms of aggression are subdued.  We are now so accustomed to putting ourselves in the place of others that acting on behalf of others is the natural next step.  Lashing out at others in order to preserve our position, as I did with my ex, suddenly becomes just one option.  It isn’t the only option.  There are other choices.  We are no longer impoverished emotionally.

To me, this is really what aggression, particularly relational aggression, is.  It is emotional poverty because it is rooted in scarcity thinking.  When girls and women look at other girls and women as a threat to their social standing and, therefore, feel the need to undermine and thwart their perceived worth in order to prevent displacement, that is fear at work.  That is also the objectification of others.  We can’t mistreat another person if we view them as we view ourselves–a person with value worth receiving love.  If I, however, know that I have value and will be cared for regardless of how many people enter and exit my social strata because I will always show up as an emotionally generous person, then I am free to be open and kind.  I am now fully responsible for my position in a group, and I am trustworthy as well.  This is the opposite of emotional poverty and scarcity thinking.  This is generosity and empathy.  I can be counted on to treat others how I want to be treated, and I will take ownership of my behavior regardless of how others treat me.  This is a mark of emotional maturity.

If we were mentored in this way beginning in school, how would our social groups look? Would women attempt to manipulate other woman using relationships as the currency? Would men participate in power plays? What would the state of bullying in this country look like? What would our educational system look like if we stopped measuring children’s intelligence, future potential for success, and ability to contribute in the present solely by their linguistic and logical-mathematical capabilities? What about Dr. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences? What if we began introducing children to that in preschool?

“Okay, so you got a D in math.  You’ve got incredible social intelligence though, and the world needs that, too.  You may not be a mathematician, but you might be an amazing sociologist or therapist.  Never forget how capable you are.”

I think that we must never forget our role as parents, mentors, neighbors, and even acquaintances.  There is incredible power in our words.  There is incredible power in our actions.  How we live and show up in the world every day can be an example of what is truly good be it with a smile or an extra big tip or an affirmation to the child down the block.  We can make small choices every day in how we listen, make eye contact, and shake someone’s hand that convey to someone else that they have worth.  We can choose to develop an empathetic lifestyle that will, little by little, counter the broader culture that is, like it or not, bent on self-interest.  As women, we can take the initiative and refuse to engage in relational aggression and teach our daughters how to do the same.  Men can model healthy masculinity that does not exploit or overpower others.

No one can change a culture in a day, but a generation of people could bring change to a culture in less time than you realize.

Isn’t that a fanciful thought? We could teach our culture the Golden Rule again.  We could actually teach others to care again.

We just have to teach our kids first.

 Resources:

Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice by Dr. Howard Gardner

Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees by Cheryl Dellasega

Club Ophelia: for an excellent description of the behaviors associated with relational aggression (RA) in adolescence and even elementary school click the link provided.  Also, learn about mentoring opportunities and strategies to reduce RA through Club Ophelia’s website.

 

Just Keep Swimming

Grace attends a school in an intermediate district.  I had no idea what that meant when I first learned of its existence.  What the heck is an intermediate district? This intermediate district exists to educate all the kids on IEPs that their own districts lacked the resources to educate themselves.  About eight school districts financially support this district.  They pay a lot of money, sort of like a membership fee, so that they can send their kids there.  This district is a bit like a last resort for districts.

When Grace was in need of an IEP two years ago, I didn’t know any parents who had ever heard of this district.  It simply goes by a number.  Like District 007.  I would ask other parents, “Have you ever heard of District 007?” No.  I wondered why no one had ever heard of it, and I also wondered if it was like something out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  Were all the teachers like Nurse Ratched?

When Grace was in her third hospital setting, District 007 was providing the education for all the children there.  I met one of the teachers.  She was amazing.  District 007, in fact, did Grace’s IEP evaluation by force of our resident district.  Then, I met one of the women from District 007 in charge of all educational services provided off-site.  She was also amazing.  She reminded me that I was the most powerful person on that IEP team, and she even sat with me through Grace’s IEP meeting with our resident school district to make sure that every point was made with clarity.  She wanted Grace to have her IEP.  She then arranged for Grace and me to tour the facility that was to be Grace’s new school, and she met us there to be with us both.  I was in a haze of confusion and awe.  I was not used to be treated with such respect.

The school was simply fantastic.  It was a brand-new facility housing several special programs.  There was a program for pregnant teens and a nursery for their babies and toddlers so that they could continue to go to school and graduate.  That alone amazed me.  When I was in high school, the school staff seemed to go out of their way to shame pregnant girls in order to make an example of them.  There were programs for children and teens on the autism spectrum.  There was a café and store that was student run and, of course, teacher managed, but these “school jobs” were teaching life skills.  There were rooms with kitchens and even laundry rooms so that teens could learn to cook and even do laundry.  Again, opportunities to learn independence and life skills.  The school librarian had a big, black labrador who was a trained therapy dog, and, when students were struggling, they could go for a walk in the school with him.  There was even a therapy bird! She liked to sit on shoulders and groom hair.

Grace’s class had only seven other students, one teacher and two to three paras.  The Nurtured Heart approach was used throughout the entire facility.  There was a social worker associated with her classroom, and she arranged for a woman from Lutheran Social Services to come in throughout the year to teach the girls all sorts of things about sexuality, hygiene, boundaries, safe people, appropriate relationships, and the like.  Honestly, it was a dream come true.  I couldn’t have asked for anything more for Grace.  She is treated with such respect in her environment now, and, when I go to her school’s family nights, I observe that every staff member knows Grace.  They all give her high fives or pats on the back.  The kindness and generosity of spirit there shocks me.

I invited a friend to accompany us to their autumn book fair last fall, and she, too, was shocked.  “This is a public school? I’ve never heard of this place!” I think that’s the point.  If all parents of special needs children knew of District 007, then they would be banging down the doors! I found it very weird when, at the end of the final IEP meeting to approve Grace’s attendance at District 007, the head of our resident district’s special education department looked at me and almost hissed, “I don’t think District 007 is going to be what you think it will be.”  She was right.  It far surpassed anything I could have ever imagined in terms of special education in America.

Alas, even in the best environments, there will always be a bad apple.  Miss Lydia is Grace’s bad apple.  She is one of the paras in Grace’s classroom.  She’s been in special education for years.  She’s been through a lot, too.  A few years ago, a student hit her so hard that he fractured her neck.  Working with this population is a calling.  It’s not a job.  I think that Miss Lydia might need to retire.  I think that she’s put in her time and needs to go out on a high, but she continues to show up even though she may be burned out.

Miss Lydia does not understand mental illness.  She might think that she does.  Grace is in the EBD classroom–the emotional and behavioral classroom.  She was put with the more “emotional” kids rather than the “behavioral” ones.  Grace doesn’t have behavioral problems.  She simply can’t function in a typical classroom setting.  The least restrictive environment for Grace is this setting.  She would not be able to change classrooms, follow instructions, hear above the din of thirty kids, or even do homework.  She needs a lot of help to accomplish small things.  Miss Lydia often accuses Grace of being difficult or crying in class because she doesn’t feel like doing her work.  When Grace has her debilitating migraines at school, Miss Lydia often accuses Grace of making them up to get out of doing something she doesn’t like.  When Grace experiences visual aura associated with her migraines like seeing lights, Miss Lydia often says that she’s lying.

Miss Lydia is a problem.

I simply tell Grace’s teacher what Miss Lydia is doing.  Miss Lydia is smart in that she doesn’t openly accuse Grace of these things.  She volunteers to take Grace to the nurse’s office, and then she accuses Grace while she’s alone with her.  It’s very sneaky.

The good part about this is that the school social worker, the head of Grace’s program, and her teacher believe Grace.  They have disciplined Miss Lydia for her antics.  Miss Lydia is now not very fond of Grace because she advocated for herself.  So, Grace now comes home daily and says upon entering the house, “Ugh, Miss Lydia did this today!” What Grace doesn’t understand, however, is that she’s getting practice in dealing with difficult people who don’t understand her particular health condition.  Schizoaffective disorder is a disease.  It’s a chronic, lifelong disease.  It’s not Grace’s fault that Miss Lydia is burned out and ignorant, but Grace does have to learn to know that she’s not crazy.

There’s a name for what Miss Lydia is doing.  It’s called ‘gaslighting’.  Some therapists will call it ‘crazymaking’.  She is trying to manipulate Grace’s sense of reality or perception in an effort to manipulate her.  Why? I don’t know.  What I do know is that gaslighting is scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to human behavior, and it’s rampant.  Telling a vulnerable person who is in pain that maybe they’re making it up because they really have a problem is manipulative.  It’s based on this manipulation: “I don’t see a problem.  In fact, there wasn’t a problem here until you pointed it out so maybe you’re the problem.”  The issue with these sorts of interactions is that we don’t easily recognize them unless we’ve had practice with them, and we also must have a good sense of self to stand up to them.  Miss Lydia might be trouble, but she’s actually giving Grace much needed practice in self-actualization and self-advocacy.  Oddly enough, this is the benefit of dealing with someone like Miss Lydia provided that there is adequate support in the environment.

As a parent, part of me wants to rescue Grace from Miss Lydia, but I know that Grace is getting something from Miss Lydia that I’ll never be able to give her–a strong sense of empowerment.  She’s learning to stand up for herself not in spite of her illness, but with her illness.  She’s also learning that no matter how amazing and supportive an environment might be, there will probably always be someone in that environment who just doesn’t get it.  That’s true everywhere.  So, we learn to ask for help from those who care about us, practice self-advocacy, and implement those healthy boundaries–the ones everyone’s been talking about in those support groups.

It’s not easy to let our kids out there, is it?

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

“Finding Nemo”