What I really mean is that I’m proud of my son, and I don’t care that his GPA is low. He’s still graduating with the same diploma as the valedictorian. What he has accomplished as a person in a school system that rewards only the exceptionally academic kids makes my heart swell.
Our story began as my husband and I prepared to attend our son’s kindergarten parent-teacher conference. We noticed the principal’s name was on the list to attend our conference at this small private kindergarten that he attended. Our son had been a very alert and creative child, picked up the guitar at age 2 and never put it down. He would memorize West Side Story and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang songs and dances. He spoke early and well. He was a great communicator. We figured that they probably wanted to have him skip ahead; he’s pretty gifted.
Then we almost fell off the tiny preschool chairs that we sat on in his classroom as the principal and teacher started to explain to us that our son needed to be tested for some sort of auditory processing issue. My husband and I were so thrown off-kilter, we looked at each other with crinkled brows and said silently to ourselves, They must be thinking we’re someone else’s parents. Nope, it was our kid.
We took it all in. It was OK, he was a healthy kid, and it would be fine if he had learning issues. He had so much more that was important in life. It was that sentiment that has kept us in check for the last 13 years.
They had suggested some simple exercises that we could do with our son immediately to see signs of this behavior, things like asking him to do multiple-step tasks. “Please go get your guitar, then stop in your brother’s room, grab his football and close the front door on your way back in here.” We had never done something like this, so we didn’t see what they saw in school everyday. Sure enough, when we gave him instructions one after another like that, it was as if we were talking in a foreign language. We began to see that he did have some sort of processing issue that hadn’t yet mattered in life.
We began each subsequent school year with the same type of parent-teacher conference, in which the teacher mentioned this issue. We had our son go through a battery of tests with different specialists, and the outcome was never definitive, year after year. After a few years, the default diagnosis became ADD. By middle school, he was on an IEP and we all realized that we were in for an academic roller coaster ride.
Our son enjoyed stories and being read to aloud, but picking up a book on his own and getting into it were extremely difficult. Being cued by a teacher in class to immediately do three to five steps to get started that day set him back from the minute the bell rang. He had to be told the instructions a couple of times in order to be able to write them down to follow.
He realized quickly that he had a learning issue, but when the letter from middle school came home from the special education department, my son was taken aback. We had a talk about how he is a very smart and amazing child who just learns differently than other kids, and we could make adjustments in school because he qualified to do so.
I quickly became an advocate for my kid, as I didn’t want his self-esteem to suffer. And truth be told, I wasn’t an academic success either, and I turned out just fine. We started to paint the bigger picture of life for him, how grades aren’t everything and they do not predict success. Success to us meant that he would be a good person living a meaningful life, earning a living while following his passion.
We immediately took away the academic stress that many kids felt from their parents toward the end of middle school and entering high school. We made it clear that we wanted him to focus on having character and compassion and nurturing his talent in music. He should always try his best; that’s all we could ask in regard to academics. He understood our message and proceeded accordingly.
In our IEP meeting that occurs each fall, there is always one teacher representative. For the eighth grade year, it was his English teacher. The teacher suggested that my son switch from the mainstream English class to a remedial class. That comment didn’t sit well with me, as English was something he enjoyed. Now, if this was the science or math teacher, I’d understand. The choice was ours. We went home, and my husband, son and I talked. We felt that he could handle the regular English class. He said he really enjoyed the class discussions. I realized that the one who had the difficulty in the class, quite frankly, was the teacher, because he had to give my son a little more attention and follow-through.
At the end of year meeting, the same English teacher attended, and this time, my son was present. The teacher congratulated him for working so hard and happily said that we had made a great choice in deciding to let him stay in the class. He continued by telling my son that he was one of the best students that year, and that he had really stepped up to the plate. I don’t even recall how that translated academically—I didn’t care. I give that teacher an A+ for having an open mind and letting things unroll naturally, and then applauding my son for his effort.
Big lessons were learned that day. My son was so proud of himself. He realized that nobody can tell him the kind of student he is—only he can determine that. He realized the benefit of speaking up and holding ground. He learned the value of taking something that felt so negative and turning it into a positive. This particular lesson has helped so much over the years in high school.
When teachers would set the bar low for this kid with learning issues, he would simply continue to perform as best he could. He began to understand that he wasn’t ever going to be 4.0 student. He was OK with that, and we were more than OK with that because he was maturing into an older version of the same caring, happy, social kid he’d always been. He volunteered every week at Friendship Circle, and he began to thrive in his world of music—even becoming the youngest student at a well known DJ class in Los Angeles. He started his own DJ business in his junior year of high school and played local gigs at both backyard and big name venues. He felt accomplished outside of school.
We focused on his talent, his passion and his good citizenship. SAT testing came and went; the scores were terrible. We didn’t care. He didn’t care. You can’t squeeze water from a rock. He hadn’t gotten the math and science in school, so how would he master it on the test? As college application time came around, we talked about how lucky he was that he knew what his passion was, and we found several arts-focused colleges with music programs that didn’t require high GPAs or test scores to get in. They understood that many creative types worked differently. How refreshing.
I’m not taking away from those kids who achieve academically; I congratulate them, as it’s extremely difficult these days. I’m happy for those kids who worked hard, took AP classes, aced exams and got into Ivy League schools. I just hope it’s their dream they are following, not their parents’ dream.
As our son was given his cap and gown this week for his upcoming graduation ceremony, the smile on his face brought tears of joy to mine. He did it. He graduated with the same degree as everyone else.
He was now fully free to enter into a world where his talent would speak for itself. He understands the bigger picture in life. He understands how to move around obstacles, adapt when things don’t fit and proudly be himself.
He no longer has to be reminded daily about his disability. Rather, it’s now time to focus on his ability. My son has a 4.0 in my grade book.