When School Is An Emotional Prison

I just saw the film Life, Animated. It was spectacular. It captured the reality that one child faced as a result of his autism. He struggled in ways that no one could understand, until, through his passion for Disney animation, his world was revealed. Almost by chance his parents discovered that their child related to sidekicks in Disney animated films. Though he hadn't spoken for years, he began to speak again by mimicking the quirky side characters' dialogue. All the boy's care team of family, friends, teachers and aids found ways to work with his unique language so that he could feel good about himself, and thrive.

The film was spiritually uplifting. From silence came an exchange of ideas, from darkness came the sun. While I rejoiced at the triumph in the film, I was saddened as I thought about my own daughter starting school in the fall. I recognized that school has come to be an emotional prison for her. Because when your kid "just" has a learning disability, or your child "just" has ADHD, then she is only accommodated a bit. It is expected that the slightly disabled child will more or less conform to the norm. Maybe they'll seat her in the front of the class, but she is still expected to perform like everyone else who don't have her issues.

My 16-year-old daughter is trapped in a world where she feels that all that matters is school, and all that matters after school is homework. If you don't do homework, or don't do it on time or well, down goes the grade. And in the end it seems to be all about the grade? "What grade did you get?" "Are you making the grade?" She's left to feel that she'll never catch up. She fears she'll always be a step behind. She feels the heavy weight of deficit piling upon deficit. How utterly spiritually debilitating.

School and grades are the bane of her life, and yet there is no escape. From the time she was in kindergarten, she wasn't "up to par". She had trouble concentrating at story time. She had trouble copying letters. She was frustrated by assignments and she took out her frustrations behaviorally. Deficit piled upon deficit. And while some kids can be compassionate and understanding, the kind voices were drowned out by the ones that ridiculed and belittled. There were too many kids who were battling their own demons who knew that they could needle her and get a rise out of her, and so school became a snake pit.

Some kids with learning disabilities adapt to difficult circumstances and find socially acceptable ways of coping. My daughter however used her strong will and steeled herself by not caring. She didn't care if she failed the test. She didn't care if the kids made fun of her. She didn't care if she didn't do her homework. But, of course, down deep, she did. Consequences for not doing her work just added insult to injury.

Plenty of people took the time to enlighten me about my bad parenting decisions. They said I wasn't being "tough enough on her", I was "indulging her", I was "making excuses for her". It was like twenty-five Dr. Phils and a loud and critical ex-husband screaming in my ear every time I spoke about her troubles.

And while I doubt myself plenty, I've learned to trust my gut. And my gut tells me that we are going to have to wait this thing out. When my daughter is not burdened by a school system that can't properly honor her, or provide her with more than a few pleasant moments, I have hope that she will find a release and relief. Without the constant scourge of unmet potential and judgements and feeling like a disappointment, who knows what flowers will bloom?

If I could pull her out of school right now, I would. But she has to finish high school. One more year. I know that she sees me as one of the instruments of her oppression, but I hope she knows that I believe in her with all my heart. I want her to discover herself in ways that she alone will judge.

I've known since she kicked the heck out of my ribcage from the inside, that one day, she could rule the world. We just have to get out of her way, let her find her way, and watch her rise, re-animated as it were.