Friday, April 23, 2010

Climbing Lessons

Recently, my son delivered a 10-minute oral presentation about rock climbing to his 2nd grade class. As I watched from the back of the classroom in one of those kid-sized chairs, I was guardedly optimistic. We certainly had practiced enough. I was impressed with how well he knew the speech and how calm he seemed. Honestly, though, most of what I felt was clouded by the sheer shock of how well it was going. If my son had been reporting on Jesus and ended his speech with a walking-on-water demonstration in the classroom, it would not have made a greater impression on me than his climbing speech did. That may seem like a bold claim, but it’s true. A year ago, I could never have imagined what I was witnessing in that classroom. I sat there smiling at Joe as he looked up from his 4 x 6 index cards at me, thinking the entire time about the colossal difference a year can make. Funny how 365 little days can add up to one huge year.

Last year at this time, Joe was struggling mightily in first grade. He was a bright kid who hated school. We battled every night over the homework that took most kids in his class just 15 minutes to complete but on good nights never took Joe less than an hour. He was barely getting passing marks in reading. Each night we worked on his studies and each night one (if not both) of us either cried or had a full-scale tantrum. Our home was a den of stress and friction. I could not comprehend how he could recall every character name and story line from six Star Wars movies but he could not remember our 10-digit phone number. He could not tie his shoes or complete one-step commands to put his dinner plate on the counter or put his shoes on the stairs. His handwriting was nearly illegible. When Joe was nervous or excited, he would flap his hands as if he could simply take flight to avoid the situation. He would repeatedly do things I had asked him hundreds of times not to do and that he knew were wrong; when I would ask why he was doing them, he would frustratedly answer “I don’t know.” Yet through all this, I still spied a boy who was capable of drawing correlations between complex subjects and who spent time philosophically pondering evolution and God. Although he was just 7, he was my “deep thinker.”

Despite his intelligence, Joe just could not convert his knowledge into practice at school. And, because I had never struggled in school, I could not understand what that felt like. The situation was ruining our relationship, killing Joe’s self-confidence, and making me feel as if I was getting the worst employee review I’ve ever earned at a job. It was breaking my spirit, and my disappointment was readily registered by my sensitive son who wanted nothing more than to make me proud. We both wanted to make the other happy, but neither of us had a clue how to do it.

We had noticed early on that Joe wasn’t quite like other kids, but we kept thinking he would catch up. He was born prematurely, so in the beginning we used that as an excuse. Then, as he grew older, we explained that he was a late bloomer. In kindergarten, his teacher suggested that he might have sensory processing disorder, which means that he can’t filter out outside stimuli so everything in the world is overwhelming. We took him to a pediatric therapy service that specialized in helping kids learn to cope with sensory processing disorder. The owner of the service administered tests and noted he was years behind in simple things we all take for granted, like balance and motor planning (knowing how to make the body do things like climb up ladders or catch a ball). At last, we thought we had found a pathway to help him catch up and achieve the way we knew he could. And, he did make strides for a while. Then he hit a wall again and we were stumped.

Along the way, a few people had suggested to us that perhaps Joe had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We scoffed. We fought it. Maybe denial isn’t just a river in Egypt? But, we were running out of possible ways to help him. What if Joe had ADHD and we, in our intense aversion to the idea of medicating him, eliminated the one thing that would help him reach his full potential and remove his immense frustration? I talked to a few close friends about the situation. A couple of them reacted negatively to the idea that we would willingly medicate Joe. Their fears reminded me that a positive ADHD diagnosis would carry with it a stigma. Finally, after discussing my dilemma with another friend, I finally heard the encouragement I needed; he simply said, “take whatever help you can get and don’t look back.” It was good advice.

Before second grade started, I filled out myriad forms and mailed them off to the psychiatric section of Children’s Hospital in Denver. We set up several appointments with different psychologists and a psychiatrist. During those meetings, Joe’s behavior was downright painful for me to witness. He wouldn’t look at the therapists. He refused to answer questions. When he did talk, he was curt and borderline disrespectful. He wandered the room nervously, flapping his hands the entire time. He crawled under furniture. He was distracted by every possible sound and item in the room. I cringed. Three mental health professionals spent time with him and all three said they were certain that our sweet son was struggling with ADHD.

Dr. Lippolis, one of the incredible psychiatrists at the hospital, explained in simplest terms to Joe what was happening in his brain. She told him that in the front of his brain there was a little man who was responsible for making choices and that right now that little man was asleep on the job. With the right medication, that little man would wake up and Joe would be able to do all the things he wanted to but couldn’t. Joe told the doctor he would like to try the medicine. And, for our part, we had exhausted every other way of helping him, and he’d gone through his entire first grade year miserable, frustrated, and hopeless. We couldn’t imagine an additional 11 years of having Joe return home at the end of the school day saying, “I’m the dumbest kid in my class.” If the notion of medicating him made us nervous, the mere thought of him going through his entire life with low self-esteem and no feeling of personal success was downright terrifying.

Joe started on Concerta, the long-lasting stimulant that was meant to wake up the little man in the front of his brain, during his first week of second grade. We saw a difference in him nearly immediately. Within two weeks, his handwriting was neater and he was writing stories on his own. Our child who had refused to draw or color was suddenly sitting and happily doing art projects. He was following multiple step directions. He was bringing home papers with A and B grades on them. He could carry on a prolonged conversation without distraction. His reading skills improved exponentially overnight. We heard a lot less “I can’t” and a lot more “Let me try.” His nervous hand flapping ceased. He was smiling again. In short, he was the Joe we knew he was meant to be. When I ponder how he must have felt as he tried valiantly to pass along what he knew but couldn’t, my heart hurts. I wish hindsight, with its flawless vision, sold tickets for time travel so I could go back 365 days and show more patience and compassion to my son as he struggled with that little man asleep at the wheel. All I can do now, however, is follow my friend’s advice, take the help I can get, and try not to look back and question the choices I’ve made.

Most parents hope to impart some wisdom to their children. I must admit, though, that I have probably learned far more from Joe in his time with us than he has learned from me. It's appropriate that he chose climbing as his speech topic because climbing is what he has been doing since the day he showed up seven weeks early in June 2001. If the past year is any indication of where his climbing will take him, I’m fairly certain not even the sky will be his limit. As for me, I'm going to follow Joe's example, look ahead, and start climbing too. I think he might be on to something.