As a seasoned mom, I know what a paper grocery store bag with a neat stack of schoolwork inside means. It means years of culling, looking, thinking, editing, forgetting, remembering, forgetting again, maybe moving stuff because of a flood or roof repair, remembering, forgetting again, facing your mortality, and finally getting a damn grocery store bag, neatening it up and handing it to your offspring. I haven’t gotten to the handing it to your offspring stage myself, but I have been a recipient. We recently visited my parents, and as it her way of late, my mother handed me some mementos of my childhood at one point in the visit.
I’ve gotten these momentoes before. I feel certain that this has happened. But I can’t really remember the contents, except a few high school notebooks and a copy of Plato’s Republic that made immediate tears of boredom spring from my eyes. And once a notebook that had been my sister’s. On a later page was a phone number and the name Wendy in her handwriting. Below Wendy, in what was clearly my handwriting, was the phrase, “is a jurk.”
This bag, however, was different. It began with some early penmanship samples that were off-the-charts illegible. There were so many reversals and misspellings that I had to just try to pronounce what I thought I was seeing and wait to see if it became clear upon speaking aloud. But then there was a story emerging. Notes from a teacher conference, test scores that showed cognitive ability as well as an inability to spell or write legibly. A card from a doctor with the handwritten words “learning disabilty” on it. There were later projects with a few painstakingly written sentences by me, and then my mother’s neat printing took over, clearly expressing my thoughts. Finally, a 5 page report on Vermont, with stenciled lettering on the front, the requisite photos from old National Geographic magazines pasted in there, and several paragraphs of legible, correctly spelled sentences. My favorite: “Vermont is a place where horseback riding is very common, which is why I want to live there!”
I found myself a little choked up by the end, not about Vermont, but the work that I saw there. By the way my mother shepherded my academic career. I knew the story: I was dyslexic, I did well on standardized tests but could not always produce good work in class because of my poor spelling and letter reversals. But here was the proof.
I know what it’s like to have a child with a learning disability, or learning difference, as they are called today. I know what it’s like to take over from a kid who is totally frustrated trying to figure out which one is b and which one is d and just get their thoughts on the page. To wonder if you are helping or hindering their learning process. To hear that your kid is doing really poorly and know that’s not the student they can be. To go through the testing and look for help from teachers and others. Today, we have an Individual Education Plan or IEP in place for two of my children. It’s still hard, even with a lot of support from the adminsistration and with so much information on learning differences, accomodations and coping strategies.
I admire my mother because she advocated for me even without any of that support. She got me the help I needed, and as a result, my academic career turned out pretty well. I went to New York University and have had a career as a writer. I am also mothering kids through various and sundry educational highs and lows and advocating for them just like my mom did. I even have a box that I hope to make into a neat stack of papers in one of those grocery bags for each of them some day.