Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Wrightslaw Lightening Up

Hello all! For those of you who have observed something of an absence on my part, I must ask your pardon, noting that vacations with family in Minneapolis in December are exciting, and very, very cold, and that since I undertook one of these recently, I've been recovering somewhat.
Today I want to share a link to the Wrightslaw Website, where they have posted a series of humerous articles. Those of you who are familiar with Wrightslaw, know that this website offers assistance and education to families of children with special needs who also happen to be enrolled in public school districts. Wrightslaw offers great workshops too. You will also know that Wrightslaw operates in deadly earnest, seriously doing good work every day. Thus it was a refreshing surprise for me to discover these less than serious articles. After all, I am a firm advocate of the positive mental health consequences of a little laughter. And of the unfortunate tendency some of us may have to swing emotionally toward the dark side when handed too much tragicomic drama (almost a daily experience for us when we had children enrolled in the public school system).
I am also aware that there are those among us, who have never had to attend an IEP feeling compelled to bring fresh-baked cookies and flowers to help offset unpleasant sentiments. Some of you have students enrolled in a district and are having positive experiences right now, with or without IEP's. Never mind, I still think you may find these amusing. Those who have been "there" however, should find some serious comic relief.
Happy Holidays all!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dressing Teens in Hard Times

So this is the year that has the potential to break the budget at our house. The clothing budget that is. Such is the case in the houses of all fast growing teens not including those independently wealthy ones. Gone are the days when I could expect my son’s clothes to fit him long enough to wear out. Following my endeavors to update his wardrobe I am shocked to observe the speed with which the floor of his bedroom is not just carpeted with dirty clothes, but with outgrown dirty clothes. Yes, he has a dresser and of course he has a very nice closet and a laundry basket. I’m not going to go into the particulars surrounding his clothes organization system. Suffice it to say that there are some areas in which a young person can safely exert independence and although I do get invasive and insist on the full laundry clean-up project on a frequent basis, the rest of the time I stay clear of the laundry-specific independence stance. I pick my battles.

Anyway, having been especially busy for a couple weeks, I had not observed just how desperate was the situation in Clothing Land for my fast growing teen. Perhaps all that candy he’s enjoyed since Halloween had contributed, but in general I knew I had a problem when he actually brought up the subject of “not-enough-pants-that-fit”. He even threw in a little something suggesting issues with underwear. Let me tell you, teenaged boys never, never, never bring up the subject of underwear with their mothers unless they’re desperate. Of course this made me wonder about all his grumpy moments over the last few weeks and whether, you know, he had been uncomfortable somehow, and whether this problem might have contributed. Something like that would make me cranky certainly. Obviously we had a problem that needed immediate attention.

Unfortunately, our clothing budget, like the rest of the planet’s budget right now, is not so very plush. This situation compels clever parents to be especially clever. Social awareness can be a huge problem with regard to options in such situations though. Teens can hold to an especially unforgiving and expensive social dress code. I myself recall my parent’s effort to fulfill my desire to have a down jacket such as what “everybody else” wore in High School. You know, nylon taffeta shell, dark color, horizontal sewn-through casings, makes you look like the “Michelin Man”. Imagine my horror when, on Christmas day in 1975, I opened the so-promising box and discovered what was technically a down jacket, but which I couldn’t be caught dead in. With a canary yellow broadcloth outer shell with down-filled taffeta lining, not at all sewn through, this jacket had come at an excellent price and was in fact a very warm and serviceable garment. It fulfilled all of my parent’s requirements, but would have been a huge red flag at my school that I was a bigger dork than anyone had previously suspected. I know my parents felt hurt when I was so disappointed and refused to wear it. My dad wore the jacket himself from time to time after that. Some kids would prefer nothing to wearing the best bargains if the bargains don’t permit them to dress in accordance with the social code.

Lucky for us we have a forgiving school for my son to be seen in. We’re fortunate too, in the fact that our son is more relaxed about his appearance than was I. He’s so relaxed that while he might indicate a need, he feels no need to participate in the process of fulfilling that need. Therefore, when I suggested that we head over to Savers together, he argued with me. In his mind, I was perfectly capable of selecting great clothes for him while he stayed at home and played video games. For the sake of brevity I will say that I found a way to explain why this didn’t work, we negotiated a plan and he came along. Of course I took a risk with this. When his older brother was of a similar age, I once tried taking him shopping for shoes in a large sporting goods store. Having gone in search of a salesperson and actually found one, I discovered that my son had disappeared. I scoured the store, not finding him anywhere. Finally I stood in the center of the store and said calmly; in a carrying voice “If Brian Hallesy does not present himself to me right now, he will have no video time this afternoon”. Brian decided to come out of the tent he’d zipped himself into and we found him shoes. Clearly he’d been overwhelmed by what must have felt like a pretty chaotic environment and took practical steps to manage the situation.

Fast forward to last week, when his younger brother found himself inside of Savers, obviously enjoying himself, picking out pants and dress shirts and very willingly trying them on. As I had found out previously that Savers was having a fifty-percent-off sale, we were able to find plenty of acceptable garments (except for the underwear which I later bought new from Target) and kept the entire tab under fifty bucks. This for three nice shirts, three pairs of jeans, a pair of trousers, a pair of sweat pants and I threw in a couple of dresses for myself too.

Next time we find our selves in a similar pinch (in two weeks?) you know what we’ll be doing…

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Being Special

The word “special” has more than one meaning. If we say it in a positive tone, in a sentence such as “This is going to be a very special occasion!” it means something very different than when spoken in a mocking tone with air quotes “Oh, you’re so special!” as a teen might mock another.

My high school, years ago, had a “special” alternative program that general ed. students referred to as “Apple Pie High”. Of course this title was a form of mocking, suggesting that the students who attended were not intellectually or emotionally capable and to be discounted in some way. I never knew well anyone who attended there and I certainly would never have wanted to attend such a program had I had access. My attitude reflected what existed then as does still today, a de facto stigma against differences and particularly with regard to mental health issues. We haven’t in reality made much progress in the last 35 years.

In order to avoid the social stigma directed at students attending the alternative program, I worked hard to hide my own undiagnosed learning disability. Through heroic efforts, I was able to maintain reasonable grades and make it through my classes. My knowledge of the degree of effort I had to expend, contributed to my low self-esteem, which I lived with for years as I clawed my way to my bachelor’s degree and into my first jobs.

My saving grace in high school came in the form of “The Lunch Group”, a sweet, quirky, geeky group of kids to whom the students at Bridge bear a remarkable resemblance. These were the social outcasts. They were also the kids who would later become physicists, engineers, doctors, research scientists, musicians, etc. I found that although they could be very silly, and awkward, they tended to be incredibly intelligent and creative and I enjoyed their company immensely. I didn’t need them to dress according to the mid-70’s social convention for high schoolers. They didn’t need to act like the herd to earn my respect. With them I found acceptance and discovered a little self-appreciation because they appreciated me. To me, these kids were special indeed.

I bring all this up because I see Bridge as a very special place. Poorly understood, quirky, awkward, bright, creative sweet kids, come together for education and for the solace that comes from being with others who understand. Maybe some or perhaps all have suffered at the hands of others who’ve missed their qualities- haven’t seen beyond the awkwardness or missing social polish or the anxiety of being overwhelmed or bullied. Why do these kids need a small school of their own? Maybe the students at Bridge are more sensitive than the kids in “The Lunch Group”. Perhaps the local school programs here and now are less inclusive and supportive of such students than was my school. It could be that my high school was much smaller than are current middle schools and high schools. Certainly we now have large classes and overcrowded schools. Whatever combination of factors contribute to the problem, the students at Bridge need an educational home and place to be socially accepted just as much as I did.

To me a special school like Bridge is a place where kids who might otherwise be denied an academic and a social education elsewhere, have a fighting chance.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Halloween Dance

So this time around, I don't know about you, but I didn't get the memo on the dance. My son informed me that I was required to bring something edible. Another student told me that set-up would be around 6:30 pm. Beyond that I was aware that students would be there in various states of dress. Digging for information in the office, I learned that Henry and David would be on site. Otherwise I had nothing to work with.

Therefore I took it upon myself to volunteer to chaperone. My son was not too terribly enthused, but was tolerant, particularly as I came with cookies and not in costume. He didn't even protest when I brought my camera. Generally I think my presence was unremarkable and this was fine with me. Portia, Jay and Jimena came for good portions of the time. We definitely had enough chaperones on deck. Students decorated the auditorium, set up a strobe light and ran the sound system with appropriate music for the evening. The combination of the loud music and the strobe were pretty intense from my perspective (must be my advanced age…) so I both steered clear of the auditorium and wondered what would happen with the more visually and aurally sensitive students in the mix.

As it worked out, the music and light effects were a draw for most of the kids, but they adjusted their exposure as necessary. Groups of students danced and snacked in the auditorium, and then would drift outside to the courtyard to chat and goof off. Other kids would then spend time in the auditorium dancing and moving to the music. At some point they did some lip sinking. Everybody seemed to be having a very enjoyable time. Although this was a mixed middle-school and high-school aged group, the vibe was definitely of highly congenial, low density middle school. Given the types of students we have, this is appropriate and to me, quite poignant. Many if not all of these students would not be comfortable at a comparable public school dance party. My son would be very unlikely to go at all. The sheer numbers of kids would overwhelm him, never mind the potential social shenanigans he could run afoul of.

I would like to personally thank Bridge for providing the gentle space in which our students can safely express themselves socially at something so sweet as this dance.

I also want to personally thank whoever brought the sushi. The sliced apples were delicious too.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Teaching the Concept of Social Currency

I am going to imagine that you have very polite and considerate teens. That is, they are very polite and considerate to most everyone else besides yourself. My youngest son has taken to telling me that I’m a towel he can use to dry himself on. He means this in really a jocular and somewhat literal way- following up with attempts to dry his freshly washed hair on me. Today I joked that I really preferred to be considered a door mat instead, the traditional position of parents everywhere.

My son’s comments are what I consider to be charming ways of engaging with me while not violating the teen Code-of-Separation. I have in my years of parenting, been called some very awful things by my teens and I had to learn that the really nasty stuff was going to have to bounce off, because it was just a test to see how steadfast I was and how safe my teens were with me.

Of course that didn’t mean that I had to just lie down and take it.

Oh no. There were always consequences.

I’d ignore the ugly stuff and then lie in wait as a spider in her web, for an appropriate time to talk about how I felt about being called names. Generally I would wax rhapsodic on the subject of human nature, one of my favorite topics. Of course I had to reign myself in to keep within the limits of teenage attention spans. I also knew that inevitably my child would need something from me, whether it be video time, a ride to a friend’s house, a trip to the market to pick up something he or she had run out of. I would mention that I always had numerous things to do and that it helped tremendously if I felt good about the teen for whom I was asked to do something. Had this same teen called me a @#% earlier, I would not feel the least bit inclined. Of course recompense would be necessary to reduce my feelings of injury. Extra chores or some limitation in some favorite activity were required. Apologies were also helpful though a particularly surly teen couldn’t always manage to bring themselves to do that. We would work something out. It was never necessary for me to express myself in anything other than a reasonable and solemn tone. Histrionics were never necessary.

When my eldest son, our “worst offender” in the nasty name-calling department, had his first set of high school conferences, I was stunned to hear just how polite and considerate he was to everyone. This included fellow students, teachers and administrators. Well knock me over with a feather. Something went in after all.

This same son, who lives with us now as a penny-pinching, hard working master’s student at CU, although generally exceedingly polite to everyone, still has some attitude about helping out with chores. He recently argued long and hard against cleaning in rooms that in his estimate didn’t need cleaning. Of course young men in their early twenties do not have the same general standard of cleanliness as do their mothers and I make accommodation for this. However, I must also make my needs clear. In light of my son's advanced age, I adjusted my discourse on the topic of human nature to include the concept of social currency. This is of course what I have been talking about all along. Once I helped him to understand how important it is that I feel positively disposed with regard to his needs when he calls late at night (during a snow storm) with a request for a ride home if he’s missed the bus back from campus, he shut down his argument altogether. Of course to vent his spleen he did a lousy job with the vacuuming and sweeping, but that was much better than the alternative (no vacuuming for another six months).

One can only push these things so far…