Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Children Are Unnumbered

I suppose you could take the title of this post in more than one way, and it would be accurate. I have four birth children, three others who moved in as teenagers, and four more young adults from the Middle East who call me Mom (and treat me like their mother) but never lived with me. And the number of them grows...

What I am referring to in this post, however, is the tendency that was rampant in my children's growing-up years to put a number to each child. That number, his or her IQ, then let him or her enter programs or denied him or her entry into programs. Control by number was the game of the 1970s and 1980s. It continues today, but at least is disappearing in many parts of the country. More and more educators and parents are beginning to realize that our children are more than numbers. Take my children, for example, who, by the way, for the most part, were never numbered by school systems or anyone else who might use the number to their disadvantage or to their advantaging over their peers. I would permit neither the use of IQ for program selection with them nor even testing them for IQ by the schools, but I did have insights into what their levels were and in three cases actually know the number the schools would have attached to them had they had the same information I had.

Lizzie, the oldest, learned much about life very early because of two multiple-handicapped siblings. She probably is gifted. She skipped two grades in school, and by the time she was in fourth grade was studying genetics as a hobby, sat through my university classes when babysitting was unavailable, and was taken into the university honors biology program (the only non-university student there). I could trust her with anything. The Red Cross trained her in CPR at age nine (four years younger than their 13-year-old prerequisitebecause she convinced them that she needed to be able to save Doah, who had a trach at that time, if he stopped breathing while I was in the bathroom); she was their best student (that had a lot to do with real-life, immediate applications of knowledge, I am sure). In fourth grade, her teacher, who had been reading Tennyson with her, proposed her for the gifted program, but that required an IQ test. I demurred because the gifted program was only part-time, would not stretch Lizzie enough, and would serve only to mark her as different from the other kids. I did take her on my own to a psychologist to satisfy my own suspicions that her learning styles (especially reflectivity instead of impulsivity -- we in the USA equate speed with intelligence, erroneously, in my opinion) would result in an inaccurate representation of her potential. It did. At least, it did to the extent that the test could even be scored. Lizzie, in pure Lizzie fashion, refused to give in to those parts of the test that required her to respond in a way inconsistent with her learning style. She is concrete by nature and needs to work from within context. When she was asked to define a list of words, she refused, commenting "words do not exist out of context; give me a context, and I will define them." Keep in mind that this comment from a 7-year-old, whose ultimate score turned out to be high average (probably inaccurately so). In high school, based upon performance and given the fortunate lack of an IQ score in the files which would have held her out of advanced courses, Lizzie was placed in the gifted group, working a year ahead of grade level (on top of skipping two grades), and by the age of 15 had taken two college courses and seven Advanced Placement courses in foreign language, math, and science. Today, she holds a doctorate as a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Not bad for high average IQ!

Noelle, of course, experienced some of the traditional difficulties that spina bifida children with hydrocephalus and Arnold Chiari malformation encounter: specific brain damage from placement of the shunt that destroys the part of the brain that deals with higher mathematical functioning. Nonetheless, Georgetown University Hospital at one point decided that it would be helpful to have an IQ test for her. Her IQ at that time was flat average: 100, just a few points behind Lizzie. However, because she was physically handicapped, she was denied placement in all but special education programs. We sometimes fought successfully to keep her mainstreamed; other times we lost that battle. In fourth grade, because she was in special education, she was excluded from the school's spelling bee. The next year, I began the fight early, she was allowed to participate, and she won first place. Nonetheless, during her years in special education, her IQ slipped down into low average levels; the hospitals, not the schools, tracked it for us, mainly out of curiosity as to how good and poor education and availability and lack of educational opportunities can affect IQ. Clearly, it can, when one compares Lizzie and Noelle, who started out so close. Noelle did complete two years of college, then dropped out to be with her significant other, Ray, who died earlier this year. Now that nine months of mourning have passed, she is working on returning to college. I suspect that in spite of being flat average, she will do fine, as she did in her first two years.

Shane began life very inconspicuously. Situated in birth order between two multiple-handicapped siblings, he pretty much raised himself due to our lack of time to spend with him. I usually found out after the fact what he could do. For example, at 23 months he could read books -- he read one to me; it was the first time I heard him talk (and he was not yet walking because Noelle, who could not walk, would pull him down whenever he stood up, afraid that he would hurt himself). At age 3, when we put him in the university nursery school, the administration moved him the next day to first grade since he was not only reading but also understood science and was able to do math calculations at fourth grade level. By the time he was seven and in the fifth grade, he dropped out of school. We took him to a school clinic for diagnosing educational problems. The answer: too gifted to be educated by public schools. Although we asked that the total IQ score not be added up and our wishes were observed, we were told that no one had ever before achieved a perfect score on the Wechsler math section. So, after money ran out for an ungraded private school, Shane grew up in homeschooling at a time when homeschooling did not yet exist. He studied with college professors, went off to college at 14, and is clearly my best-educated albeit least educated child. IQ unknown.

Contrary to my wishes, Doah's IQ was tested: 52. Two points above the category of "moron." We paid little attention to that. He was fortunate that our push to make sure he had only good teachers saw results. Our "near-moron" lives in a nearly unrestricted group home, was voted "class flirt" in high school (he was the most popular graduate that year -- no one will deny that assertion since his popularity made the front page of the local paper), is semi-lingual in five languages, can take care of all his personal needs independently, travels independently by bus throughout the county, and wrote a book that was exhibited at the National Book Exhibit in Los Angeles in 2003. He loved autographing copies! When his HOPE helper left, I overheard the departing helper say to the incoming helper, "This is a case of the greatest delta between potential and performance that you may ever see." That is probably because we chose not to react to Doah's number.

Blaine had obviously been numbered before he arrived to live with us because he attended the gifted program at the local high school. We know he is also dyslexic, but he manages to keep that under control as head of IT at one of the branch campuses of the University of South Carolina.

Ksenya and Shura have no numbers. Raised in the USSR, where all children were taught with equal expectations of full performance, they never encountered the need to be numbered.

So far, my grandchildren have not been numbered. Their school district appears more enlightened than ones of the past.

Now, I mean no offense meant to educators. After all, I am one myself (my organization is one that hires teachers and focuses on education). I understand why teachers, educational administrators, and school districts like to be able to label, categorize, and "file" students. It is easier and less messy than having to deal with each student individually in accordance with his or her learning strengths and needs. The latter, though, is the only way that every child will reach his or her full potential. Not leaving any child behind is not really the point. The point is for all children to enjoy learning and experience success in learning, and even special education children, taught in accordance with their learning styles and needs, can do that.

Even more important, though, are the traits that go beyond number: trust, resilience, kindness, problem-solving (rather than problem-creating), forgiveness, compassion, insight, faith -- those things that come from the grace of God. I don't care what number my children have. I care that they possess these other traits. I care that they are Good Samaritans. While I have been proud of their better school moments, I am prouder as I watch them sometimes literally go 200 miles out of their way to help friends and classmates. I have watched them accept foreign children into the family as brothers and sister, not complaining about the significant amount that they had to personally give up in order to accommodate their additional "siblings." These things are enough for me. I don't feel any need to know their number because God's graces come without number, innumerably.

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