She stood with her back to me, her hair gently waving down towards her shoulders. The purple-quickly-faded-ruby-red highlights in her hair called me to remember just how much effort she was exerting to be herself. As I stroked the brush through her hair, noticing that her hight was just about synonymous with mine, I could not help but feel a slight twinge. This was her last week of elementary school.
Technically, this was her last week of her most recent school semester where she spent her time in a same aged peer classroom. The previous four and a half years, she had not lived the linear school desks, cafeteria lunches, and spelling tests that millions of other children live every day. We lived in a jagged parallel to this. We lived a patch work of attempts to know, understand, and support the precious gift of a unique, twice-exceptional daughter we’d received as parents. We wove into play-based preschool, through to public elementary school, around to charter Montessori, out to homeschooling, up to private, micro unschooling, back out to homeschool, until we most recently found ourselves struggling under the awning of public school. In our years of elementary school, we learned just as much, if not more about the systems and supports around us (or more specifically, the lack thereof), than of our amazing girl.
It’s understandable that as a one who is not a parent of a gifted and disabled child, that our path would seem, at best, wonky. It would be understand able if one would misperceive our patchwork journey to be a fault of parenting or life circumstances. While it is true that we are by far, not perfect parents, and life has thrown our family some 21st century curve balls, the most clear truth is that there is a HUGE amount of work to be done in order create the essential opportunities for life and learning for students and families who are living the gifted/twice-exceptional experience. Literally, for students who are the more rare, highly gifted, but cognitively disabled (ADHD, ASD, OCD, NVLD, Anxiety, Bi-Polar, etc), schools and communities are NOT set up or prepared to include and serve them.
Our experience, in spite of the fact that we had a solid flow of financial resource and family support, was that we always had to choose between an either/or. Either she will get the individualized education she needs because we have paid for it with tens of thousands of dollars per year - to either litigate for it or pay private school for it (and we will forgo any financial security) OR she will not get her educational and disability needs met and supported, but she will be in a relatively inclusive, welcoming community. OR she can get the remediation support her disabilities deserve, but she will not get deep, accelerated learning her gifted verbal abilities require. Or we can financially and socially risk placing her in a strictly gifted program, with the risks that she will be highly strained to compensate and/or fail.
Literally, we have yearly, if not month to month, had to ask ourselves and her, what is the option that is going to require the least amount of strain and sacrifice? And from a family perspective, who is going to do the most sacrificing and straining in the coming days of decisions? These were not the kind of decisions like what to have for breakfast or who was going to be on today’s music play list. These were decisions of who can hold the most anxiety? Who can hold the most amount of frustration? Who can hold the most amount of confusion? Who can be the least/most socially isolated? Who can give the greatest effort? What’s more important, learning how to do math or learning how to explore the depth and breadth of your mind? Because the landscape for gifted and disabled students is so sparse, there is so much work to do, for my girl, and for all the girls and boys, here and yet to come.
So as I noticed her bright eyes staring directly into mine, as I finished brushing her hair, I knew the coming days, leaping from 5th grade to middle school, would not be just about training and preparing her for the world. It would also be for us to be training and preparing the world for her.
In thinking back over the past 6 years of her educational journey, in spite of the shifts and struggles, in spite of the opportunities missed, I am proud - of not only her, but also of us. As a family of twice exceptional students, we have attempted to connect with and share with those who come across our path, just about the beauty and grace that can come in each and every student - no matter how narrow or wide the deviations are in her abilities and experiences. We have sought to explain that it is NOT either/or, but BOTH/AND.
Learning and living Both/And has been the biggest accomplishment as our girl leaves elementary school. I am grateful for all of the growing and work that she has completed, and I am also grateful for all of the growth and work our family has done to understand, live, and love our BOTH/AND experience. No longer do we question is she gifted - yes. No longer do we question does she have ADHD, ASD impairments - yes. Can she be and accomplish everything she desires to be - yes. Will she do it differently, her way - yes. Will we walk with her through all frames of her life’s experience - yes. As crazy as it sounds, our girl leaves elementary school with all the given labels and acronyms that are necessary to claim her “socially labeled identity and resource”, and as she leaves elementary school, we recognize their power and their limits.
The gift of elementary school was not only that our girl would grow and thrive in all of the ways she could, but the gift of elementary school was also the knowledge that the assurance, support, and knowledge that we had assumed to come from the professionals and the experts, at it’s heart, ultimately comes from her and comes from us. Our girl is the one who defines who she is. Our girl is the one who defines what she can do. We are the authors of our own definitions, our own stories.
Now it is up to us to go write them.
Melinda is a recovering "normal" seeker, who is often distracted by unexpected moments of nature's beauty or questioning children