Wall of lockers

Who knew a combination lock would be the first test of whether our decision to change schools was a good one?

Welcome to high school. And not any high school we had in the past planned on our son attending.

Back in his preschool days, my son was diagnosed with a vision issue that got him a disability label, plus some behavioral issues adding to it. But there is a vast difference between qualifying for services, and receiving services. In Pennsylvania, where special needs care for the under-18 set is administered on a county-by-county basis, there is also a vast difference in care by ZIP code grouping. Our county of residence at that time did repeat most of the physical and behavioral evaluations our private provider had done, and developed an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). For his vision. Which wasn’t re-checked beyond a functional vision assessment, which you have to be near legally blind to fail. Reportedly, while exiting my son’s kindergarten classroom, the lone vision specialist the county had on the payroll was heard to remark, “I don’t know why the h**l they’re wasting my time with that kid. He can see just fine.” He fared no better with the behavioral folks, really. While the behavioral therapist assigned to the building did stop in, it was, “He’s not officially on my list, but I can see he needs some help, so I’ll visit him when I’m here for another child.” Five years old, and already we were arranging services under the table.

For the record, my son’s kindergarten teacher was extraordinary, which is why there was always a teacher-in-training in her classroom, which is why he thrived there, despite the wobbly support from the county. We were unwilling to chance the public system giving us a not-extraordinary teacher the next year.

We figured we’d fare better in a small parochial school, which emphasized parent involvement and character development alongside discipline and academics. The county had a tutor assigned to the building, to help those students who needed one-on-one instruction, and she was also extraordinary. But, by the perverse logic of the county, tutored students were deemed to need help only so long as they were barely passing or actively failing. Once they caught up to their peers, they came off the tutor’s list. At least until they floundered again. And school counselors? Fuggitaboutit.

Competing schools closed in the recession. The ranks of our small school swelled to medium. The classrooms were all maxed out on population; the instructional time all spoken for, so that questions were discouraged. And the county-assigned tutor? Still just one, and services cut off after fifth grade.

So, we switched to cyber school, where questions were encouraged, answers were often looked up with the help of parents, and where there were no in-person tutors or counselors. We went back to paying for counseling ourselves. It took three years, but our son went back to thriving. So much so, that we started fearing he’d never feel motivated to move out when he was grown. After all, his computer was there, his books were on his desk, his coat was in the hall, food was in the kitchen…

It was time to go back to brick-and-mortar, but not where we were. Not with 4,000 kids crowded into a single high school building, where one kid with borderline issues would fall into a crack and never be heard from again. Not in the county we lived in, either, where your pants had to literally be on fire before somebody would consistently go for help. We chose to do the very big, scary, expensive thing of moving an hour away, to a far-outer-ring suburb in another county. A county that’s still growing, and hence has tax dollars to spend. A suburb that’s still bucolic and charming and (relatively) inexpensive enough to attract top-level teaching talent. A high school that’s still small.

It’s not a choice many parents are able to make. I’m well aware we ‘re lucky. Educational inequality is one of the shames of this country. That the compassionless free market decides if a child – unable to change his or her environmental conditions – has a good shot at succeeding, or only a remote one. That ZIP code is destiny.

Which brings me back to the combination lock. A string of numbers assigned to my son on his first day of school, along with the assumption that he already knew what to do with them, having had a locker over at the middle school, right? Except he didn’t. He wasn’t willing to admit he came from “different,” or speak up about how his vision makes this task more difficult, or ask for assistance; the lessons from an overcrowded parochial school are too deeply engrained in him, yet. He simply announced he planned to carry his backpack with him all day, every day for the next four years, and that he would also be wearing his coat all day every winter. “I’m just not going to use my locker. Problem solved.”

Me demonstrating on my old bike lock, two mornings in a row, did nothing to ease my son’s frustration with the concept. My hubby said, essentially, “Don’t look at me. My high school locker had a key.”

Cue me emailing my son’s school counselor, pleading for a patient individual (preferably one willing to turn a deaf ear to any verbal frustration) to show my son how to use this contraption, before his backpack crippled him. Imagine my surprise when the counselor, himself, offered to take care of it. Sent a string of emails back and forth to agree on a time. Gave up part of his lunch hour for this. And did it with so much grace, that my son came home and said, “Yeah, me and Shackelston figured it out.”

“Me and Shackelston.” My son and his school, on the same team at last.

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Judah Kosterman

Judah Kosterman grew up where farms met factories in the Midwest. She earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and then did two things she’d always talked about – moved to the big city and started travelling. On something between a whim and a dare, she took a job in management and moved to the East Coast. She met a great guy. She did two more things on her list – got married and went to grad school. She also did a couple of things which hadn’t occurred to her earlier, namely, moving to the South and applying her skills to the non-profit sector. Which is how she found herself working at the American Red Cross on 9/11. She’s been working for non-profits, small businesses, and community organizations ever since. By far the most challenging, exciting, and disruptive thing she ever did was to have a kid in the post-9/11 world. Becoming a parent has made her far more aware of the problems that sit at the intersection of mental, emotional, physical, and environmental health. Judah blogged about these issues for a couple of years for 4700 Chiropractic / Rosetree Wellness Center, and is thrilled to return to this form. Judah can often be found tending her garden in the Philly ‘burbs. She reviews books which give her food for thought at www.Goodreads.com. She also has an ever-evolving profile on LinkedIn.

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