When I was a kid, we moved around a lot. And I mean, a lot. For instance, when I was in the 5th grade, I went to 2 different schools in one week. I won’t go into all the reasons why we moved. But between mom’s restless nature and money issues, I lived in a total of 18 different houses until I left for college. No joke. Every time I started to establish firm roots, I was plucked up and planted someplace else. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be in the same school district. Other times, I was not. And like flowers in a garden, you either learn to adapt and become so strong that nothing can kill you or you wilt and die.
So it’s not hard to imagine there were some real gaps in my education. I was a good student and usually enjoyed school. But I always felt like I was either behind or ahead of everyone else and mostly kept to myself. I left home at sixteen when they decided to move again and lived with friends until I graduated a semester early. Looking back now, I’m surprised that I did as well as I did. I also realized moving around a lot was an education in and of itself. Making me more flexible and resourceful, I learned to assimilate into any new situation quickly, how to ask for help when I needed it, and grew to be so damn determined to be the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.
Little did I know that one day, because of a global pandemic, I would homeschool my kids, and many of those gaps would begin to fill in. One of the best things about being my kid’s teacher is that I can take my time and stick with a topic until they have fully assimilated it, which is critical for my son, who has high functioning autism. While his IQ is somewhere north of 130, he struggles with learning new material, which makes school a problem for kids like him since they are allowed only so much time to learn the material. In elementary school, his grades were not excellent, but not bad. They were also not predictive whatsoever of his actual intelligence. They say that gifted kids also have a learning disability. So while he could memorize a 32-page book word for word, he couldn’t tell you the context of the story or its meaning.
As with a lot of spectrum kids, reading comprehension is a significant issue for him. And it remained his biggest issue until he got to middle school, where things changed for the worse. You see, the other critical components of Aspergers kids are that they struggle with peer assimilation and social cueing. For example, something that you or I may just “pick up on” won’t even register with him. So he often speaks out of turn and talks about subjects that seem random and out of place. To him, what he’s saying makes perfect sense, but to others, not so much.
Unfortunately, this cognitive deficit led to relentlessly bullying, which often left him in tears. He ate lunch alone and developed a strategy for choosing which corridors to walk down to avoid his tormenters. His teachers saw him withdraw, and his grades began to plummet. Never one to run from problems, I decided to hire a private tutor, set him up with a private counselor, had a girl removed from two of his classes, and sought a resolution with the other bullies from the school counselor and the 6th-grade principal. Just as things seemed to turn the corner, covid hit. And when I became his teacher, the real heartbreak set in when I realized just how far behind he was. So I put everything else aside and took on the role of a full-time teacher.
It goes without saying that when you are a teacher, you have to know the material before you can teach it. So for weeks before starting school and every night afterward, I became a student again. In some subjects, I am re-learning material that I’d forgotten. But in other subjects, I am learning things I never knew. And I have to say it’s pretty cool. I certainly appreciate the knowledge that I’m gleaning, way more than I did when I was a kid. I also kept my youngest child at home too. She is just the opposite of her brother. A social butterfly, often bored in school because she isn’t being challenged enough.
And I am teaching them so much more than math and reading, science, or social studies. I’m teaching them to think critically and not believe everything they see, read, or hear. I am teaching them that the victors write the history books, but there is always more to the story. We are learning about poets, artists, and activists. We take field trips to the art museum and hike through the woods. Cooking is science class, and math is everywhere we look.
When he was young, a school counselor told me that my son had a limited learning capacity and would likely never go to college. I am proud to say that he is catching up, and not only is he doing well, he is flourishing. He will begin taking dual credit college courses in two years and will graduate from high school with an associates degree. But most importantly, he’s happy and knows that by putting in the hard work, he can learn. He also knows that no matter how hard it is, and no matter how bad it gets, life can always get better. My 2nd grader is doing 3rd-grade work now and has taken over, reading to me every night. I’m pretty sure that if I’ve ever had a life’s purpose, I’ve found it in teaching my kids.
And in case you don’t know Invictus, here it is.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
— William Ernest Henley