I just watched my son leave for work. It wasn’t very long ago that I was sure he would never have a driver’s license, would never have his own car, would never be the responsible young man he has become. Don’t get me wrong, Alex has always been very responsible. Unlike many young people with learning disabilities, he has some kind of internal clock that guides him to be on time, to complete assignments as assigned, to plan and schedule his day. That is the first point I want to make. Not all LD kids are the same. They are not all Theo Huxtable with dyslexia, they are not all lazy or unmotivated, they are not stupid. They are our children, with the same expectations and dreams as everyone else. When I told Alex I was going to write this piece, I asked him what he wanted people to know about him. He told me he wanted people to know he was responsible and trustworthy. He wanted people to know that having learning disabilities didn’t make him any less of a person than anyone else. He wanted people to know he was just Alex. Not “that kid”, but just Alex. Funny, sweet, caring, and at times, gets on my nerves. (as all kids do with parents from time to time)
We have been very fortunate. Alex has gone to the right schools, had the right teachers, counselors and therapists, although he has always attended public school. He has had people in his corner. Part of that is because of his nature and part is because we were lucky. And, OK, part is because I am one pushy mom. His first grade teacher brought the “regular” first grade students into the special education classroom so they could see that kids were kids. His third grade teacher didn’t hesitate to attend a meeting at Alex’s fourth grade school to provide insight into his learning style. There are so many other examples of professionals reaching out to help Alex along the way. All those factors have played a big part in where Alex ended up.
His formal education began at the age of 2, when he received homebound services several times a week. At the ripe old age of 3 he boarded a van and started spending half days at school. Over the next 7 years he attended 8 different schools because our district used available space instead of making learning disabled students a part of any one building. When Alex was in 5th grade our school district decided that special education students should attend their neighborhood schools whenever possible, not necessarily for the benefit of the students, but to save money on transportation costs. That was a turning point. For the first time Alex got to walk to school. He was on safety patrol and given the duty of putting up the American flag each day. He got to meet kids from the neighborhood (and they in turn, got to meet him), he attended the same school for more than one year and moved on to middle school with the same group of students for another 2 years. High school meant a big change. His friends went to the local high school. I chose to send him to a high school outside of our attendance area because of the special education program and the diversity of the school. That first year was tough, he only knew a few kids, most of his friends were going elsewhere. But it was the right decision.
Alex did well in the high school environment. His school created an atmosphere that allowed all students, even those with learning disabilities, to achieve what ever goals they set for themselves. Alex joined the track team and lettered all four years. He was a member of the bowling team. He applied to become a member of the National Honor Society and when his application was rejected, he appealed and faced a panel of teachers alone to plead his case. When he graduated in May 2003 he wore his National Honor Society gold cord on his gown.. He was not a “special ed kid”, he was a valued member of the class of 2003.
I want to explain that Alex reads at a 6th grade level and his math skills are at about the 5th grade level. All his academic classes were special education. He mainstreamed for physical education, science and industrial arts classes. His learning disabilities will always be a challenge for him.
Alex now attends a local community college part time, works a few hours a week on campus, has a part time job at a local grocery store and has recently started an apprenticeship program. Once again, we were fortunate to find a great vocational rehabilitation counselor who was able to assist us in a post high school plan. She was there to provide information or on the job support, what ever Alex needed to help him succeed in this newest endeavor. The community college has a special needs counselor he can talk to if he has a problem in the classroom or just a question. One of his teachers also has a learning disability and has taken Alex “under his wing”, including recommending him for the apprenticeship.
I wanted to write this first person piece because I wanted other parents to know that good things can and do happen for children with learning disabilities. I am looking forward to the day that stories like ours are the norm, not the exception.