Academically, I was an irritatingly capable primary school student. I was quick to read, quick to write, and by all accounts the kind of kid who just ‘got’ it. I remember being the kid who was allowed to use a ‘proper’ lined exercise book for my stories, long before the other kids in my class. I was reading books that were far too mature for my age, because the age appropriate books were far too juvenile in their complexity for me. Everybody knows ‘that’ kid.
I won the academic award for my class every year. I was picked for extension classes, ‘talented problem solver’ camps, opportunity classes, selective high schools. I was in the top band for every standardised test I was ever required to sit. I may have been extraordinarily lazy about studying, however classroom learning came pretty easily to me. It still does, actually.
Socially, I was a bit shit. Actually, socially I was a lot shit. I struggled to make friends, struggled to keep friends, struggled to relate to my peers. I remember being five years old, and sitting outside the canteen, alone on a bench because nobody would play with me. A first grade student took pity on me, and played with me every so often at recess and lunch (thanks, Brooke!). Unlike the academics, the social aspects of school did not come easily to me.
It was pretty well universally assumed that my first born would be exactly like me. She was quick to talk, an early walker. She asked the most amazing and interesting questions, had a fantastic imagination. To this day, the things that kid comes up with blows my mind. And, unlike her old mum, she possessed an amazing ability to adapt socially, make friends, relate to other kids. I was excited for her when she started school.
The first few weeks were golden. The kid loved school. She made friends, firm ones, the friends that people who have friends keep with them for the duration. She was the well behaved kid, the sweet kid. The kid who put her hand up to help the teachers. The one who chased them down and said goodbye to them as she left the playground.
And then, the home readers came home. And the sight words. The basic maths. The public speaking tasks. She struggled with all of it. Really struggled. And I came down to earth, smashing full force into the realisation that my poor kid was finding it really hard.
Our first parent-teacher interview was horrendous. She was struggling. She was not meeting the mandated milestones. She was not fitting the mould. Words like ‘dyslexia’, ‘learning support’, and ‘assessed’ were spoken, as potential issues with my little girl. I was 8 months pregnant, and I barely held it together. I sat in my car after the interview, and cried. My heart was broken.
It was my fault, I was sure of it. I didn’t read her enough books. I didn’t spend enough time working on her writing. I worked too much. I missed the signs. I had failed my kid, my amazing, unique, precious little girl. I was a shit mum.
Every interaction with the school became an emotional ordeal. I booked frequent meetings with the teachers, to check up on her progress. And every time, when I was met with depressing news and disappointed eyes, I went to my car and cried. I quickly learned to dread the things I had previously looked forward to with excitement – report cards, reading challenges, public speaking competitions. No longer were they exciting experiences for my daughter to take part in. They became, in my mind, more things that my poor kid would struggle with. More quiet conversations about benchmarks and milestones.
We worked hard with my daughter, my husband and I. I created ‘sight word’ games, a whole box of them, and played them with her at every opportunity. We took home extra home readers, and read every single one of those dreadfully boring books a thousand times. I bought every additional resource I could think of. My husband created a sight word app for her tablet. I consulted developmental professionals, both formally and informally. Slowly, she progressed. I made a big deal of every progression, every improvement. Every new level was celebrated.
By second grade, it all seemed to start coming together. She was below average, sure, but only just. And, more importantly, she was progressing at a reasonable speed. Finally, things started to become a tiny bit easier. She was still the kid who struggled, sure. But the struggle was less concerning. The labeling of my daughter as a potential academic catastrophe ceased.
The stress continues for me, however. She’s in third grade this year. Naplan year. A standardised test, not for the benefit of the student. A test for the benefit of the government. In a world that is increasingly turning away from standardised testing as an accurate depiction of a child’s performance, subjecting a kid who has barely left the negative academic labels behind to a standardised test seems cruel to me. I don’t want her to do it. I already know what the results will be – below par. An inaccurate description of my dynamic, crazy, fun, little person. A standardised lie, impersonally printed on a crappy piece of paper.
There are other things, too. When your kid is average, or worse, below average, it is depressingly rare for a school to celebrate their achievements. There is no award at presentation day for ‘Consistently Not Quite Good Enough’. And, while she does try very hard, and is actually far more diligent with school work than I had ever been, she is still not progressing fast enough and impressively enough for even that to be recognised. Merit certificates for having a cheerful disposition only exist in Kindergarten. It really hurts when your kid asks you why she never gets awards. At eight years old, my daughter is already starting to believe the lies – that she is not smart or capable enough.
The fact that she is apparently below average, but not below enough for it to be a diagnosed problem concerns me constantly. They don’t offer much in the way of official support and resources to kids who are struggling, unless they are struggling with a firm diagnosis, it appears. There is a real risk that my little girl, who is interesting and spunky and opinionated, might be that kid who gets left behind. Slipping right through those cracks. Forgotten. Something I believe no child deserves, not mine, yours, or anyone else’s.
Intellectually, I know that my daughter will find her groove. She is incredibly creative, caring, well adjusted. She already speaks of a career in nursing, which makes her self awareness clear – she has the makings of a fantastic nurse. Emotionally, it is harder, because my heart is the heart of a mother. I want her every achievement noticed, recognised, rewarded. I want her abilities acknowledged. Knowing that they are not, and are unlikely to be for a very long time, feels like physical pain to me. It really, really hurts.
I have learned through this, that for the time being, celebrating and rewarding my child for her achievements will fall completely on me. I will stand by her side, her biggest fan. I will be proud of her, every single time she wins, no matter how small a win it is. I know this child better than any teacher, school, or doctor, ever will. That she fits no mould, I have no doubt. That she is capable of amazing things, I have every certainty.
One day she will be grown. She will be employed, successful, and fulfilled. The labels and struggles will be a memory. The inaccurate status of below average forgotten. One day, the world will know, that my daughter is extraordinary.
I will still be her biggest supporter.