20,000 Leagues Beyond Public School

Two years ago, Daniel was struggling in public school, not thriving under the direction of the school’s special needs department who used techniques on him that were better suited to someone profoundly disabled – or possibly chimps – rather than high-functioning, bright little boys.

Informed by the school that Daniel was unable to recite the alphabet and incapable of reading the most basic 3-letter words, I tried to give them examples of why their evaluations of him seemed so far off-base from what I knew his skills to be. It wasn’t uncommon for him to hand a book to me, reading the cover, “Look, Mommy, this is ‘Third Grade Comprehensive Spelling’. Could we read this together?” Their response to this example was less than satisfactory, informing me that the “best thing for Daniel is not to have you confuse our process by encouraging him at home. We are the best ones to guide his education and prefer not to have interference.”

I’d heard other mothers complain about public school attitudes toward them, treating them as if their only value was for their womb. In our case, having adopted Daniel, my value was in the check I’d written to the adoption agency, and from that point on, my value ceased.

When I notified them I was withdrawing him from their “expertise”, the Assistant Director of the Special Needs Department phoned me, prophesying doom & gloom, should I “remove him from where he’ll receive the most benefit for any chance of having a normal life.” Common sense forbid me from telling her exactly what I thought of their “benefits”, so I instead, thanked her for their time, but that my decision was final.

She countered with “This isn’t about you. You’re taking him out because you think this is all about you.” Unsure what that meant I asked her to clarify to which she responded, “It’s about Daniel. This is for HIS best interests, not yours.” I informed her it was for both our best interests – that I was accountable to my God for what I exposed him to, and that it was also about Daniel, limiting the amount of anxiety he was subjected to – that home was the most calm and less-stressful environment for his Autism condition.” She hung up on me muttering unintelligibly. It wasn’t the last I head from her, but that’s for another time.

Yesterday morning, while I was making breakfast, Daniel asked, “Mama, may I read to you while you cook”. So formal and grown-up! I smiled, telling him I would be more than happy to have him read while I cooked. He pulled “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, out from behind his back announcing that I was “going to be for a real treat because this is my favorite!”

Not wanting to discourage him, I made sounds of approval, but my mind was busy planning coping strategies when he found the reading too advanced, causing him to become agitated, a not-uncommon response given his Asperger’s.

He opened it up to the first chapter, and I whisked my eggs.

“_The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phen……phen……phen-o-men-on……”

“Fi-nom-uh-nuh”, I coached him, for which he thanked me and continued.

“….which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumours which agitated the maritime population and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several States on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter_.”

Amazed by his reading, I lost track of the ingredients I’d already put in or not put into the breakfast casserole. Twenty minutes later, when I finally placed the breakfast casserole – undoubtedly bearing no resemblance to the recipe – into the oven, he paused to ask, “How am I doing?”

To watch him sitting quietly at the kitchen table, engrossed as I was in the story he was reading, turning page-after-page without his usual anxiety-drama – hair-pulling, eye-brow tugging, body wiggling, leg jiggling head-banging complaining of phantom body pain – was beyond anything I ever thought I’d see. This child has been the stuff of gray hairs, no doubt tenfold over what I would have had without him in my life.

But while I may have had my hair color had we not adopted him, I knew, after watching him reading with perfect technical precision, his voice inflecting meaning, drama and intent, that I would never have felt the level of amazement and joy he had just given me, had he not been a part of my life.

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