Saturday, April 25, 2009

Making It Up as We Go Along

Some of you who've been reading this blog for a while know that I can be given to grumbling, griping, kvetching -- as we say in the fair city we've made home.

So you would not have been surprised to have heard me muttering about the forty term papers that I was marking for one of the classes I teach at a nearby private university. On the whole they were a disappointing stack of documents. The assignment I'd made was probably too difficult -- too open ended and requiring that the students use their skills of analysis (where present) with their skills of imagination.

Because there was an uneasy fit between the assignment and their skill level, marking them was onerous. It took me nearly an hour per paper, and I could have easily spent longer. As I was slogging through the papers I'd grumble. They can't write, I'd say. Did they ever take a comp class? I'd mutter. Do they understand that papers need to have a thesis?

In the midst of my mutterings, Sweet M turned to me with a tone that filled with both innocence and earnestness and said, "You know they're doing the best they can to graduate."

Like she has been. All year. Closing a nearly two-year gap in reading. Trying to catch up in math because the language of computation eludes her even when the arithmetic itself does not. Studying ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures because they are part of the New York State social studies curriculum when she is still struggling to completely understand the linear qualities of time. (How do you explain the idea of 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. to someone whose sense of temporality has only recently emerged?)

She's been working so hard that she is often worn out. She's not in the zone (of proximal development). Instead she's often struggling to keep her head above the rising conceptual water. Her extraordinary one-on-one support person does everything she can to close the developmental and conceptual gaps -- to throw her conceptual inner tubes and flotation devices and to otherwise shore up her understandings. Her father and I do hours of remedial homework with her. And still Sweet M's brain keeps developing along its own mysterious timetable, not exactly in synchronized swimming with developmental norms.

And so I wondered yesterday: Are we working too hard? Are our goals and expectations too high? Are we giving our dear girl a life without balance -- a life where work consumes all else?

In the midst of this year of hard work, Sweet M started singing in the shower at night. She makes up very short little chants and sings them with a wonderful off-key atonality. Most of the year they've been about time: "Tomorrow is Friday, tomorrow is FRI-day. Tomorrow is Friday, hey hey hey hey hey. There's just one day of school left . . . there's just one day of school left . . . There's just one day of school left, hey hey hey hey hey." She makes up different ones for each day of the week -- I suppose that she is anchoring the days of the week and the shape of the calendar into her lived experience.

Last night she made up a new tune. She was belting out a single line "Be yourself and you'll be great, be yourself and you'll be great. Be yourself and you'll be great, hey hey hey hey hey."

When she was drying her hair I asked her where she'd heard that song. She said, "Oh that's one of my own makeups."

Makeups -- so many things in so many different contexts. To do yourself up and to do yourself over, as in making yourself presentable to the world. To do something you missed, as in makeup exams. To make up, as in to restore harmony to a relationship. And to make up, as in invent something new, never before imagined.

I'm so much more interested in harmony and invention than in putting on a good face and catching up.

How can we help her to be herself so she'll be (and keep being) great?

Do we keep up the pace -- pushing her (and ourselves) hard to meet external timelines for her education -- or do we drop off the neurotypical educational course? Do we keep her at her school or do we look for an easier place for her to be?

We keep making things up as we go along, but I find myself wondering if there couldn't be a better way. I find myself wondering how long we can make this improvisation work . . .


Anonymous said...

I believe your daughter is older than my son, but I get this. All of it. On every level, in every way. I ask myself these questions all the time... when to say when, and why.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. And the reminder that the questions are sometimes just as important to the process as the answers.

kathleen said...

What a great son has a days of the week song as well!

Casdok said...

Some big questions. I hope you find the answers.

Anonymous said...

i LOVE Sweet M's songs! i'm going to be singing that last one to myself this morning when i get in the shower.

i have similar questions but from the other side--is it okay to have fluffy home year after year? ought i push us a bit more to get him into the neurotypical educational stream? ...

Anonymous said...

It's funny because your blog has provided a lot of guidance to me with regard to where to send my DD to school. This is why I am so glad you've continued your postings--I love your clarity of thought, and your dilemmas are our dilemmas, but I have the benefit of looking at your situation in hindsight. I'm sure much of this decision making is also colored by the issues of funding in NYC, as the school that I think of first for M is unfunded. What does your neuropsych have to say?

Chun Wong said...

It is so hard to get a balance but from the sound of Sweet M she sounds happy and that's what matters, I'm sure you'll know if you're pushing her too hard. I love Sweet M's comment about your students and her songs, she's a creative littel girl.