The first 5 years of Naturalist’s life, I spent them completely in love with this tiny force of nature–celebrating her quirky humor, her abstract thinking, her determined spirit, her somewhat exasperating habit of wanting to do things her way or not at all. I read hundreds of parenting books and magazines to see what other parents did with their kids like this, and found to my surprise that apparently no one had a kid like this. In the stacks and stacks of discarded books, only one even remotely came close to addressing the Naturalist’s personality, Raising Your Spirited Child. I knew it was for me when the subtitle stated, “A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic.” Yes, yes, yes, yes, and YES! Bingo, we have a winner!
The minute she went into Kindergarten until the minute she left 3rd grade, my celebration of her unique spirit turned into something else…something less happy and more stressful. Because once Naturalist was in a controlled setting with her peers around, one thing was abundantly clear: She Was Not Like Everyone Else. And in school, it is of utmost importance to Be Like Everyone Else. Sit still like everyone else. Color the picture like everyone else. Play the same games as everyone else. Do the same work as everyone else. Think like everyone else. And when your child doesn’t do any of those things, then the attitude isn’t a celebratory one, it’s accusatory. And as a parent, I started to internalize and worry about what was wrong with HER, that she didn’t act or learn like everyone else. This worry turned into an anxiety that I funneled into parenting her, which set up a dynamic of fear, stress, and distrust between both of us.
One day Naturalist brought home a word problem worksheet asking her to figure out a problem about Kim, Susan, and dividing lollipops between them. Naturalist wrote on her paper, in lieu of an answer, “Kim doesn’t want to share her lollipops with Susan, so she keeps them all to herself”. Unlike my response (to laught), her teacher was not amused. She called a conference to detail all the ways Naturalist failed to pay attention or take the homework seriously. “Maybe she’s bored?” I’d say. Which was not the Right Answer. The point was, a child who could not pay attention and do their work diligently in the classroom was a child who was wasting their brain and eventually their life. If you can’t cut it in school, there is no hope for you afterwards. Everytime Naturalist did things ‘differently’ from the norm, the response was to try to get her back in line–herd her back to a pretense of what everyone else was doing. The programs I turned to for help when she struggled with this expectation were no different…both the special ed. programs and the GT programs had, at their core, the focus on getting her to learn and know what everyone else was…what the standards were coming from the teachers and psychologists.
I washed my hands of it the day I went into an IEP meeting with all the specialists to address Naturalists weaknesses in math and reading. They brushed aside my concerns, stating that her performance was ‘within a normal range‘ but what that there was something else they were concerned about. VERY concerned about. So, my concerns that were judged not important in 3rd grade: she couldn’t do a lick of math, she couldn’t read, she cried every day before and after school, she had developed nervous ticks, and she couldn’t tell me what they did at school that day enough to finish her homework. VERY concerning to them: Naturalist would go to recess and not play with any other kids. Even worse, she would go off on her own and play with an imaginary friend in the form of a horse named Soar.
“I’m sorry” I countered, “why is this a bigger issue than what I’ve brought up?” and they detailed all the ways it wasn’t ‘normal’ for a girl to have imaginary friends, or not play with friends at recess, or not care about what her peer group would say about her activities.
“What if she’s going to grow up and be an amazing writer?” was all I could say. “What if her imaginary friend is just the start of an imagination of whole worlds for her to write about? I don’t think C.S. Lewis or Tolkien would consider their detailed stories as the sign of a psychological problem. Have you never heard Einstein say, ‘Imagination is more important than knowlege?” Also, I would hope she wouldn’t turn around and play with the same kids who call her names and treat her so horribly in class. Talk about unhealthy! AND ANOTHER THING!!!” I continued, this time worked up into quite a state, “she is so bored and traumatized IN class that don’t you think she needs a release valve during the day? A time and place where she can regroup, get away, and find a happy place? Maybe, if we can create a happy place IN CLASS she wouldn’t need to create one at recess all by herself!” But that wasn’t their point. Their point was that they had set up an environment that Naturalist needed to fit into, or else. Or else she needed medication, or else she needed counseling, or else she needed me to push her harder to be normal.
It was a crossroads, to say the least. A very emotionally charged point at which I realized I had a choice to make, do we take the same road everyone else was on, or do we take the road less travelled? Is my goal with Naturalist to make her fit the mold of a ‘normal’ student, or break the mold and let her be herself? I didn’t have the answer, but I did know that she wouldn’t ever be going back to a place of learning that found an imaginary friend more threatening than a girl who hadn’t learned anything in an entire 3 years at school.
Luckily, at the point I took her out we were close to summer break, so I tried not to sweat it while I researched educational theories. I found my inspiration in a surprising place, totally unrelated to my search focus. However, I came across a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Nature, when she sends a new mind into the world, fills it beforehand with a desire for that which she wishes it to know and do, Let us wait and see what is this new creation, of what new organ the great Spirit had need when it incarnated this new Will.
The charm of life is this variety of genius, these contrasts, and flavors by which Heaven has modulated the identity of truth, and there is a perpetual hankering to violate this individuality, to warp his ways of thinking and behavior to resemble or reflect your thinking and behavior.
Even though I studied and loved Emerson in my American Studies major in college, I had totally missed his thoughts on education and children. But this quote of his hit me right in the gut. It’s like he appeared as a ghost and spoke those words right to me. Here, nature had given me this new mind full of the things that She needed in the world and all I had done is wonder why she couldn’t have given me someone who was more like everyone else. Not even 9 years old, and I had spent the last 4 of them violating her individuality in small but meaningful ways. All the times I spent wondering why she couldn’t do her work like everyone else, sleep like everyone else (or, at all!), asking the teacher how I could make Naturalist fit in best to the class rather than asking how the teacher could fit the class better to the Naturalist.
But there was more:
I suffer whenever I see that common sight of a parent or senior imposing his opinion and way of thinking and being on a young soul to which they are totally unfit. Cannot we let people be themselves, and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you. One’s enough.”
We sacrifice the genius of the pupil, the unknown possibilities of his nature, to a neat and safe uniformity, as the Turks whitewash the costly mosaics of ancient art which the Greeks left on their temple walls. Rather let us have men whose manhood is only the continuation of their boyhood, natural characters still; such are able and fertile for heroic action; and not that sad spectacle with which we are too familiar, educated eyes in uneducated bodies.
OK, OK, Emerson. I call uncle. I hear you! I get it. I was done sacraficing the genius of my daughter to a neat and safe uniformity. I was done keeping myself up late at night stressing about all the ways my daughter was different from everyone else. I was ready to start respecting her journey and celebrating her uniqueness like I had before she started school.
Around this time, we went to a seminar by Jonathan Mooney who famously (in our house) inscribed her book with these words: “Normal people suck. Enjoy your journey!”
Unusual is not a four letter word. Normal is.
Quotes taken from Emerson’s essay on Education. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, once you get past the 1800′s prose.