Monday, April 06, 2009

Breaking the silence, Katie comes full circle

Some time ago, I mentioned that part of the reason we began homeschooling was because my older daughter, Katie, struggled with learning disabilities and social phobia. During her first year of kindergarten, she stopped speaking at school and didn't utter a word within the walls of a classroom for the four and a half years that followed. We soon learned that it's a coping mechanism called selective mutism, and as you can imagine, it makes learning in a classroom setting and forming meaningful friendships very difficult.

When we removed Katie from public school at the end of her third grade year, most of her teachers were supportive of our decision. After all, we had done everything we knew to do: we sought the help of various therapists and specialists; we attended parent-teacher conferences: we tracked her progress and updated her IEP; we spent countless hours reteaching and completing school work at home; and we kept enrolling her in school each fall with the hopes that this would be the year she'd start talking.

Her teachers made adaptations to her work and the classroom to accommodate her as best they could. One suggested that Katie learn sign language so they could communicate with one another non-verbally, but we were afraid it would become a crutch and actually cause her to withdraw from us (whom she spoke to regularly at home) rather than encourage her to interact at school. Another insisted that Katie was profoundly autistic and attempted to have her moved into a self-contained special education classroom, which we fought successfully. The school even set up an afternoon home-study program to encourage Katie to talk in a familiar setting (but that didn't work, either). When it became apparent that Katie wasn't making sufficient progress socially or academically, I knew it was time to try home education. That was seven years ago.

Last week, we visited my parents in the Mississippi Delta. My mother teaches at the school Katie last attended and had invited my mother-in-law to speak to her class about birds (My mother-in-law knows everything there is to know about bluebirds.). We brought Katie and Dagny along for the experience. After all, Dagny had never even been inside a classroom before (and, by the way, she reports that she doesn't care for it, either.). And, of course, since many of Katie's former teachers ask my mother about her often, I was anxious to see if Katie would be able to move past her old fears and finally talk to these people. After all, they'd worked with her for years but had never heard her voice.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I delivered my usual "mind your manners" speech to the girls. Since Katie still gets visibly awkward and uncomfortable in new situtaions, her list of reminders includes 1.) don't contort your face, 2.) look at the person who is talking to you, 3.) don't smack yourself in the forehead (as in "I coulda hadda V-8," which she does when she mentally freezes up or doesn't know how to respond to someone), and 4.) keep your hands in your pockets if you feel nervous. Despite her discomfort, she enjoys being around people (especially adults) and is willing to learn how to cope with--or at the very least mask--her anxiety. When I imagine how she feels inside during those quirky moments, I think she's awfully brave.

Speaking of quirky, I had a list of reminders for my mother as well. Those included 1.) don't pressure Katie to talk, 2) try not to make a big deal out of it if she does talk, 3.) if she's standing right there, don't talk about her like she's in another room...which my mom does a lot, 4.) resist the urge to rescue her by finishing her sentences or interpreting for her, and 5.) no matter how emotional this might become, absolutely, positively no crying.

As it turns out, all that worrying was for nothing. Katie seemed almost effortless. She hugged, spoke to, and even initiated conversation with all of her former teachers and assistants. The shocked (but pleased) comments didn't phase her at all, and looks on their faces were priceless. I could tell that she was genuinely happy to be there.

I, however, was a nervous wreck. I was so focused on her and what was happening that I kept forgetting to introduce Jack and Dagny (but, I did remember to keep my hands in my pockets, not make faces and allow others to finish their own sentences ...that's good, right?).

I'm not sure if she realizes the significance of that day or if it was more important to me that she go back to the place that used to paralyze her as a little girl and show them what a smart young lady she has become. There have been so many hurdles, but this was by far one of the biggest.

As we walked out of the building to the parking lot, I asked Kate if she enjoyed seeing her old school again. She thought about it for a moment and said, "It looks exactly the same on the outside, but the heart of it has changed." Considering how much she has changed, I thought that was a rather powerful statement. And at that moment, I realized just how far she had come.