Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Home-schooling Mom's "Graduation"--Tribute to my daughter, Heather

I’ve been on a journey.  A crazy, roller coaster ride, pajama clad, late morning, long discussion, tear filled journey with my oldest daughter.  She has been home-schooled for the bulk of her education and she is “graduating” from high school.
It’s been a weekend of mixed emotions for me and her.  We’ve had to watch her public school friends post pictures of their graduation ceremonies and proms, Sr. breakfasts and picnics, awards nights and other celebrations.  We’ve watched her friends scramble frantically to finish up their school year and take their tests.  It is an exciting time for these young friends.  As I watch them, I also see my own daughter, no less fortunate for having been home-schooled.  In fact, I see it as a victory and one that should be celebrated.  It’s just been difficult to figure out how to celebrate it. 
I’ve been teasing her, telling her that I was going to make her a mortar board and make her walk the backyard, but she quickly stopped that idea.  She went with her boyfriend to a mutual friend’s pre-prom and people were (rather insensitively) asking her if she was bothered about not having a prom or graduation to go to.  I know she was bothered by both the questions and the situation.  Just how do we mark this time period?  
She admitted to me in the car the other day that she felt a high school graduation was a huge milestone and I sensed that she was feeling quite left out.  It broke my heart because secretly, I wanted her to have all those experiences too.  I wanted her to have the crappy prom with the drama, I wanted her to be annoyed by the finals and wear a tacky robe and hat to her graduation.  It’s a rite of passage, right?  Then I stopped myself and my overactive emotions and started to really focus on what has happened through the years with her…she has had an education in not only schoolwork, but in many other things through the years.  This is my celebration of her and her work.  This is my “graduation ceremony” for her--

Heather was a force all her own even before she was born.  She came into our lives a week late and weighed in at almost 10 lbs.  The doctor apologized to me for letting me complete a natural birth and told us Heather was face up and therefore, they never knew how large she really was.  As she came out, she aspirated amniotic fluids and was quickly rushed to the NICU for a week.  She was such a big baby she didn’t fit any of the tiny equipment usually used on the one-pounders there.  Obviously, she survived her ordeal and we quickly brought her home to join our not quite two year old son Josh. 
Through her toddler and pre-school years, we realized that Heather was fearless in the comfort of her own home environs, but quite shy and nervous in public.  She would climb huge trees and hang upside-down, pick up all sorts of creatures, hunt for worms, swallow quarters and stuff coffee beans up her nose and embrace life fully,  but when brought to pre-school, she shrank in fear.  Heather’s separation anxiety was fierce and palpable.  People at church would comment that she was my “shadow”, always hiding behind me when spoken to.  We struggled with dropping her off at her pre-school, always parting with tears and her being hugged by the teacher.  I always felt as if I was abandoning her to some horrible thing although I knew in my heart that once the break was done, she would be fine.  And she was.  It was like this for some of kindergarten and first grade but by second grade, it became even more pronounced.  We had moved to a new home and school district and she had a new baby sister to deal with.  It was an overwhelming situation for any child, let alone a rather shy one.  It was also 2001 when this happened.  We moved into our new rental home one month shy of the September 11th attacks on the Trade Center.  My husband was working in lower Manhattan at that time of our lives.  I put Heather and Josh on the school bus, strapped little five month old Grace in the car seat and drove husband Pat to the train station.  As I left the station I heard on the radio that a plane had “mistakenly” hit the Trade Center. 
 I pulled into a gas station to listen to the report and soon realized in horror the situation as it was unfolding.  I frantically tried to reach my husband on the cell, but also found out later how impossible that was.  Not knowing what else to do, I drove quickly home and turned on the TV.  As the event was unfolding, Grace was rolling around on the floor in a surrealistic scene of safety and tranquility.  I spent the morning trying to reach my husband and the kids spent the morning at school fearing it was the end of the world.  In some ways to them, I imagine it was.
I did get my husband back home, unlike many others and my kids did make it home from school.  We huddled together, the five of us, forever scarred by that event, as most people were in one way or another, but I feel it forever changed the direction of Heather’s schooling from then on.  She never again felt safe or secure in a school building and thus began her homeschooling journey.
We struggled from then on with tears each morning and her separation anxiety grew each day.  Her teacher or the school nurse would have to literally peel her off of my body as I dropped her off.  If I tried to get her on the school bus, (“Oh Mrs. Norberto, just put her on the bus, she’ll be fine” the administrators would say) it would never work.  They had no idea what the scenario would be at our house.  Baby under one arm, older brother saying “come on!” (He himself mustering up courage to go back to school and vomiting in fear), Heather would hide behind the garbage cans and avoid the bus.  Then it would dissolve into my son going off to school embarrassed and frustrated, me strapping baby Grace in the car seat and dragging Heather off to school to face the school nurse who would then put her in a horrible “therapeutic hold”.  All this did was to further scare the crap out of her and I would retreat, baby in arms to the car and weep.  It was not a good time. 
By the time Heather reached fourth grade, she was still struggling every day to overcome her fear of school.  We had every diagnosis you could imagine thrown at us, most of which were accusatory towards either her or my parenting skills.  During the Christmas break, she developed strep throat and therefore, the duration of the break was an extra week.  It was after she was well and we tried to drop her off for school that it became the breaking point.  She never went in the building willingly again. Her absences due to fear mounted.  I ended up pulling her out to home-school her because the district was threatening to call Child Protective Services because of “educational neglect”.  Little did they know what was truly going on.  I tried to explain it to them, but unfortunately it fell on deaf and unwilling to learn/listen ears. 
This pattern evolved through the years—home-school, sign her into public school in the fall—anxiety rose—pulled her again to home-school.  We did go the classification route and they suggested all manner of therapeutic school settings.  We would dutifully go and look at the schools and would find children with severe learning disabilities or social disabilities.  They would try to put her in classes with autistic children or rooms of only learning disabled boys.  Heather was mortified and it further made her fearful of public school settings.  When we were home and learning on our own, it was a natural progression of education and she blossomed.  We would do science experiments in the kitchen or yard, we would do numerous fieldtrips and research on the internet.  We would go to the library and book stores.  We would struggle together on math.  She did complete one year in a God-send of a therapeutic school in eighth grade.  They integrated animal therapy with schooling and Heather, being the animal lover she was, thrived and built up her confidence.  In the fall of 2008, we tried again with public high school.  The communication between her previous school and the public school was weak and they placed her in the wrong classes.  She started bravely, but was soon overcome with anxiety as the pressures rose and the social interactions overwhelmed her.  After struggling with the district on how to “properly” educate her (our view being quite different from theirs), we decided to home-school again and that was that.  She never looked back.
High school for Heather has been divided between textbooks purchased, online courses, internet Regents, SAT & ACT’s and numerous trips and community service situations.  While other kids were toiling away in a small classroom, Heather was able to travel and work with her dad and the wounded vets he worked with.  She went to Florida and Texas with him on trips.  She volunteered her time with them, worked with the homeless in NYC on Midnight Runs, made food for local shelters, worked summers fixing up houses for people unable to and generally learning about how the world works.
If there is anything I could say about her right now, it’s that she’s a fighter.  She’s an achiever, a person willing to stand up and overcome her fears.  She never feared an education, only the physical school building itself.  She seems ready to shed that fear and enter into a college setting.  (“I’ve had enough of you being my teacher Mom”.)  Graduation….

As I look at other kids going through a formal graduation, I wonder how many are really ready to face the challenges of college and life beyond?  Will they be mature enough to make the right decisions?  Will they be able to handle the pressures of finances, schooling, responsibility?  Life?  Yes, she and I were a little sad to see the constant postings on social media such as Facebook etc.  She looking at prom and graduation photos, I, reading the proud boasting of parents.  No milestone in life should be treated lightly and Heather’s “graduation” is no different than any other child’s.  She is done with one phase of her life and ready to move onto the next one.  I’m ready to help her make that transition (hard as it is for me to do).  She is ready to proverbially spread her wings and fly and I, as former teacher and mom, must let her do so.  Her anxieties are gone, her confidence is widespread, she has blossomed in so many ways.  In all senses of the word, Heather has “graduated”…I wish you well my lovely child…now spread your wings and fly!