Not For You, Son

Janelle Hanchett essays

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Sometimes I think about you walking along the halls of school, when you were 4 or 5 or 6. I think about the energy in your walk and the fun and bounce in your step—the abandon of a kid who’s unconcerned.

I can hear you laughing. I can hear you talking. There’s peace in your voice.

And I see you now, today. Eight-years-old. 2nd grade. And I wonder when it changed. 

Your teacher called the other day and said “He’s a little combative. He doesn’t want to do anything. He’s resistant.” This was new.

I had never heard it before, but I knew. 

My boy is heading down the path of almost every dyslexic kid that’s gone before him. He starts like the others. He charges preschool and kindergarten with the bravery and interest and curiosity of all the rest, but by 7 or 8 or 9 years old, after years of struggling with what seems to come naturally to the others, after years of holding his head up anyway and trying trying trying (without success), after days and days and days of walking around in his own little cloud—removed. Apart. Separate. He realizes this place is not for him. School is not for him.

The system is not for him.

So in a move of defense or self-preservation or maybe good ol’ fashioned pride, he lifts the proverbial middle finger to the whole bunch of ‘em and shouts between blonde ringlets and fear: “If you don’t want me, I don’t want you either.”

And the first brick in the wall is laid.

We’ve done everything we can. We’ve done everything we can to keep you strong and confident and whole. I homeschooled you for kindergarten when preschool gave you migraine headaches. I told the teachers constantly “I think he’s dyslexic. His dad and grandpa and great-grandpa are. He doesn’t seem to be learning letters or sounds.” I wanted to intervene early. They all said “It’s too early to tell.”

It wasn’t too early for me to tell, but they are the professionals. I deferred to them. I didn’t want to be that micro-manager mother. I let go and sat back and loved you and took you camping and let you climb trees and build things with Legos.

You told me you were “born with maps in your brain.” You built Lego structures meant for kids nearly twice your age, and you did it by just scanning the final pictures. 

By the end of 1st grade they finally started suspecting, because you knew the names of three letters and the sounds of maybe two. I immediately had you tested. Dyslexia.

It wasn’t too early to tell, I guess.

So we began special education and I took you to the only independent program I could afford (and it helped, somewhat) and I began to see, quite clearly, how the rich have it better. The “best” program with the “best” success for dyslexic kids costs a minimum of $20,000. Did you catch that? $20,000.

I rely on free public education.

I thought things were getting better, but then I got the call from your teacher. I held you close to me and reassured you that I’m not angry and asked with all my heart “What is wrong, buddy. What’s up at school?”

And you told me. After a remarkable time spent pulling and prodding, you finally told me about all the times each day when you are not a part of because you can’t read. About the special game day on Friday you can’t play because they play a game that requires reading. About not wanting to ask what the board says (embarrassed). About how you don’t have any reading jobs and you want reading jobs because all the other kids have them. 

It’s a strange moment when you realize the system is not for your child. It’s a strange moment when you realize that no matter how hard you try and no matter how hard the special education team is trying, school is structured in a way to benefit one type of child with one type of mind and one set of abilities.

I knew this intellectually. Now I know it in my soul.

I want to take him out forever. I want to let him build wooden things and climb trees and learn some other way. But I work, and my husband works, and I don’t know how to teach a dyslexic child to read, and I can’t afford the fancy schools.

So here I sit, the day before I send him back to a place that was never meant for him, while I find my new role as the fighter helicopter micro-manager mom, all up in everybody’s business, making sure his accommodations are met, making sure progress is occurring, doing our work at home, making sure my boy isn’t one more casualty, one more bright, capable mind slipped through the cracks, shoved off to become next year’s problem, passed on because nobody quite knows what to do. Everybody is trying, but the system is not meant for kids like him.

I think about you now, walking through your classroom, down the halls each morning. I think about you sitting there watching the teacher write on the board. Maybe the other kids start writing right away, answering her question, responding “as they should.” Maybe hands shoot in the air. And I wonder what you’re thinking in those moments.

Do you hear my voice? Do you laugh at your mother as she whispers “You are so smart, son.”

Do you blow me off? I’d probably blow me off.

Do my words seem small in the face of that moment? Do they collapse under the weight of your difference?

I imagine they do.

Your shoulders seem too small to bear all this, kid. And yet this fight is yours. Each day as you step foot on that campus, a place not quite meant for the likes of you, your creativity, the nature of your talents.

They love you. That is clear. They tell me on the daily.

But still I drive off in my car each morning and you walk bravely ahead, alone.

I see only your backpack and curls and bit of apprehension in your step. Sometimes you look back and wave, or smile, and I think to myself “Maybe he’s taking me with him.”

Or remembering, at least, for a moment, where he comes from.

About the Author

Janelle Hanchett

Janelle Hanchett is a freelance writer in northern California and mother of questionable disposition to three children. You can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, .

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