Intelligence, Talent and Ability. How Does Our Society Truly Perceive Those with Special Needs?

photo.JPG Intelligence
We have come a long way in terms of how we view and treat individuals with learning disabilities. We no longer force our dyslexic students to stand up in class and read aloud from the textbook, and we certainly don’t berate them if they are unable to sound out certain words.  Teachers, for the most part, are aware of the discrepancy model.  They know that, for students with disabilities, there is a significant gap between their performance and ability levels; therefore, if a student cannot read at grade level, most teachers are aware that this doesn’t mean that the student lacks intelligence.   Unfortunately, “ability” is commonly measured by a battery of tests, some of which are heavily laden in the verbal realm, so if you have a perfectly intelligent individual who was not exposed to rich language then the scores he or she earn will be likely underestimations of their true abilities.   Most teachers, however, are aware of the imperfections of our means of measuring intelligence and will at least give students with reading difficulties the benefit of the doubt.  If only we would do the same for our other “special needs” students, those with ADD, ADHD, PDD, OCD, ODD, SPD, ASD… Unfortunately, we all too often underestimate individuals who struggle with these issues. Unlike many LD students who are able to conform with the pack, the issues that individuals with attention, spectrum and sensory disorders grapple with are often manifested through quirky, atypical and often “bothersome” behaviors. We often become so focused on these behaviors that we don’t see the whole person and the talents that lie beneath the surface.

Just the other day I was in the company of a couple of women, one of whom was a teacher, talking about a child who used to live in their neighborhood.  When I heard the child’s name, I nearly fell over.  After asking a few questions, we determined the child they were talking about had grown to become the same individual that I taught in one of my college classes the previous year.  I recognized her name because she was one of my favorite students. Yes, she was a bit quirky, but she was also very, very bright.  As a matter of fact, I remember this student helping her classmates interpret one of the novels we were reading in class.  What shocked me was that the teacher participating in this conversation was incredulous when she heard that her former neighbor, clearly a quirky and “atypical” kid, was a star in my classroom.  You know, “being special needs and all.” 

What stuck me as most disturbing about the aforementioned conversation was this idea that “special needs” was somehow synonymous with incapable.  The very idea that the woman I know from my classroom had been pegged as someone who was “not college material” when she was only ten or eleven years old was deeply unsettling.  The fact that some teachers today still have these mindsets about “those special needs kids” makes me question the quality of education “those special needs kids” are given.  It makes me wonder how these children can possibly be invited into the pack with the rest of their “typical” peers if their teachers perceive them as ‘other’ and “less than.” This is not a sweeping statement about all teachers.  I am a teacher myself, many of my family members are teachers and most of my friends are teachers.  When my son, who has some “special needs,” was in school, his teachers were some of the kindest and sensitive individuals I have met, and they were deeply disturbed not by his behaviors, but because he struggled despite the fact that he is so bright. 

The conversation about my former student got me thinking about not only how some teachers perceive our special needs kids, but also how we as a society view those who are a little different, quirky and differently-abled. It also got me thinking how we as parents must protect our children from the misconceptions derived from the “special needs” label. 

When it becomes clear that our children are struggling not only academically but socially as well, we seek a diagnosis.  We are encouraged to get testing.  We want so much to put a halt to whatever it is that makes our children’s lives so much more difficult than the other kids.  We have our children tested.  We seek the help of therapists and specialists.  We read and read and read what the experts have to say. Initially we are uncomfortable with whatever label is placed upon our children.  We may keep it to ourselves to protect our bright and capable kids from being misunderstood and stigmatized. Then we realize that we are doing our children a disservice by keeping this information to ourselves, so, first, we tell our family and friends. Then we tell the school and teacher; then we find ourselves telling people standing in front of us at the grocery store because they are obviously annoyed that our children are speaking too loudly.  We find ourselves throwing this label around at the park in an effort to explain to parents that our children are not screaming and crying because they are misbehaved but because the park is too crowded and chaotic that day and that makes our children uneasy or because, despite their appearance, some of our children have weak muscle tone and keeping up with the other children at the park is frustrating, and some days it’s just too damn difficult.  We use these labels to explain why our children melt down at birthday parties.  Parties are too loud, too scary for our children who have sensory integration issues. Then we start to use our child’s label to not only explain behaviors but also to make ourselves feel better.  My child behaves that way, not because I am  a bad parent, but because she has x, y or z. Sometimes people get it, but sometimes the people you most expect to understand, the ones you count on, don’t.  Personally, I was shocked to find that some of the relationships I had cultivated began to wane once I put the label out there. Even more disconcerting, many hear the label, whatever it may be, and decide that this must mean that our children are not only different, they are also less capable.

What’s most frustrating is once you muster up the courage to voice that label you have been avoiding; once you put it out there; you hear comments like “those special needs kids” or “Oh yeah. Everyone has a label now a days,” as if we just make this stuff up as a means of explaining our kids’ quirkiness. Sometimes we listen to these comments, and we panic.  We think, “What if they are right? What if we are making excuses?”  Sometimes we react by experimenting.  We decide to “ignore” our children’s diagnosis.  We treat them like every other typical kid.  We get frustrated when they get distracted and forget to do what we ask.  We panic when they cannot concentrate on their school assignments and begin to make mistake after mistake after mistake.  And you know what?  Our kids read our panic and frustration.  They understand, and they begin to question themselves, their abilities, their value, their talents. So, yes, having and understanding our children’s diagnosis is good, but we must be aware of how we use it.  All too easily, something intended to help our children turns into something that, when misinterpreted, becomes damaging.   

I guess the broader question is how do we change society’s misconception of individual’s with those particular “special needs” that set them apart behaviorally?  Clearly the answer lies in the example we adults set for our children and the education we provide them at home.  I have witnessed other adults mock the IT guy in the office I once worked at because he was “strange.”  I have seen neighbors shun another neighbor because she is “weird.”  Perhaps we could lead this change by performing positive actions for our children to witness.  There has been a lot of lip service given to being kind, but being kind is more than just not bullying.  Kindness is an act.  You are not kind just because you don’t do something– although it does make us feel good about ourselves when we decide to refrain from making the snarky comment about the “weird” dude at work.  We cannot expect our children to be kind enough and brave enough to invite the loner, the social misfit to join their friends at the table in the cafeteria, unless we set the example.  We need to invite our off beat neighbors to the neighborhood picnic.  We need to chat with the quirky girl at the grocery school.  We need to befriend the odd man out in he workplace because we all know that the office is just a grown up version of the high school cafeteria, with all of its politics, cruelty and misery.  We need to befriend that outlier of the family, the one that everyone likes to gossip about and criticize. By forging friendships with those different from ourselves, with those who perhaps are a bit socially awkward, with those who really need friends, our children will have the courage to do the same. And I am not talking about forging fake, act of mercy, “gee now I feel good about myself” friendships.  I’m talking about true, “damn I really dig this person” friendships. I’m talking about hanging out with someone and truly appreciating who they are and enjoying their company.  Maybe if we do that, then our kids will be less likely to exclude the “special kids,” less likely to roll their eyes when their quirky classmates do or say something a bit out of the box, less likely to conveniently forget to invite them to the party and learn to truly and sincerely appreciate differences in thought and communication and interests.  Through our example, our children can learn not to patronize and take on quirky kids as pet projects but to embrace them as equals-equally intelligent, equally gifted, equally special. 

The most important thing we as parents of those with attention, sensory, spectrum and other disorders can do is to make sure that our children never feel  less than capable, less intelligent.  Never let your children feel less intelligent.  Never allow anyone to believe that they are less intelligent.  Intelligence is the gift our “special needs” kids (and adults) have been given.  Theirs is a beautifully creative intelligence.  They view the world differently than the rest.  Their lens is shaped by great sensitivity, intense emotions and, unfortunately, sufferance.  Our children are the creators, the ones who march to the beat of their hearts, not the collective drumming of a society and education system that does not fully understand. Of course they can go to college and succeed.  Of course they can excel.  Of course they can be fulfilled and happy…if if if and only if, we, their parents, foster their talents, help them to build confidence and develop self-esteem because, yes, they are special, no more special needs than anyone else, but special.  They have been gifted to us their parents and the world, for they see this world differently.  They navigate it in ways which others wouldn’t dream. They see and perceive in ways that others would not find possible.  They are brilliant and no one should ever, ever think otherwise.

Help! I’m Stuck In Survival Mode!

My Arch Nemesis...The Laundry Hamper

My Arch Nemesis…The Laundry Hamper

The other day a very wise person told me that I am in “survival mode.” I found her statement incredibly enlightening because it is true; I am in survival mode. Survival mode in and of itself is not a terrible place to be.  I mean it’ s not as if I’m in Holy Shit! My Life is Crumbling to Pieces Right in Front of My Eyes mode.  I’ve been there before, so I would recognize that awful place.  Nope.  Thankfully I am not there. When you’re in that place, you feel like you’re a peasant from  the Dark Ages, living in a cruck house, suffering from scurvy and lice and just waiting for the Dear Lord, a neighboring warlord or the bubonic plague to take you out of your misery.   I am also not in Wow! Life is Really Freaking Great mode either.  No.  Not there, unfortunately. Survival mode should more accurately be called Just Barely Keeping My Head Above Water, But, Somehow I’m Managing mode, but that is far too long to either say or type over and over again, so survival mode it is. 

When you are in survival mode, you are still able to experience happiness.  You are still able to hold onto your hopes and dreams.  The problem is that when you are in survival mode, you are only able, in fact, you are often barely able, to make it through your day.  You have your hopes and dreams and plans, but you are unable to see any of them through because you are too busy, well, surviving.  I am too busy muddling through my daily life. Sometimes I don’t even do a very good job with those things that other mothers and homemakers seem to do with ease.

My children create messes faster than I can clean them, and, yes, they are responsible with cleaning up after themselves, but they can’t even keep up with the disasters they create.  I feel like I spend my days caught in the aftermath of a hurricane (this hurricane being a perfect scenario where two storms-Storm Jack and Storm Allegra- converge to create optimal devastation).  Meanwhile, I’m being chased by two tornadoes, whipping around and tossing shit all over the place.  It doesn’t help that Jack, due to some visual perception issues, tends to dump things out in order to find anything.  He doesn’t calmly sift through a drawer of clothes or a bin of toys to find a desired item.  No. In order to locate an item, he dumps everything out and spreads it all over the floor until desired item is found.  I have to say, there’s nothing like the sweet sound of an entire bin of Playmobile figures being dumped all over the floor. 

Never mind the kids, I can’t keep up with a laundry pile that has morphed into something like the blob from the 1958 horror sci/fi movie. Before, I can make a dent in the damned thing it grows and expands, dirty clothes oozing out of the hamper and onto to the floor, spreading faster than any human can possibly manage to keep up with.  Oh, and the dishes.  I can wash dishes for hours, only turn around and find that more dirty dishes have magically appeared in the sink .Add to the dumped bins and spills and laundry and dishes the fact that I am homeschooling my son and attempting to teach two college courses.  Now it’s only the beginning of the semester. Just wait until my students start submitting term papers and research projects.  Also add that I seldom say “no” when the kids ask me to play and never say “no” when they ask me to read to them.  Another point that I have to add is that my husband is a chef and pretty much always at work. 

So what does this all add up to?  One frazzled, wreck of a woman who’s stuck in survival mode. Like I said, I still dream of doing really fabulous things with my family and for myself.  I plan to uuber organize my home Montessori style.  I plan to decorate our home in a lovely fashion.  I plan to read the thousands of books I have piled next to my bed. I plan to take my children to beautiful and exotic places. I just don’t know when or how I’ll do all these things.  When will I stop just surviving?  When will I stop throwing myself down on my bed at the end of the day and saying, “Holy Shit!  What the hell just happened?”

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. You don’t have to be a parent to be in this place.  You can be stuck in survival mode at work, in your relationships, in your own unique life.  Again, it’s not that bad.  We are alive.  We are so lucky compared to those who are in true survival mode, as in those struggling to literally survive without clean water, food, money or their health.  Again, what we are doing is really just barely keeping our heads above water, yet we’re managing.  And we should be grateful to be managing.  That said, as humans, we have the capacity for so much more.  If we didn’t, why would we dream?  We want our lives to be extraordinary.  We want the lives of our children and those we love to be extraordinary.  And they can be.  The question is “how?”  What changes can we make?  What improvements can we make in our own lives in order to enable ourselves to fully enjoy all the extraordinary things that are waiting for us.  I am an eternal optimist.  I will figure this out.  How about you?  Any ideas?

Killing the Arts with their Nonsense

Painted by my grandmother, Margureite Dunne

Painted by my grandmother, Margureite Dunne

As an unhappy teenager, I immersed myself in dance and theater.  The arts enabled me to paradoxically exist and disappear, which worked out well for a kid who felt invisible and, despite the desire to exist and be acknowledged, felt too insecure and uncomfortable to be noticed.  The arts also allowed me the freedom to live in a universe that ran parallel to a reality that, to my young self, was dark and sad. They gave me a voice when I was too shy and self-conscious to speak. They allowed me to holler without a sound and magically create beauty out of ugliness.

Thankfully, I was granted a modest degree of  talent and was able to pursue modern dance as a profession.  As I grew into adulthood, dancing became my drug, better than martinis or sex or cigarettes; although, I must admit, I derived great and perverse pleasure when I emerged damp and tired from the rehearsal studio, ventured out  into the cold New York City night and lit up.  There was just nothing that compared to the sensation of inhaling smoke and cold air into lungs freshly opened from intense physical activity. Ahhhhh..anyways..I am also happy to report that with age came greater happiness, and, when dancing, I achieved moments of pure joy.

Despite the wonderous moments, an artist’s life can be a difficult, dirty and weird one as well.  There were years when I lived like a subterranean rodent and shared my residents with rats and other vermin.  I lived in dangerous neighborhoods in Inwood and the lower east side.  I risked my life getting off the subway in the wee hours of he morning to schlep through the bowels of the city on my way home from working some shitty job to support my dancer’s existence. Thank God dancers don’t eat  because I would have been in trouble if I had to buy food, and I was certainly unwilling to abandon my beloved cigarettes. I love to smoke, and, although it’s been twelve years since my last puff (with the exception of the occasional cigar), I still miss it.

Eventually, I had to give up my artist’s life.  I simply would never make a living as a dancer and with the stress of not having money, health insurance or a safe place to live, I decided it was time to move on.  The thing is, I have never given up my love of the arts.  The other night I sat with Allegra and introduced her to the New York City Ballet.  We watched excerpts from Balanchine’s Jewels and the dancing was exquisite. We watched another YouTube video which included an interview with Peter Martins, New York City Ballet’s Artistic Director.  He spoke of the importance of the orchestra and the musicality of NYCB  dancers and explained how Balanchine’s choreography was about the music. I know the dancer’s love of music.  I understand how the low sad strains of a cello can flood you with tears and how the glorious notes of the violin as it makes its way up the scale can cause your heart to burn.  I guess that is why I always found over intellectualized modern dance numbers executed in silence to be obnoxious.

Even more bizarre to me than some of the avant garde modern dance pieces I have seen are some of the dance numbers I witnessed at the talent show of my son’s former parochial school. I guess I should preface this by stating that I simply don’t get what so many of the local dance studios are teaching the kids.  I do know that the parents are constantly buying bedazzled costumes for dance competitions.  How is it possible that dance competitions for six years olds even exist?  I mean, how can these studios possibly be instilling a love of the art form when the focus is competition?  I am confused. Are we talking about cheerleading or dancing?  What about the abstract expression of emotion?  What about developing a deep understanding and appreciation of the music?  Well…  at the aforementioned talent show many young students from the local competition dance academies performed, and I was appalled.  There was no artistry, no musicality, no technique.  There were, however, ridiculous movements set to songs with inappropriate lyrics.  What they are teaching children in these studios is not art, it is bedazzled suburban bullshit, or burbshit if you will. Dance studios are businesses, and they thrive in the burbs where parents are all too willing to enroll their children in whatever they think everyone else’s kids are doing.   In the burbs parents pay boatloads of money on lessons and clubs and teams, not necessarily because their children express an interest in these things but because they feel they should be doing these things.   I cannot help but question what these parents will say in ten or twelve years if their children express an interest in pursuing dance on a professional level.  Will they support their children entering the artist community or will they frown upon it and encourage their kids to enter more stable (ha!)  fields like finance, business and law? If they do encourage their children to pursue their dreams, then why not start them off in a reputable institution that respects the art form.  AND if they would never stand for their children becoming artists,  why expose them to it at all, especially on such a base level?  I guess the answer to that is that it’s just what suburban kids do and also perhaps a broad range of extracurriculars looks good on the college application.  Great.  Way to suck the soul out of the art form.

Speaking of sucking the soul out of the art, I also had a deeply disturbing experience at a local music studio.  Last year I enrolled Jack, then seven, in drum lessons.  I love drumming (listening, not playing) and Jack loves music, so we were both very excited to start.  As I have mentioned before, my Jack has some special needs, and, at the time, Jack was enrolled in school. For him, each day was more painful than the next, everyday bringing with it a new failure and additional blow to his already fragile self-esteem.  We enrolled him in music class to bring a bit of joy into his difficult week.  It was supposed to be fun and stress free.  And the first class was great.  His teacher had him tap along on his drum pad while he played Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” When class was over, Jack was pumped and eager to return the following week.  It was during the second class that things took a turn for the worse.  I observed from the window, so I know exactly when everything went south, which was when the instructor attempted to teach Jack how to read the notes.  Now Jack has attention issues, so what do you think he did after already having a long, hard day at school?  He zoned out. He quietly zoned out.  After class I was politely informed by his instructor that there was nothing more he could do with Jack and that I should buy him a play drum set.  Come again?! Dude, you’re a drumming teacher.  Your student is seven years old.  Why don’t you just ask him what kind of music he likes and let him follow along as you play?  Why don’t you just talk about music?  Why don’t you just let him play on the drum and you help him learn through discovery?  Why don’t you care?  Why don’t you give a fuck?  He’s a quirky kid, probably going to be some kind of artist.  He’s a bright kid.  He’s an interesting and passionate kid.  Why can’t you just show the slightest bit of interest?  Oh that’s right.  You work at the suburban music factory where all the “normal” kids of the world are sent to follow your curriculum and where the parents check to make sure that their current seven year olds and future masters of the universe learn to read as well as robotically play music.  Again-burbshit. What the hell would these people do with a true maniac artist?  Where would  Gelsey Kirkland or Van Gogh or Miles Davis or Foster Wallace or…stand in their esteem?

So, my advice to parents who want to instill a true love of the arts in their children is to first teach them yourself.  Listen to classical masterpieces, watch theater and dance productions, read great literature and talk about it, the nuances, the meaning, the underlying emotions.  Seek art in life, in it’s joy and grief.  Look at frozen ponds and enjoy the splendor of the ice sparkling like crystal in the sun.  Sit at the beach on a dark, gray day and seek the inspiration that Turner and Winslow Homer found.  Stand in your backyard on a cold winter morning and enjoy the silence and peace that only a winter morning can bring.  Find art in life, then find true lovers of art to teach your children.  Ignore bells and whistles and promises of sparkly polyester costumes and dance competition glory.  Look for passion,experience and sincerity, and, when you find that, you will find worthy mentors for your children.  And in supporting true artists, we save art.

The Domestically Challenged Homemaker’s Christmas Recap

photo.JPG Christmas

Merry Christmas! How was your holiday?  Oh, I am so happy that you had a great time.  How was my holiday you ask?  Well…ummm… Do you want the “correct” answer or the honest one? If you want to know the truth, my Christmas was 45% life is a bowl of peppermint sticks and elves shit mocha and 55% holy crap, can this get any worse? 

As a domestically challenged homemaker, Christmas presents many hurdles.  I never feel that I have it all together and during Christmas, whatever I did manage to get together falls apart.  What makes Christmas extra difficult is the barrage of pictures of perfect families enjoying traditional Christmas pastimes that we all receive.  They serve as a constant reminder of my own inadequacies. You know what I’m talking about, those Christmas cards and Facebook shots of angelic children baking cookies, decorating Christmas trees, sitting on Santa’s lap and their moms and dads posting things like “a perfect Christmas moment” and “Cards are out. Tree is decorated. Just one more batch to add to my already 108 perfect batches of Christmas cookies and we’re ready for Santa.” I have to admit that I have plenty of beautiful pictures of my kids doing adorably Christmassy things. But for each smiling shot I have about three other shots of a crying child. I don’t know about you, but all those Facebook posts and Christmas cards just serve to magnify my already glaring shortcomings. My messy home and crying child stand in stark contrast to the images of smiling faces  and perfect houses I see everywhere. And you know what really sucks? I try really, really hard to have everything in order and happy for Christmas. I guess this homemaking thing is just not my bag.

That said, each year the Nanni’s host Christmas Eve, and we always manage to pull it off in the nick of time, despite the fact that Giorgio works that afternoon and usually doesn’t arrive home until around 5:00 or 6:00.  This year, however, was exceptionally chaotic.  Let me just say that at 4:30 pm Christmas Eve I raced into the neighborhood liquor store to pick up the ingredients we needed to create the snowball martinis that were going to dazzle our guests with that evening. As I stepped into the store and said hello to my buddy behind the counter, I began to giggle. Not a happy giggle. The other kind. The nervous one that I can’t control. And as I was giggling I asked “Do you think I can get home, clean my house, have the kids gifts wrapped and be ready for guests to arrive by 6:30?” The problem is that as I was giggling, my eyes began to well up. Shit. I could feel the tears coming, and I knew. I knew that any second I would begin the simultaneous laugh and cry. Now that is a very poor indication of my mental well being and it only happens during the most high stress situations. Somehow, someway, I swallowed the tears, but continued to giggle. My friend assured me that I would in fact make it and what I needed was a cocktail…or ten. Ironically, given my aversion to Christmas Facebook posts (I really have a love hate relationship with FB) and my limited time, as soon as I pulled into my driveway and before I entered the house, I was compelled to post the following on FB:

I’m in the weeds!!! Okay, can’t have a heart attack on Christmas eve.  That would really suck for the kids.  I’ll make it.  Right??? Wait, Christmas shouldn’t be like this.  LOL (perhaps though I should be crying).

Why ever did I post that?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it was cathartic.  Perhaps I wanted support.  Perhaps I wanted someone else to say, “yep, I’m in shit too.”  I don’t know. I do know that a few kindhearted people actually responded with assurances that all would be well, and those comments helped. The big question, however, is how does one find herself in such a state on Christmas eve?

There are three factors the contributed to my Christmas chaos.  One, I teach college English, which means that during December I am swamped with portfolios to grade and final grades to be submitted, Two, my husband is a chef and December is the busiest time of year, so he practically lives at work during the Christmas season.  Three, my son has sensory issues.  If you are familiar with SPD, you know how Christmas can be very trying for anyone who struggles with it.  This year these three factors converged to create the perfect holiday storm.  Oh yeah, I forgot to add the fourth and most obvious factor which you already know…I am clinically diagnosed as being domestically challenged. 

So this is how Christmas played out.  Giorgio was supposed to arrive home at 5:00 Christmas Eve but didn’t walk into the door until 6:45.  Thank God I had the wherewithal to call the guests and ask them to come at 7 instead of 6:30.  We pulled it together.  The evening was fun.  We laughed, ate, drank.  Good times.  The guests departed at 11:30 and Giorgio and I cleaned until 12:00. I managed to get my little one to sleep, but my son has sleep issues and didn’t fall asleep until around 2:00 am at which time my husband and I proceeded to wrap gifts for three hours.  At 5:00 we made our way to bed.  Unfortunately, we managed to wake our son up on our way, and he never went back to sleep.  Needless to say, Giorgio and I didn’t sleep at all.  With everyone, aside from Allegra, suffering from extreme sleep deprivation, Christmas day, without boring you with the details, was challenging.  Before I passed out that night I surfed the internet for blogs on special needs children and the challenges Christmas presents.  I just didn’t want to feel alone.  I wanted some confirmation that it wasn’t just my lack of domestic homemaking prowessphoto.JPG Christmas that led to our less than blissful holiday. And you know what?  I did find some comforting stories shared by parents who are far more generous with sharing information than I am.  For that I was very grateful.  And, on a truly positive note, Allegra had a great time for herself.  She enjoyed all the preparations leading up to the big day (cookie baking, gingerbread house making, Nutcracker Suite watching, tree decorating and Santa visiting)  and Christmas day itself. 

So will this domestically challenged wretch of a woman do anything different next year?  Maybe some things, but not all . I am an eternal optimist.  I have hope that next year will go more smoothly.  I hope that our lives will be more peaceful, less chaotic.  All I know is that despite all the insanity of the holiday, we are okay. Christmas night Giorgio and I tucked our children into bed and kissed them and told them we loved them and really, that’s all that matters.  They are here.  We are here together.  The four of us.  I know I often end my posts this way, but it is how I feel. I complain about my shit, but I am a lucky woman ( a wreck yes, but a lucky person none the less).  Wishing all of you a peaceful, healthy and happy new year!

The Lesson My Children Taught Me


I love the Beatles’ song “Let It Be.”

When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom, let it be *

This song is a part of the soundtrack of my life. When I listen to the news and learn of great inexplicable tragedy, I find myself playing it over and over again in my head. It is remarkably comforting. Despite the fact that Paul McCartney wrote this song about his own mother, and, given my extreme ambivalence towards matters of religion, it strikes me as somewhat odd that I still like to think that the song is about the Blessed Mother, and, now that I no longer give a shit if it sounds uncool, I am okay with admitting this. Although I have been engaged in my own personal battle with my religion for years, I find great comfort in the divine Mother Mary. She is a mother’s ideal: a gentle, patient, ever comforting presence. I have no delusions of grandeur, but as a parent, I do strive to be gentle, patient and comforting, and I hope when I am gone, many, many years from now, my children will remember me in this way. But what of this idea of letting it be? As parents we strive to help, to fix, to make everything better for our children. What of letting it be? Letting them be? This week both my children taught me lessons in how to do this. What I learned is that letting it be can painful, liberating, inevitable and right.

The first part my lesson was delivered by Allegra, my four year old daughter. I volunteered to help out for muffin baking at preschool. This year Allegra has blossomed socially and has even made a best friend. Last year, if I had volunteered in her class she would cling to my leg and not only not let go but also not allow any other child to come within five feet of me. Soooo, with last year still fresh in my mind, I was a bit apprehensive about showing up at school, just when she is beginning to make true friendships. That said, this is her last year before “big kid” school, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in her class for the morning. I thought it through and had a plan in place-if, in any way, my presence was disruptive for her, I would leave (great plan right?).

Well I am happy (and sad) to say that my dear soul sister Allegra did not give a damn if I was there or not. Actually, I just lied; she didn’t want me there at all. As a matter of fact, she actually pushed me away when I attempted to sit next to her at cicle time (talk about feeling like an ass). To feel relief and loss at the same time-what a strange experience! But those were my feelings, relief and loss. On one hand, I felt a sense of pride and victory and relief. I was so proud of my littlest one. I had sent her out into the world, and she found happiness. She found friendship. She is a glorious creature. On the other hand, well, it hurt…it hurt a lot. You see, Allegra and I, from the day I brought her home from the hospital, have been attached at the hip. Literally, we have been attached at the hip. For the first two years of her life, she loved to be held, so I held her. I held her on my hip. I held her on my hip as much as I could. I cooked and cleaned and did pretty much everything other than drive with her on my hip. As she got a bit older and too big to constantly be held, she remained as close as possible to my side. And she has remained by my side until a few weeks ago. Recently, I have noticed that she has needed me less and less. She wants to be a “big girl” and as such, wants to do most things on her own…like a “big girl.” And I want to scoop her up. I so want to pick her up and yell “Stop! Please stop! Don’t grow so fast. What’s the rush little one? Just stay with me a bit longer.” But that is wrong. She is happy. This is as it should be. This is life. This is my job, to let her grow, to let her go, to let it be. Let life take it’s course Heather. Let it be. Let her be. Don’t be selfish. Don’t hold her back. Let her be. Let it be.

And now onto my Jack. Jack gave me my second lesson in learning how to let it be. Jack doesn’t run with the pack. He is a lone wolf, a wonderfully brilliant, kind, unique and creative lone wolf. Unless he is with those family members who are closest to him, with whom he has deep and meaningful relationships, Jack prefers to be on his own. Of course, I worry. In the society in which we live it’s all about being a member of a team; there are sports teams, work teams, cooperative teams at school and teams on the playground. And if it’s not teams, it’s partners. Work on your math with a partner, play catch with a partner, complete this project with a partner. Jack doesn’t like working with teams and partners. I have pushed him to engage in group activities. I have encouraged him to try to enjoy playdates. How stupid is that? How can you possibly encourage someone to enjoy what they do not like? Why would you ever try to encourage (force) someone to learn to “like” something they do not like? Jack is not anti-social. He loves deeply and has meaningful relationships with those dear to him. Period. That is how he is now. He may change in the future. Who knows? But for now, he just doesn’t enjoy teams, groups and artifically “manufactured” by your parents relationships.

That said, the other day I asked our babysitter to come by so that I could run some errands. When I told Jack that the sitter was coming, he asked if he could run errands with me. Jack has never asked to run errands with me. I was thrilled. So I tweaked my plans to include lunch at IHOP. When our sitter arrived, I gave Allegra a kiss (Allegra loves her babysitter. Rightfully so; she is a wonderful woman) and off I went with Jack. At lunch we talked about life, about where we want to travel, about Christmas. He played the game on the IHOP placememat and identified the flags of various countries. The Australian flag got us talking about penal colonies and Britain and Australia and the United States and Jamestown. Then, somehow, we moved on to animals and log cabins and having a farm and Christmas and how great it would be to live in a log cabin on a farm and decorate it for Christmas. It was awesome. Then, rather than run errands, we ran around the mall looking at Christmas decorations (I know. I know. It’s early, but Jack LOVES Christmas). I can sincerely say that I had soooooo much fun, and I know Jack did too. That night I thought about my Jack. I thought, let him be. Let him be. He is lovely. He is brilliant. He is kind and gentle. He loves Christmas and log cabins and animals and his family. He loves his dog and blue skys at 4:00 pm on winter days (something we all learned to appreciate from his Uncle Sean). He loves the book Owl Moon. Let him be Heather. Stop pushing. He is perfectly imperfect. He is Jack, wonderful, beautiful Jack.

These are not times of trouble and darkness in our house. Our children are healthy. All is well. Every night I am blessed to kiss them on their soft cheeks and know that they are okay. All is well. Let them be Heather. Let them be.

* McCartney, Paul. Beatles. “Let It Be.” EMI, Apple Records, Lyrics. 1970.

Mrs. Nanni Makes a Home…With the Help of Her Blog

How about a picture? Curtains? Color?Anything?!!!

How about curtains? Color?Anything?!!!

I have read a few articles by writers who state that blogging has made them better people, and I get it. It really makes complete sense. At the end of the day I don’t want to read my blog and realize that I am nothing more than the member of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, recounting sad tales of my days and providing myself with the insights I could have used in real time rather than in hindsight. Worse yet, I don’t want to read my blog and realize I have been the protagonist in my own life, jacking things up for myself and everyone around me. While it’s one thing to employ self-effacement for humor and levity, it’s another thing to just be an ass. Soooo…what’s my point?

I think I should begin with this. It is a fact that I am domestically challenged. In my adult life, I have yet to make a house a home in the physical sense. For me, experience transcends the material. Following this logic, as long as there is deep love and joy and excitement, some sense of joie de vivre, then the actual setting where life takes place has been relatively unimportant. My thought has been if you take away the happiness of experience then you hold to the setting, the material, for some sort satisfaction. My reasoning, however is deeply flawed.

While I keep a clean home, it is stark. I have simply been too busy living life with my family to give it much attention. When we first moved into our house I had grand decorating plans. I had the children’s rooms freshly painted. I bought beautiful comfortors with matching curtains. I even hung the curtains, until I took them down to have our windows replaced. Now they sit in a closet, almost forgotten because I have been too busy living life.

The question is, have I been living my life or have I been consumed by my life? It’s not as though I’m always happy. I worry…A LOT. I am stressed…A LOT. I work all the time. I am tired. It really would be so nice to have a warm and inviting place to rest at the end of the day. But I didn’t give this much thought until last week.

Giorgio and I were sitting in the kitchen when our Jack came in with a catalog from some home furnishing company. It was their winter issue and in it were pictures of homes beautifully decorated for Christmas. Jack loves Christmas and winter and snow. He loves to look at Norman Rockwell’s painting of main street Stockbridge at Christmastime. He loves images of Sundblom’s Santa sitting by a roaring fire and paintings of villages during winter with their white steepled churches and homes with illuminated windows that leave the viewer to imagine the cheer and warmth and fragrance that is within. While Jack was sitting in the kitchen showing us his catalog, his eyes filled up. When asked “why” he responded, “It’s just so beautiful.” This is the moment that I realized that setting really does matter.

Of course setting matters. Yes you can perform a play in a black box theater, but the brilliance of that is that each audience member gets to set it as they like, as his imagination deem best. I feel that my Jack and Allegra lack for nothing other than a setting. Jack craves warmth and coziness, and I am sure Allegra does as well. Yes, they have all they could possibly need and more, toys and books and clothes and joyful experiences and the great love of parents who have placed them at the center of their universe. But they don’t have a beautiful setting for which to settle their memories. As time marches forward and memories become more and more distant from the actual experiences those feelings they had as children will need to be paired with images just as powerful in order to survive their battle against time and old age. More importantly, they need the experience of a warm and inviting home now because they deserve it. We all do. Home is not just an abstraction. It is physical; it is material, and as such, it should be beautiful. I know. I know. Most everyone else figured this our ages ago.

So this brings me back to my initial point. How will I use this blog to make me a better person? Each month I will post pictures of the progress I make as I attempt to transform the Nanni house into a home…in the physical sense. I don’ want to just make a joke out of my lack of domestic prowess; although, it does provide some pretty decent comedic material. I don’t want to look back and regret that I never paid attention to the setting of our life together as a family. Here goes. Wish me luck.

Oh. You Are Also a Specialist? Of What, If You Don’t Mind My Asking?

    A few years back, we were invited to vacation at my husband’s boss’s beach house. One evening we were dining out on the patio, which happened to abutt the path down to the shore, when two ladies from the neighborhood attempted to pass us while taking their nightly stroll to the beach. As the ladies passed, and before Giorgio and I knew what was happening, our then four year old son hopped up and said, “Ladies, would you like to join us for a bottle of wine?” Being the persistent little fellow he is, when the ladies giggled and declined, my dear Jack then continued, “Well then, how about a brandy?” This is the same little boy, who very recently at the age of seven, alarmed us by asking, “What if we don’t really exist? What if this is all a dream?” He has been described as an old soul and free spirit, and, yes, he is in fact both. He is charming and precocious and very intelligent, and he HATES school. He has learning differences and sensory issues which have made his experiences with school quite unpleasant and continue to make finding an appropriate educational setting a challenge. As an educator, it drives me mad to think that learning has become such an unpleasant, onerous task for my bright and curious little boy, and I have made it my mission to find a way to make learning and life, as joyful and wonderous as is realistically possible.

    In fulfilling this mission, Giorgio and I have learned is that there are an awful lot of experts and specialists out there. I mean there are specialists that super specialize in the specialists’ specialities. There are soooo many people who want to help out there. What I also figured out is that “helping” our children has become and industry and a lucrative one at that. I mean one family with one child with learning differences can spend thousands, upon thousands of dollars. We pay the college tuitions of our specialist’s children while we ourselves become increasingly stressed because after we dole out all our money to special schools and experts and specialists, we can’t even afford to register our kids for dance class much less pay for their education, which was our main concern to begin.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical, and I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I believe there is no place for specialists and experts. When our children are struggling it is our obligation as parents to seek help. It’s just that we need to be cautious. We need to be savvy consumers. WE need to determine when our work with a specialist has run its course. We also need to discern when we really need the services of another party and when we as parents can, with time and research, provide appropriate services ourselves.

    When we began our quest to help our son, we dove in a rabbit hole and into a surreal world where everyone is an “expert” and where the only thing “experts” can do for you is refer you to other “experts” (with whom they share an office) whereupon they hand you a bill and where only one thing is certain…all experts charge fees that are staggering.

    Just this past week, Giorgio and I had an appointment with one of the many specialists we have consulted over the past few years. Prior to our appointment, I spent two hours filling out a twelve page questionnaire, which was to be reviewed by said specialist prior to our meeting. Two hours! Twelve Pages! Prior to meeting! Giorgio was immediately suspicious and repeatedly asked me why we were writing answers to questions about topics we should be discussing in person. I reassured him, certain that this was just preliminary “stuff” and that we would elaborate on our answers during our $300 per one hour not covered by insurance appointment, an appointment which required Giorgio to rearrange his work schedule and me to make childcare arrangements.

    Well, Mr. Specialist’s office is an hour plus away from our home, so we frantically raced out of our house, dropped the kids with my parents and arrived ten minutes early. So you can imagine my disappointment when ten minutes after appointment time, our specialist hadn’t come into the waiting room to greet us. I have to say, I’ve got a real “thing” about waiting…it pisses me off. I just believe that we are called upon to wait much too often. For the majority of us, if we are late for an appointment, we are deeply disturbed and apologetic towards whoever we have kept waiting. Yet, doctors, specialists and so many others seem to feel as if our time is less valuable than their time. Anyway, the receptionist must have heard me bitching to Giorgio because she quickly disappeared and promptly returned to tell us that Mr. Specialist was in a meeting and would be with us soon. Five minutes later, he emerged, alone, so I wonder who the hell he was meeting. One thing was for sure, I was going to make damned sure he gave us the full hour, the $300 hour, the hour of gold.

    Since I now have a significant amount of experience, I have changed my approach. While I am always nice and respectful, it is no longer important that the specialist likes me. I make my needs clear up front. This time I informed him that we are not wealthy people and that we are frustrated because everyone we consult refers us to someone else. Well do you know how the meeting turned out? At some point during our visit it became painfully clear that Mr. Specialist never read our two hours worth of paperwork. He perseverated on one topic, of only minor interest to my husband and I, and, in the end, he referred us to an educational consultant who works in his office. With a bit of research we learned that this consultant would charge us a minimum of $750 for her services. Oh yeah, after only forty minutes he started to look at his watch. When he attempted to end the appointment at the scheduled time, despite the fact that he was fifteen minutes late,I kept him talking until the full hour was up. Go girl.

    After our appointment, Giorgio headed off to work, and I returned home, frazzled and anxious. And I got to thinking. All that time lost. I could and should have been home with my kids, teaching, playing, mothering! Instead, I wasted time. And I have wasted soooo much time visiting specialists and special schools.

    I once visited a school, a thirty thousand plus a year school, which is located in a very affluent community in Connecticut. It seemed great. Prior to my visit, I read their website which explained that they incorporate original play into their curriculum. Play! Great! We love to play (I either didn’t notice or completely ignored the word original)! Jack will love a school that allows a little bit of fun! During my visit everything looked great:students appeared happy, teachers seemed nice. There was nothing strange about the place at all…until the discussion turned to original play. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Silly me for thinking it was normal human play because, as it was explained to me, it actually mirrors animal play. The kids roll around on a mat; a teacher facilitates. And guess what? In eighth grade, if they’re really good at this original play thing, the kids get to travel to Florida to swim with the manatees. Are you kidding, you ask? No, sadly I am not. Strange right? Of course when I got home I researched original play and let me tell you, it is very hard to find out anything other than a clip on YouTube where a big bearded burly man demonstrates how it’s done. Perhaps I am a sceptic, but I prefer to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and educated. Evaluating research was a big part of my graduate studies. You know; instruction should be researched based and good research studies require thousands of subjects and a control group and blah, blah, blah. Why is it then that educators are engaging in practices when there clearly is not enough research to support those practices.

    A larger question is how do specialists and educators get parents to subscribe to their practices? The answer, I believe, is that desperate parents are easy to exploit. I don’t mean to suggest that these professionals are intentionally exploiting parents; most are well meaning. Regardless, parents are being exploited. When we as parents see that our children are struggling and are told that we need to do something about it, we desperately seek out those who can help. I am beginning to realize, however, that there may be something fundamentally wrong with our process. Sometimes because our children are different we are made to feel that they are broken and that they need to be fixed and changed and altered by experts and specialists. What would have happened if teams of professionals “fixed” the young Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill, both of whom were quirky kids and bad students?

    Professional educators, therapists and specialists do have an important role to play. They can help. They have helped me. I have met some great specialists. We shouldn’t feel that in order to be good parents or viewed as good parents we need to constantly seek the help of “experts.” We as parents are the only TRUE experts of our children. Sometimes, rather than shuttling our kids from one appointment to another to be evaluated, analyzed and over analyzed and spending hours on the computer and telephone searching for professional help, our children would be better served if we just spent those extra hours with them , learning their patterns, understanding what works for them and what doesn’t. In a world full of experts, we have lost our confidence as parents, and we need to reclaim that. No one will ever know or love our children as we do. Our instincts and opinions count. We know when our children are just different, when they just need another approach or another way to learn and when we need the help of knowledgable professionals. We know. We know when it’s a matter of doing something different or better as parents and when we need to seek outside help because we just don’t know what to do. We know when to say “help” and we know when to say “enough!” We must trust ourselves and know.