Bob and I are on our morning walk, our ears tuned in to the new warblers that have come into the area this week, our eyes honed to catch glimpses of them along the side of the dirt road. This has become a deeply pleasurable ritual for us: the girls get their own breakfasts and start their lessons while we take an hour to amble through the state land before starting the day. Where we used to only be able to take walks together with children in tow, now all we need to do is carry a cell phone.
And it rings. It’s Ula.
“Umm…Aren’t we done with school now?”
“What do you mean, aren’t we done?”
“We were supposed to be done by lambing season. And we did school all through lambing season and I couldn’t go to the farm all day. I could only go in the afternoons.”
“I never said we’d be done by lambing season.”
“We’re supposed to be done by lambing season. We’re always done by lambing season.”
“We’ll talk about this when I get home.”
Truth is, Saoirse was done with school by lambing season. Saoirse has an encyclopedic memory. She masters her lessons with ease, takes online classes and absorbs everything the teacher presents. Ula, who has cerebral visual impairment, faces a different educational reality. Outside of the life challenges she faces when coping with crowds or new environments, the basic act of learning is a huge hurdle. Her visual memory is poor. While she remembers spoken dialog with accuracy that would be the envy of any trial lawyer, when it comes to visual material, she can have facts mastered one day, then completely forget them the next. Her processing speed is extremely low. What goes in takes a long time to be absorbed, and then can be quickly forgotten. Reading is physically painful. Then add to the mix the high expectations of an otherwise bright and articulate child — one who has developed an awareness of her mind; who is intelligent enough to know she is struggling with things that come easily to her peers; and you have a landmark symptom of a learning disability: self loathing. Self-loathing beats up the brain, filling with it with self doubt. When it rears its beastly head, learning becomes almost impossible. When the brain is functioning well and Ula feels good, and learning happen. The web of axon terminals and dendrites surrounding brain cells grows thick and complex, enabling connections to be made faster. But when negative emotions go into the mix, the development stops again. The web shrivels and withers. The connections grow weaker. Un-learning begins.*
And so, learning for her looks different. We spend a lot of time on vision therapy, to help her brain and eyes learn to work together. And when it comes to lessons, we go slower. We take more breaks. We work fewer hours. The aim is to keep her rested, cheerful, and engaged.
And as Bob and I walk home, and I consider the debate I face with her, I have to allow that she’s worked miracles lately. In the past, we’ve had doctors tell us she might not learn to read. She might not be able to learn math. This year, in spite of her joy in her special ed reading class that she took one hour each day at school, she dropped the class, claiming that she needed more time to read independently. Regular print books are still an enormous challenge, but she’ll stay up late at night with graphic novels and large-print books. Her appetite for recorded books is insatiable. And with math, in the past two weeks, something new has clicked. She has started to learn her multiplication facts, she is grasping the concept of making change. She is probably one or two years behind her peers, but she is making progress. And she and I are both learning that being “slow,” doesn’t mean “unintelligent.”
But these improvements don’t happen on their own. They are the result of daily work. Because if the brain doesn’t get practice, then the axons and dendrites can’t grow and continue to form their complex web. Summer vacation has its hazards.
But then there’s the farm. Ula’s super hero is Kate, our herd manager. Like Kate, Ula watches the animals with a level of attention neither her father nor I can sustain. She loves nothing more than to trail after her, sponging up everything she can, helping in any way possible. She tunes in to the animals’ health. She takes pleasure in watching them. Like my brother (a marine biologist), she is fascinated by the ponds and streams at Sap Bush Hollow. If allowed, she’d collect every sample of aquatic life on the farm to observe and tend.
Knowing how important all this is to her, I’ve let her go to the farm nearly every afternoon. But the warblers are here, the leaves are on the trees, and for Ula, a little afternoon time isn’t enough. And as Bob and I near the end of our walk home, I consider something else: My own hang-ups. So many parents I know tell stories of how exceptionally bright their children are — How they excel in school, how they need to find more intellectual challenges for their precocious children. In my bitter and sarcastic moments, I mock them as being victims of gifted-child-consumerism. But in the darker corners of my mind, there are days when I feel like I’ve done something wrong….Perhaps I haven’t gotten my child what she needs to succeed, or I haven’t worked hard enough with her, or we aren’t dedicated enough to her learning. From an objective distance, I can understand that Ula is moving forward beautifully, defying what was thought impossible. But my own insecurities harp that we cannot rest until she’s all caught up.
Then my mind lands on that operative word: rest. For Ula, we’ve learned rest is imperative to make learning happen. Of course she wants to succeed. She will push herself. But if her eyes are tired, she only makes more and more mistakes with her school work. There are times I physically intervene, ordering her away from her papers, assuring her that if she will just go play for a while, the work will be easier later. Those are short rests in the face of continued attention to learning. But what about long rests? Don’t they have a place, too, in refreshing the joy of academics? Is the price of slipping backward worth the renewed interest it can spark?
She isn’t the only one who needs rest, I realize. Because while Ula’s education is important, her learning issues are not my issues. I cannot make them my identity. I have things that matter to me, too. This family farm needs attention. There are lots of things happening, lots of changes to consider, and lots of invention is in order to keep things viable, interesting and fresh. This farm and my creative work are as much a part of me as my children’s needs. They represent my own personal dreams. I push them aside often to school my kids, but there are times, like now, with growing markets and new business ideas, when I simply don’t want to relegate my dreams to the fringe hours. And if I can give them more conscious attention, I rest my teaching mind, too. I allow my energy to rejuvenate so that I can return to this child’s development in a few months. Meanwhile, there are other lessons she will be learning from me: that raising a family does not mean sacrificing all the things that matter to us personally.
But that means being comfortable with the idea of Ula being “behind,” in the traditional academic sense. It means letting the straight-A student inside me wear the dunce cap for the summer. It means trusting that Ula has had a good taste of the joys of being able to read and do math; that, given the opportunity to blend them in with the farm life she craves, she’ll be able to come back to them, even if it isn’t with the same speed and facility as her peers. And most importantly, she’ll have time off to relish learning in the areas where she excels. And so will I.
*For those of you who are newer to this blog, I wrote more about Ula’s learning issues and the limited lessons I’ve learned about neuroplasticity a few years ago.