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More Than Words

Thirty minutes. A small pile of worksheets. An over scheduled public speech specialist. And--stamp! My son is "learning disabled."

The therapist pushes her thin-rimmed glasses up her nose and sighs, looking at the clock instead of my eyes. "Samuel's speech skills are highly undeveloped. He's unaware of concepts like gender and seasons. He refers to himself and others in the third person. His sentences never venture beyond four words." She points at the bottom of a purple swirl of a graph in her assessment book, indicating that in the sea of preschool speech skills, my son is pond scum level.

At my feet Sam sits criss-cross applesauce. His narrowed hazel eyes have a distant look of desperateness in them that tell me what his vocabulary would fail to explain. He wants to leave. He hasn't liked this artificial environment--a strange lady shoving white cards in his face, repeating in slow words as if he were a foreigner, "Samuel, how many ducks do you see? Samuel! Look at my face. HOW MANY?"

The therapist continues to explain things while I copy our personal information in Sam's file.
"The Early Intervention Preschool is four days a week for three and a half hours. The school district will take care of everything. We'll bus him. A little less than one hour each way. Provide snacks. We don't allow parents to attend, of course. Distracts the distractable. You understand."

Sam tugs on my coat. "Mama! Sammy play ball," he says. He's talking about the soccer game we saw on the way in. He found the older boys' zigzagging fascinating.

"Here's the ball," the therapist says, handing Sam a blue foam ball she used during her evaluation. I open my mouth, about to explain Sam's intentions for him--something I do a couple dozen times a day. But really, the therapist wouldn't care what Sam really meant. So I hand him the blue ball and tell him, by widening my eyes, Wait for just a minute, Mister, and we'll be outta here.

"Just sign these papers, Mrs. Cope, and we'll be all set."

My chest tightens as I grip a blue BIC from my purse. I scheduled this appointment. They aren't forcing this on me. So why am I hesitating? The program is wonderful. The teachers experts, other parents tell me. It's great to have a break from the whining without having to fork over a dime, they say.

As I pause, I add up the time in my head. My four year old should be away from me for the greater part of each day because he calls himself, "Sammy" instead of "Me?" It all feels like too much too soon. The thought enters my mind, "How can this woman, in a few minutes, know what is best for my son?"

She can't. I know she can't. The problem is that I don't know what's best either. On the graph of parental empowerment, I'm scraping bottom. Ever since Sam's premature birth when the nurses had barked at me, "Don't touch him like that! He'll never saturate!" "Ah! you're loosening the tubes!" I felt high jacked as a parent. My motherhood motto developed early into the following: Step aside. Let the experts take over. You're just the incidental caregiver.

But now the seemingly unsolvable dilemma of my relationship with Sam was surfacing for air. The problem was this--Experts claim to know what to do with Sam, but they don't truly care about him. I truly care about Sam, but I don't know what to do with him. All the while Sam is trying to find his own way and struggling. Like in the NICU when Sam's ventilator tube passed between his vocal chords, he could cry and cry for what he really needed, and not me, not anyone would hear him.

The following Monday a small yellow bus pulls up and Sam climbs up the giant first step on all fours and then stands still. Doesn't look around for direction. Just kind of waits for somebody to plunk him where he needs to be. He doesn't look back to me for an explanation as to why he should leave with all these strangers and it's supposed to be okay. My words, like the great stew of every other grownup's words, would just sound like gibberish with a few recognizable nouns and verbs sprinkled in. I also sense for the first time that Sam knows when other grownups step up, Mom steps aside. He's on his own. This pierces me deeply.

Little sister Sophia screams in agony as the bus pulls away, waking baby Logan in his ring sling. Before I can grab her pink hood to stop her she's in the road, screaming and running after the bus. "Sam! Sam! Come back!" Finally she collapses. I carry her to the sidewalk and we cry together.

Sophia is jumping up and down when the same bus pulls up later in the afternoon. I try to ask Sam about his day. But all he says is, "No raisins." He seems tired, but generally calm and content.

The next day we go through the same routine. And the next and the next. Weeks pass. Sam climbs on the bus. Sophie screams. He steps off. Tells me one or two things about snack time. My heart feels limp in my chest, and I wonder what about all this isn't adding up for our family.

Maybe I'm just bothered because deep down I sense Sam is developmentally okay among all the other students with real cognitive problems. He just needs to be given time to speak, I suspect, like he needed a little extra time to learn to walk. On the other hand, what is preschool hurting? Why not let him go? My confusion is dark, rainless cloud, following me everywhere. This must be how Sam feels, unable to find words to articulate what is going on inside, I think.

I call the school after Sam comes home crying. Not his "somebody took my toy" tears. His "frantic, lash-out, overwhelmed with something" tears. The bus attendant tells me something bad has happened at school but refuses to give me details. So I hesitantly pick up the phone and call the preschool. His teacher's response? "Everything's fine. Sam's fine. I've got a meeting. Bye!"

So much for sentences with more than five words.

The same thing happens a week later when Sam comes home with bloody scrapes from neck to bum.

There is a lot of good about Sam's preschool, I'm sure. But I don't know about it. What happens there seems to be a carefully guarded secret. I tell them I'd like to supplement and support their efforts with my time at home with Sam. His teacher still refuses to talk to me. All I can get out of anyone is from the speech therapist. She is working on the sound of the letter "L" with Sam by repeating it over and over again with him, she says.

I hang up the phone, frustrated. What do I do? I can't pull Sam out of school without being sure it is the right thing. That's what I did putting him in. Best to stop yanking him around until I know what to do.

Over the next couple months I become a child development junky. Sam continues to get on the bus everyday. Then while Sophie and Logan nap I read like I'm thirsty and its the jaws of July. Stacks of books litter my nightstand, my living room floor, my kitchen counter, stacked with their spines spread like rectangular butterflies. I read while I brush my teeth. I read while I trim my toenails. Vygostgy, Holt, Montessori, Steiner, anything I can get my hands on. I can't seem to ingest this stuff quickly enough.

At first I let the words wash over me. Then I find I'm gravitating to some ideas. Excitement thrills when I find something that seems to apply perfectly to one of my children, especially Sam. Slowly my reading turns into action.

My husband comes home from work each day to find me anxiously engaged in some feat with glue, paper, string, or magnets. All the while Logan peers up from his sling, content just to have his body touching mine.

"These are sandpaper letters. Sam is so sensory. I want him to be able to feel letters, not just see them."

"Sophia loves books on tape. So I'm making her some with her own photos in them with my voice reading stories we write together."

Actually doing enriching activities together as a family is something else. I spend all morning getting the kids ready to get out the door for the bus on time. After Sam comes home, it's dinner time and everyone is tired.

But I keep at it. Making plans for something vague but shining beyond my current circumstances. The more I act on my inner excitement, the more I feel the outer edge of my being softening, expanding, encompassing more and more of the good world. At the same time something at the very center of me is hardening, becoming clear and smooth.

I begin to look at my children differently. I loved them before, but through a bit of a fog. They become not little people I am taking care of, but fascinating, complex, unique beings I have the privilege to watch unfold. Finding a break from the whining suddenly becomes less important than trying to soak them in fast enough before they grow up on me.

Sam has a day off for teacher's conferences. We walk down the street to the river and throw stones in. We wade in the water and squish the mud between our toes. We gather leaves. We make up stories. The day is so beautiful I want to cry. I used to think all these things my children and I love to do together were some precursor to the real stuff. Just us passing time till they were old enough for others, those who knew what they were doing, to step in and take over.

I think about my own mother. I can't remember much of anything from the years I spent in public school away from her. Trigonometry? Took the class. Got an A. Can't tell you what the heck trigonometry even is. But I remember vividly my mother showing me how to turn a hollyhock into a dancing girl. The sound of her voice singing "Sandman." I am a writer because I sensed her love affair with the written word and wanted in on it. Suddenly, I realize its these little things filling my days with my kids that is the real stuff. I know, now, certainly, I am the expert on my children.

Whether or not Sam goes to preschool was not the issue here. What was? Having a mother who is empowered enough, and in tune enough with him to make good decisions on his behalf.

We find our first house that very night. It's perfect. After six years in an apartment, we can have our own space! There is a bonus room above the garage. "This would be the perfect home preschool room!" I say.

My husband Jared loves the idea. I feel a flutter of excitement and also a feeling a dread. Could I yank Sam off the ventilator, so to speak, and not have him wither under my care? I felt confident enough to try it.

While a crew of neighborhood men unload in the garage a few weeks later, I sit with the kids upstairs in the bonus room. This is the time of day Sam would normally be going to school. I hesitate to announce that he's not going back. We'll just watch a movie and worry about all that after unpacking, right?

Sam steps up to me. "Teacher," he says. "Sam's teacher."

Admittedly, the words send a thrill down my spine. But I'm also terrified. As requested, we have our first "preschool." Amidst the boxes and bags and clutter, I set up a bowl of water and some measuring cups and spoons. Find some paper and crayons. Pull out a few library books.

It's not much. But the kids love it. Sophie is relieved not to be left behind for once. No more encouragement needed. I'm off. Over the next few weeks, using only things we have around the house, I turn the room into my own peronsal work of art. It's my love story to my kids, long overdue. A little of this philosophy and a little of that idea, all arranged according to my own taste and knowledge of my children's needs with my personal flair coloring it all.

Our days are filled with exploration and wonder. I start to keep a journal of my kids "learning." But after a few days, I find I'm too busy on the floor with them to attend to it. My longest entry reads "Sam is fascinated with the geoboard I made him. Sophia is wrapping a piece of red silk around her head and telling me the story of red riding hood. Logan sits under the bars of light coming in from between the blinds, reaching and licking the sunshine off his fingers as if it's honey."

I almost wouldn't notice Sam's speech naturally developing as the weeks roll on if the progress wasn't so rapid.

"Is it still winter? When will spring come?"

"Sophia is a good girl. I'm a good boy."

"After Daddy comes home, I'd like to go to the park by myself."

One day we're all dancing to Russian folk songs together when the phone rings.

"This is Samuel's school. We're calling to ask you to reconsider your decision to pull him out. Maybe now that you've settled into your new place he can come back?"

"No. It was too much for us at this time."

"But he belongs here."

"He's happy and thriving here," I say with surety.

I don't know for sure what the long term plan is for Sam's education. But I do know when the time comes to make those decisions for him, for all my children, I'll be able to make them with a sense of empowerment and peace. I'm their mother, after all.

One night after I tuck him in, Sam begins crying.

I open his door. "What's wrong, honey?"

"I'm afraid of the monsters."

I start to try and convince him there are no monsters, as I have before, but stop and try to think of things from his perspective. When I leave it will still be dark. The shadows will continue creeping up the walls and unexplainable noises will keep ringing in his ears.

"I'll tell you what. I'll kill the monsters."

"What?" Sam wrinkles his nose. This isn't the response he expected.

I whisk out a light saber and run around the room on a murderous rampage. Sam giggles while I describe falling limbs and severed heads.

He's okay now. So we go through our "Mugga mugga, butterfly, kissy kiss" routine again. One final hug. Sam locks his hands behind my neck, looks me in the eyes for a moment with pure affection and says, "Mama, you save me."

The startling sweetness of his words makes me smile. "Yes, sweetheart the monsters are all gone. I saved you."

He looks me in the eyes again. Even though his vocabulary is expanding, he opts to tell me with his eyes what he wants to say. He holds my gaze and, unblinking, looks at me deeply, directly, indicating there is more to his words.

"Mama, you save me," he says again.

For a moment I am still. I want to pick Sam up and hold him until he is too big to be held anymore. I want to put his words to music, to paint them in a mural. To scream from the rooftops the joy/heartbreak and excitement/exhaustion that is being his mother.
He knows now I would set the tubes and monitors aside and hold him, hear him. More importantly, I now know I'm strong enough.

"Do you feel the power?" I say in the dark.

Sam leans forward and whispers in my ear, "I feel it like a light saber."

guest post by Arianne Cope

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