We needed a new school system. We did our homework and bought a house in Shaker Heights as fast as we could.
By Lila Hanft
Three years ago, our very smart eight year-old boy (let’s call him Ben) was in crisis. The second-grade teachers at his school for gifted children complained that while he was clearly capable of doing his work, he had a bad attitude – he wouldn’t do anything he didn’t like.
This was not the first time in his short, tumultuous academic career at three preschools and two elementary schools that Ben ran afoul of his teachers. But it was the first time I listened to teachers’ complaints about his attitude and suspected there were deeper issues.
I wanted the school to assess Ben; they demurred at the cost. They advised me to be stricter with him. As we argued, I watched as Ben’s self-esteem and his pleasure in school took a nosedive.
We needed a new school system. We did our homework and bought a house in Shaker Heights as fast as we could, just before the new school year began. Moving so precipitously was hard, but it was the best thing we could have done.
Perhaps only the parents of special needs students familiar with daily phone calls from school will fully appreciate the profound relief we experienced during Ben’s third-grade year at Mercer. A problem at school no longer resulted in an urgent, angry demand for action in the middle of the workday. When we did hear about a problem from Ben’s team at
Mercer, it always came with a solution. Suddenly, my husband and I were part of a team of professionals who were unfailingly compassionate, creative, and knowledgeable. The persistence with which they problem-solved and communicated with us was a quantum leap beyond anything we’d experienced at other schools. And as Ben regained his love of school, a surprising thing happened: We regained the pleasure of parenting Ben, a pleasure that had been subsumed by the worry we weren’t doing enough to help him.
Suddenly, my husband and I were part of a team of professionals who were unfailingly compassionate, creative, and knowledgeable.
We’re not talking about an instant transformation here. Ben’s gains have come over time. In third grade, for example, Ben, anxious after a week of practice tests in anticipation of state testing, flat out refused to go to school (“I just can’t take the stress anymore,” he said.). I called his intervention specialist, the excellent John Sweeney (now retired), who got on the phone with Ben and pep-talked him into making it to school.
The following year, there was a day when I got Ben as far as the car, but when we got to school he refused to go in. I had a standing offer of help from his aide, a wonderful man named Ray Hill, who marched out to the curb as the school day started, and talked Ben through his qualms and into the building.
These were moments with Ben in which I’d exhausted my own ability to support and persuade him. But Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Hill and others were my village. They’d cultivated an invaluable relationship with Ben. They knew him well, and because he trusted them, he let them help. Thanks to their belief in him, over the past three years, at Mercer and now at Woodbury, Ben has discovered strengths he was unaware of and gained a sense of competency he never had before.
Parenting a special-needs child can sap your faith in the goodness of the world. When a misunderstanding with his peers made Ben too sad and anxious to go to school one day (“I’m being shunned,” he told me), I was heartbroken for him.
I emailed Ben’s team and heard back immediately with expressions of concern. Shortly after, I received emails from Mercer teacher Derek White and the school’s amazing speech pathologist, Deedra Strang, with a plan and a designated time to work with Ben on issues with peers.
Ben learned to trust that problems had solutions and that adults at school would help him; I learned that the staff at Mercer and Woodbury had my back, something I simply hadn’t experienced before. These are just a few of the many ways the Shaker Schools staff have reached out to offer aid, advice, sympathy, and how they’ve inspired me to be a more adaptable and patient parent.
The amazing thing is that these happy stories are not, in our experience, the exception but the rule. The care and love offered to Ben every day – the commitment to strong relationships with students in which empathy, guidance, and trust prevail over criticism – isn’t something that money can buy.