Getting Real with Shadra Bruce

My husband and I have five kids – five unique and extraordinary kids.

We learned quite early to be an advocate at school for our kids. Derek was severely ADHD, and when on meds did very well in school, but had many frustrations along the way with finding the right teachers and balance. He would have struggled far more had we not been there to advocate at school for him and insist on a 504 plan that accommodated his specific needs. Kira always did well in school, and was also very athletic. She was named a UCA all-star cheerleader several years in a row, and while she challenged us (and the occasional teacher) with attitude and a demand for independence, we had to advocate for her in different ways – like reminding teachers that if they would simply challenge her, she’d not be so bored in their classrooms. Kyle, her twin brother, has Down syndrome. His IQ is around 40 and he is mentally about four years old.  He was born hearing impaired and speaks at about the level of an 18-month old. The fight for him was constant; IEP meetings, ensuring services, protecting him. We truly thought we’d seen the gamut of what kids could present in the form of challenges in finding the right fit in school.

We were wrong.

Parker didn’t wait until school age to start making it clear he would be his own set of challenges. We knew we were in trouble when he started reciting lyrics to rock songs (his drumming is a whole different story) at less than a year old and knew the entire alphabet and could count to twenty by the time he was eighteen months old. Even with all of the struggles we’d had with Kyle (yearly IEP meetings, fighting to obtain the necessary services for his disabilities, struggling through the daily challenges) we were not prepared for what we had to face with Parker. There are laws in place (the Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA) that protect our special needs students and ensure they receive the education they need. There are no such laws for the gifted.

Parker went to a Montessori preschool when he was three years old, and by the time he was four, they suggested we enroll him in kindergarten. When I called the principal and let her know I wanted to enroll him even though he didn’t meet the age restriction, I think she thought I was crazy.  I wasn’t, but we had to have Parker tested by a psychologist (who said if it weren’t for his age, he would recommend first grade) and he had to prove to the principal he could read (which he could) and then the school board still had to approve it, which they did – for the first time in 100 years.

Parker is now out of school – thank goodness. Navigating the education system with a gifted child is difficult. Convincing a school and principal that a child deserves an individualized education when they are not capable of being slotted into a special needs category is a full-time job. Parker found ways to stimulate his mind outside of school. He produced an album when he was a sophomore; he taught himself to play guitar and has written hundreds of songs. He learns languages on his own. Anika, who is also gifted, learned from her big brother that it was better to take a different approach to an education system that seemed to ignore the gifted student. She just took it upon herself to ignore the system she was stuck in as much as possible, changing rules as she went. She challenged the district and skipped 6th grade, with our approval; now, she has doubled up on her junior and senior years to graduate early. Even so, she remains relatively unchallenged by public education, so she has written and published a book, is working on a second one, is taking AP Gov through Khan Academy for “fun,” and is reading the Federalist papers just to be more prepared for a future life in politics.

Parker was chewed up a bit by the system, as we learned that we had to advocate for the gifted child as much as we had for the special needs child. Anika chews up the system and redesigns it to suit her. Both have needed a strong voice on their side as they pursued less than traditional paths through their K-12 education.

If you’re a parent out there struggling with a system that claims to leave no child behind but forgets about our gifted learners, here’s my advice (and mantra) that gets me through the aggravations:

I know my children better than anyone.  I know them better than the principal, better than the teacher, better than the friend who “just can’t believe we’re pushing them so hard.”  I know that we’re letting our children set the pace and that it is their insatiable desire to learn more that drives their education.

If you’re struggling right now with a school or with your child, remember that you know your babies better than anyone, whether they are ten months or ten years old.

I am grateful for each of my children. They remind me regularly that motherhood is never dull and never the same, no matter how many kids you have.