I spend a quite a bit of time parenting my daughter in a repressed rage.
I’m talking about Strong Hearted Girl, who lives with such a degree of mental illness that she’s been unable to live at home for nearly nine years now.
I’ve talked about her before, about a daughter who got the shortest end of the bio-stick from a prenatal situation that resulted in a birth defect. Prescription drugs and alcohol don’t mix, and just craters fetal brain tissue.
So we deal with that the best we can. I’ve kept the promise I made to myself and the state of Oregon on our official adoption day that Strong Hearted Girl would always have me for a mother. And my kid has never seen me as anything else, not since the day she was 2 and complained to her twin, “I don’t like this mommy.”
Poor kid, I was her fourth mother figure and making her take a nap to boot.
Here’s what you might not know about parenting a child who lives with mental illness AND within a state system of care — every single thing you try to do for your child is hard as hell. Getting into place the things you absolutely know will help him or her have a better life is like rolling a boulder uphill. Then securing it with more rocks before you can let go. In a frigid downpour on frozen ground. With one hand tied behind your back and no shoes on.
You think I’ve gone too far, but not true — it’s typically worse. And whatever school district wherever my girl lives at the moment often hovers at the top of the “hardest” list. Administrators ignore my requests to have bits of the work she’s done mailed to me, where the front of the fridge waits to display it. Paraprofessionals get frustrated in dealing with my kid and forget that all deserve equal education. Bus drivers evict her for a snarly attitude.
I attend every meeting I can by phone (and there are many) and send off thank-you emails, but the traction I gain is minimal. And before you know it, we’re off to a new placement in a new town and district.
But I’m not here to complain. I’m giving you background so you can understand how wonderful “Miss Kate” is.
Kate is Strong Hearted’s primary educator in a post-high school program on the west side of Oregon, where my girl tries to absorb life-skill lessons in a three-hour school day — it’s all she can handle and often that’s a stretch.
Kate called me up the minute she saw my daughter on her new-student roster in September, to remind me she had taught her at another school, in another placement. She remembered the little girl from back then and was excited to see her again. “This is going to be fun!”
Knowing Strong Hearted is low currency, however, in dealing with her severe behavioral challenges. Strong Hearted would be the first to second that. So our Kate had her work cut out for her, and usually that’s the last I see of an enthusiastic educator.
This time has been different. Let me share part of the letter I shot out this week to Kate’s bosses and the school board. I’ve tweaked the names, as needed for privacy:
... Miss Kate has been incredible — patient with my daughter yet setting clear boundaries. She has done a great deal of educating staff about my daughter’s birth defect in order to help everyone. Kate calls me on a regular basis, using her own cell phone minutes, and emails me with concerns, seeking advice, and wonderful progress notes about my kiddo. This never happens to me and other parents like me.
Even as a very involved mom, I have only occasionally been successful at making educators understand how important it is to my child’s well-being that I am looped in on things. I have a lot to offer in terms of what works and what does not, but still it has traditionally been difficult to be seen as part of the team, as I live 275 miles to the east.
Kate has seen me as a team member since Day 1. She does an amazing job of advocating for my child’s educational needs, and helps in other areas where she can, like being my eyes to know if my girl has decent clothes on her back or is bringing nutritious and appropriate snacks.
Kate is a hero to me, and your high school is one of the few things going right for my girl at the moment.
If I would have been more brave, I would have added, “Please let her do her job right. Give her enough funding and get out of her way.”
I have no agenda with this column other than to offer it as a love letter to all “special ed, resource room, alternate education, behavioral classroom” folks. What parents of these students go through is difficult. What education professionals do with our children is tough. And, really, there’s rarely a Hallmark movie ending to the school years we go through together, I don’t care what the media usually portrays.
But sometimes, apparently, there’s a Miss Kate, too.