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My middle daughter is sick again. This has been happening a lot this school year. She’s had an illness or maybe a series of illnesses that the doctors have had a hard time diagnosing. It’s been going on for two months now, and she has had four different rounds of medication. On top of everything else, on one of the days she was well she managed to dislocate her kneecap in gym. All around, it’s been a horrible start of the school year for her.

Now, suddenly, the school is talking about educational neglect because of her many absences. I know she’s missed a lot of school, and although I have turned in several doctor’s notes, there have been some days when all my interactions with the doctor happened over the phone. These consultations, while helpful, did not count as visits and are not documented for the school. Also, my daughter has a history. She suffers from generalized anxiety. This leads her to want to spend as little time at school as possible. Of course it’s not the school’s fault—or rather it’s not this particular school’s fault. We brought her to this school after a traumatic sixth grade experience at another middle school in the district. This school worked hard to help turn things around. The staff provided so much more support than the other school did. They understood when she got sick or cried in class. By the end of last year, things had improved. This year was supposed to be so much better. Then she got sick—really sick, not anxious sick—and now I am facing the possibility of being reported for educational neglect.

I must confess I resent this. I resent the added pressure as I work with the doctor to figure out what is going on with my daughter. I resent the feeling that I have to send my children to school even though they aren’t feeling well and would probably be much happier at home. I resent having to come up with a doctor’s note every time someone has stomach flu or the creeping crud because my word as a parent just isn’t good enough. When did we start reporting to the schools instead of the other way around? I resent the drugs two of my children have to take just so they can function in school. I resent having to decide between sending my daughter to a high school that quite honestly scares me at times and giving up a four-year full tuition scholarship, along with the nagging feeling that whichever road I choose I will regret it. Oh, how I resent that last one.

I am beginning to understand why so many parents with special needs choose to home school their children. According to a report by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), 40 percent of home-schooling parents reported that their child experienced some sort of learning or behavior difficulty while in school. I am cognizant that the schools can offer much to my bright, curious children that I can’t—art, theater, sports, valuable social interactions, and a pretty good education. Our school district even offers a four year scholarship to nearly any college in state to those who graduate after at least four years in the district. However, sometimes this feels like some sort of weird Darwinian experiment. You may have free college—if you manage to survive the school experience to claim it. My oldest daughter has managed it so far, but it’s been a rough ride even with an IEP to help us. This daughter doesn’t have that.

I ended up keeping her home today. She threw up her breakfast, and I just couldn’t send her to school after that. I called the doctor and set up yet another appointment for this evening. As for the threat about educational neglect—well, the schools will have to do what they have to do, and so will I. I am a mother. I am my children’s first and greatest advocate. And I have a lot of experience with saying, “No.”

(Müller, Eve. Home Schooling Students with Disabilities – A Policy Analysis. July 2004. http://www..nasdse.org)

I thought I would add a follow up to last week’s post.

Last Monday, my daughter auditioned for her school improve team, followed by auditions for a couple of outdoor plays which are part of a local park festival. It was a long day, and she was exhausted by the time she finished the last audition. She made callbacks for her school improve team. The two festival plays didn’t have callbacks. (For those who are not familiar with theater language, callbacks are when the theater calls you back for another audition. I should have explained that last week. Sorry.)

Cast lists were coming out on Friday—the same day that we went out of town for a band trip. My daughter fretted all through the drive to Mackinaw City. She fretted as we toured Mackinac Island and ate dinner there. She asked a friend to check the lists on her phone, but the friend couldn’t find them.

Finally, we checked into the hotel. My daughter had my laptop unpacked before I had finished bringing in my suitcase. First she checked the improve team. She wasn’t on the list. She checked the musical at the park—not on that list either. Then she checked the children’s play.

“I’m the doctor! I’m the doctor!” she shrieked.

“Which doctor are you?” I asked with a smile. We are huge Doctor Who fans in my family.

“No, Mom, in the play,” she said. “It’s my first part in three years.”

She began dancing the hotel room shouting “I’m the doctor!” over and over again. I half expected the hotel management to knock on our door, but I didn’t stop her. I love my daughter’s capacity for unrestrained joy. That’s something we lose as we grow older and become more conscious of the people around us and worried about what they might think. However, she has never developed that level of self-consciousness, and part of me hopes she never does.

Eventually, she settled down and started exchanging texts with her little sister who was also in the play. (Her first part!) Then she started talking to her friend about the play and the part and all the best doctors on TV and in movies. The doctor wasn’t the biggest part in the script, but to listen to her you would have thought she had the lead. My high school drama teacher would have loved her for that alone. She used to say, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” From that measure, my daughter is the biggest actor there is.

Before going to bed, she came over and gave me a big hug.

“I’m going to be the sixteenth doctor,” she told me.

When my daughter was in third grade she decided she wanted to be in the school talent show. I signed a permission slip, and together we chose a short humorous poem for her to read—Cartwheels from the book Hey World, Here I Am! by Jean Little.

On the day of the talent show, my daughter tripped lightly onto the stage and read her poem about not being able to do cartwheels. She demonstrated one of her failed cartwheels, shrugged and walked off. The audience loved it. They clapped and cheered and gave her tons of compliments afterwards. This was the beginning of my daughter’s love of theater.

I figured theater classes would be good for my high-functioning autistic daughter. Perhaps in learning how to interpret scripts, or deconstruct a scene, she might learn how to interpret life. The early classes were taken at the community center. They were simple and fun, and she loved them. She did some plays at with the community center. These were also simple and fun with a part for anyone who wanted one. Then came the plays in the park. The first play was a musical version of Alice Through the Looking Glass. My daughter wanted the lead, and she got it. Everyone assured me that it had nothing to do with the fact that she looked like Alice with her blue eyes and long blond hair.

Alice was a great experience. My daughter learned all her blocking and lines right away. She learned everyone else’s blocking and lines, too, and she regularly corrected and prompted the others—even when she was on stage doing a performance. We discovered she had a beautiful singing voice. The show was a triumph.

My daughter was on fire for acting. She decided to audition for the local community theater. I must admit, I had misgivings. At one time this theater had a strong focus on children’s theater and education with children’s shows during the school year that heavily featured younger actors, and a summer theater program for teens. Then they decided to cut the summer program and roll everything into just three shows during the year. The classes became little more than seminars, and the competition for roles became fierce.

Then there was the audition itself. The community center auditions had been easy-going. I knew that the ones at the theater might be more formal. Theater auditions can involve interpreting the language of the script into emotions, interacting in a meaningful way with people you just met a few seconds ago, and lots of eye contact. All of these can be problems for an autistic child. Still, I took her, and she did well. She even made it to callbacks before ultimately ending up painting scenery.

She went on to audition for other, less competitive theaters in the area. Sometimes, she got in, sometimes she didn’t. She performed another major role for the plays in the park. She got into two school plays in her middle school. Many of the plays she got into were plays that wanted as many children as possible and cast anyone who showed up. However, once she worked with a director, he or she would always cast my daughter over and over again in increasingly large parts. She’s incredibly good at taking direction (as long as it is specific) and has absolutely no stage fright or inhibitions when it comes to what she is asked to do. Need someone to come out during a scene change and lead the audience in the Hokey Pokey? She’s your girl. Want someone to run screaming off the stage, through the audience, and down the hall? She can do that, too. Plus, I’ve noticed she has a real stage presence. She sparkles up there.

Still, despite all her successes and a resume I would have killed for when I was her age, she never managed to break into the community theater where she first auditioned. It became her holy grail. Her grandfather thought that maybe she needed an in, so he bought her one of their theater seminars. At the end class, her teacher’s only comment was: I want to see sad, not what sad looks like.

I felt frustration well up inside me. My daughter worked hard to learn what sad looks like. I remember two years of her pointing to faces in books and on TV.

“What is he feeling?” “What is she feeling?”

She studied the emotions she saw so she could recognize them and know how to respond appropriately. It was something she had to learn—it didn’t come naturally to her like it does to the rest of us. I am endlessly proud that my daughter knows what sad looks like.

The seminar led to more tech jobs, but no real roles—not even chorus. This theater considers itself an artsy theater and it keeps its chorus size down. The people who run it seem more interested in the art than providing opportunities for the community to act. Unfortunately, with the recent economic problems, most of the other programs my daughter acted with have disappeared. This theater is rapidly becoming the only game in town.

Finally, she broke down. Once again she had made it to callbacks, only to end up building scenery. It was the same place she had been seven years ago when she started, and she recognized that fact.

“It’s not fair,” she told me. “They use the same people over and over again.”

And she was right. Theater is essentially not fair. The best way to gain experience and skills is by working with a director in a show, and those lucky enough to have that experience use it get into more shows where they gain more experience. It’s the Catch-22 of theater.

It’s a frustrating thing to watch. The director didn’t know how hard my daughter had to work to provide the audition performance that she did. He didn’t know that by even being up there at all she was playing to her weaknesses instead of her strengths. She was doing what all the books say she shouldn’t be able to do at all, and I am so incredibly proud of her.

We discussed getting her onto the forensics team at school. Participating in forensics is a great way to gain experience and learn skills without actually being in a play. There is a certain amount of school pride tied up in how you do at competitions, so the director of the program will spend some time working one-on-one with you, and that is invaluable. Of course, it can be daunting. There is maybe five feet between you and your audience with no fancy lighting to soften that fact. You learn to create a fourth wall really fast. But my daughter has never had trouble with that. She feeds off the audience when she performs, interacting with them as a collective much more skillfully that she can interact with them individually.

My daughter agreed to give forensics a try, and I spent most of the night sitting up with her. As I looked at her I thought back to that seminar comment.

If the teacher could only see her now, I thought to myself, she would see sad.

The Six Page Essay

My daughter, who is in high school, came up to me while I was writing and announced, “My history grade is about to improve. I wrote a six page essay on my test yesterday.”

The ex-college teacher inside me winced. In a cautious voice, I asked, “Did your teacher want a six page essay?”

“Well, he said he had extra paper if we needed it,” she told me, glowing with pride, “and when I handed it in, he said, ‘Wow, you really had a lot to say.’”

I bet he did, I thought, picturing the look on his face. I struggled for something to say, but she had already walked off with visions of A’s dancing in her head.

I felt a stab of sympathy for this teacher with multiples classes of 30-40 students presented with a six page answer to an essay test question. At the same time, my heart soared with pride for my daughter who found six pages worth of words about a subject she generally has no interest in. She is really trying in school this year, despite trouble with bullies and a grueling sophomore schedule. I hope she gets her A.

     Okay, the title of this post was suggested to me by the stupid accident I had the other day. I managed to injure my head and neck in the public swimming pool. I was trying to demonstrate how to do an underwater summersault, and the bottom of the pool turned out to be closer than it looked. I felt the headache right away, but I didn’t feel the neck pain until the next day. Ouch.

    While I am laid up, I have been dipping back into the lyrical world of Patricia A. McKillip. She is one of my favorite authors. I love her command of language. She paints with words like a classic master, creating lush worlds and complex characters. In her stories, she blurs the bounderies between idea and reality. Story and word spin themselves into physical shape and take part in the action. The simplest action on the part of one of the characters has repercussions that echo throughout the story. Objects show up again and again, changing shape and meaning as they go. Her stories are rich in discription and imagery, and yet every word, every image, is important to the story. The result is a work of art that can be enjoyed over and over again, even after the suspense is gone.

     I first discovered Patricia A. McKillip while I was in junior high school. I picked up The Riddle-Master of Hed from the bookmobile and was instantly hooked. I had to wait for the subsequent books to be written and I remember anticipating them just as eagerly as my daughter has anticipated Harry Potter. At the time I was also reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. The last two books, Harpist in the Wind by Patricia A. McKillip and Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper, arrived at the bookmobile at the same time. I was in book heaven.

     The thing I liked about the Riddle-Master series while I was reading it, was that I couldn’t figure out what was going on, even after reading two books. Most of the books I had read to that point were easy for me to predict by the time I was two-thirds of the way through. Then I read the last book, and the riddles began to reveal themselves. Suddenly, the answer seemed so obvious I was surprised I hadn’t seen it all along. I love it when that happens.

     Another thing I loved about the Riddle-Master books  was the way the characters used riddles to talk to each other. McKillip created a world with a culture rich in story and legend for the characters to draw on in their conversations. She does the same thing in the Cygnet series–another pair of books I read over and over again.

     Over the years I have read several of her books. I remain in awe of her artistry with language. I attended a conference where one of the speakers talked about imitating the voice or style of an author you admire until you find your own voice. I’ve never actually tried that, but if I did, Patricia A. McKillip is one of those I would be tempted to imitate.

     Last November I decided to try fast drafting. The result was a 167,000 page rough draft with lots of junk and a few moments of brilliance. I let it sit while I finished the revisions for The Hunt for The Night Unicorn, and now I am looking at it again.

     My initial reaction upon reading it: absolute terror. There were so many words. For my first two manuscripts, I revised extensively as I wrote. As a result, by the time I had the entire manuscript written, it was in pretty good shape. This draft was all over the place–full of dead ends where I had tried things that didn’t work and different versions of the characters as I tried to work out who they were. In other words, it was a mess.

     The one good thing that came out of that initial reading was that I still loved the story, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and plunge in. This first run through would be devoted to digging out the plot and pruning away all the obvious junk. Once I had the size and the shape of the thing, I could start fine-tuning the inside.

     What amazes me as I work is how little of my original draft is making it into the revised copy. I keep the ideas, but a lot of the words change. This may have happened when I wrote the other two as well, but because I was revising as I wrote I didn’t notice it as much. A friend of mine heard a published writer tell how very little of what he originally wrote ended up in his final work, so maybe it’s a hopeful sjgn.

     The one thing I cannot do as I work is look at the word count. Whenever I do that, I get intimidated by the size of the task in front of me. Suddenly, I am finding other things I could do. And with four children at home, there are plently of other things I could do. (I live in a world of perpetual laundry.) The only way to move forward is to work scene by scene–just like Anne Lamott suggests–until, hopefully, it adds up to a finished work. Then I get to revise again.

    I sent my revised manuscript to my agent yesterday. After I forced myself to hit the send button, I called a friend and told her it was sent.

    “Did you do a dance?” she asked.

     “What?”

     “Did you do a dance?” she repeated. “You’ve just sent something out. You’ve got to celebrate.”

     After I was done talking to her, I called my husband and told him the manuscript was finally done and gone.

     “Great,” he says. “I’ll bring home something special to celebrate.”

     Now, in his case, I can understand the desire to celebrate. I have been impossible to live with these last few days. I have been driven and grouchy–especially during the final proofreading phase.

     Their words got me thinking. The truth is a couple of  phone calls and a post on Verla Kay’s blueboard are all the celebrating I ever do when I send something out. I’ve read several articles that encourage unpublished authors to celebrate each step on the long road to publication. So why don’t I feel like celebrating?

     I think part of the reason is that I am still subconsiously trying to stay under the radar as a would-be writer. It took me a long time to be able to say, “I’m a writer” out loud without dropping my voice on the last word. A part of me still feels that I’m going to be carded at writer’s conferences and booted out. It’s scary going after my dream, and I figure if I don’t shout about it, maybe I won’t notice what I’m doing.

     Another reason is that I generally finish my manuscripts under a deadline. Okay, I’ll admit that a lot of those deadlines are self-inflicted, but it still adds an element of pressure.  Also, after going over the thing ten or twelve times looking for typos I might have missed, I am completely burnt out. All I want to do after sending out a manuscript is crawl into bed and sleep for a week. (Incidentally, it doesn’t matter how many times I go over a manuscript; there is always a typo in the final copy. Typos in my manuscripts are like spiders in my home–I can never completely get rid of them, no matter how hard I try.)

     Finally, I am just to nervous about the manuscript itself. Will they like it? Will it find a home? Will kids like it? I always run my writing byseveral test readers before submitting, but I tell myself, “Well, they just said they liked it because they like me.”

     I wonder sometimes what other writers do when they send out a manuscript. Do they celebrate? If any other writers read this, I would love to hear what you do.

     Oh, and I did find one other thing I do to celebrate submitting a manscript. I invariably go off my diet.