WALK - A Tribute to the Kids in the Middle

Today, Sienna, my 17 year old daughter, graduates from high school.

For me, it’s been the blink of an eye.  For her, an arduous marathon.

Believers in multiple intelligences from the get go, we were against academic preschool.  Instead, we opted for a place where kids made bread, gardened, played theatrical games, and were free to wear coats or not … even clothes or not, to some degree.

And that was fine because, even then, we knew Sienna was a dreamer who, instead of using her wood-carved alphabet to spell, turned the letters into characters and made them talk to one another.

For Kindergarten and first grade, we opted for an “open school,” which emphasized hands on, experiential learning. “No Child Left Behind” was beginning to ramp up in the public school system, but the open school’s teachers encouraged parents to opt our kids out of it.

So, we did.  Our kids weren’t penciled-in bubbles on anyone’s sheet of paper.

But the district’s high school had more than its share of drugs and knives, so we moved.  We moved and “No Child Left Behind” began, increasingly, to change the way public schools operated.

So, second grade found Sienna in a regular public school … bewildered by droning lectures, tests, and acronyms like STAR and SAT9.  Back then, a parent could still opt their kids out of state-testing … so, much to the disdain of her principal, I did.

“But in the real world, she’ll be tested,” he said.

“In the real world, she’ll also be able to speak, question, analyze, form conclusions that do not fit neatly into bubbles.”

By the end of third grade, with a teacher who enjoyed reading the lowest weekly math scores out loud in class, Sienna began hold her head down when she walked, literally.  She began to think she was “different.”  Not in a good way.  She began to think she was “dumb.”

I went to the district.  We had the usual tests administered.  I filed a complaint against the teacher.  After everything, Sienna didn’t qualify for special ed … and didn’t want it if she did qualify.

The school year had pummeled her.

So, for much of 4th grade, I homeschooled her.  She learned quickly.  She learned deeply.  But she was too alone, too isolated.  We were  not staunch Christians like most of the homeschooling families in our area who tended to include biblical teaching groups, etc.

She wanted to go back to school, to socialize with kids more like her, so we got on the waiting list for the local charter school.

It was a good school with good teachers who took time with her.  By fifth grade, she was beginning to excel.  But, things changed at the charter school, and the potential middle-school portion was cut from the program.

We had to made another tough decision.  To prepare her for public middle school, we sent her back to public elementary where she struggled terribly.  She went through more tests.  Similar results.  Off the charts on visual — so much that the test administrators said they’d never seen so visual a learner.  Low on auditory, which we all knew.  Still, no qualification for special ed.  She was glad.

In 7th grade, the powers that were encouraged a class designed to help with learning/study skills.  It turned out to be a place where the kids who smoked and drank and got into trouble were housed … because when good kids feel dumb for a long time, are labeled as different  or slow or “special” for too long, drugs and alcohol and trouble start looking like the more do-able alternative.

Sienna could have gone down that road.  Most of the friends she made in that class did.  But something in her said “no.”  Even when one “friend,” mad because Sienna wouldn’t follow suit , followed her into the girl’s locker room, punched the wall, and threatened to beat her up … then threatened again, in front of an entire group, the following day.

Instead of caving, Sienna held her ground.

Instead, she said this:  “Mom, I don’t want to be in that stupid class anymore.  We don’t do anything in there that helps.”

Instead, after lunch hours spent in the library and hours of homework each night (and a later reflection: “I had no life”) — she wound up graduating 8th grade with a 4.0.  And, because my husband had been laid off and because, at some point, we’d marked on a piece of paper that neither of us had (at that point) graduated from a 4-year college, she was selected for AVID — a college prep program for promising kids “in the middle.”

Freshman year was rough on the homework front.  Sophomore year was rougher still — hours of homework that stressed her so much she picked her skin bloody and got stomach aches while she studied and figured Algebra II.

“Good grades come so easy for my friends.”

“We don’t care about grades so long as you do your best,” we’d say.  “Schools don’t allow for all of smart’s flavors.”

Concerned about the toll long hours were taking, we had her tested again.  This time at a nearby state university.  “A slow processing speed” was the verdict.  A verdict we took to her high school’s teachers.

“We’ll give her a little more time to finish tests,” they said.

But Sienna didn’t want the extra time.  “I want the same amount of time as everyone else.”  She couldn’t be convinced otherwise.

And there was always the state-standardized test, that was, by then, mandated.  Always the low score that told her she didn’t measure up.  The “smart points” (yes, the testers use that term) she didn’t get.

When it came in the mail each year, the test result sheet, I tore it up and threw it away before she could see it.

Throughout freshman, sophomore, and junior year, her schedule was this:  Tutoring in math before school.  Tutoring in Spanish after school.  Intervention with Government and Economics and Chemistry and Geometry during lunch hours.  Meetings with teachers.  Emails to teachers.  Lots.

From 7:30 am to 9:30 pm, nearly every day for high school’s first three years: schoolwork.  If there was a test the next day, she was often up until midnight.  In between, she did plays.  It’s too much, I’d tell her.

“I need theatre.  I need the plays.”

Indeed, she did, because she was damned good at acting.  And she needed something in her life that came easy.

Senior year finally offered some breathing room.  Still, there were late nights and intervention hours and “You’re on the home stretch.  Muscle it out just a little longer.”  And, always, the standardized test … that, always, she finished after everyone else.

And, as I’d done for years, when the result-sheet came, I threw it in the trash.

She finished this year, in her language arts class, with a poem she wrote called “The System,” which was about how schools try to fit kids into boxes.  A poem she recited easily, in a slam-fashion … because her time in theatre, the oasis in her educational  desert, has taught her how to speak publicly.

So, tonight she completes a leg of a long journey — a handful of steps, maybe 30 yards, to get her diploma.  She does so with cords for extra community service.  She does so with an AVID sash — one of the “middle kids” — neither recognized at the top nor at the bottom.  Qualifying for no special scholarships or privileges on either end.

For her, tonight’s a cake walk … because she has plodded, dragged herself, limped, and run to catch up …  for 12 years.

“I’ve got senioritis big time,” she says.  Because her road has been so damn long.

Funny thing, perspective.

From where I stand … wasn’t it yesterday I took her to Kindergarten in a white dress with yellow lemons on it?

Wasn’t it a moment ago?

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