I thought of this when I was driving him home from school the other week. His finals were over. All that remained was graduation and the eighth-grade farewell party the following day.
“Well, how do you know if you’re getting an award?”
“Mrs. R said that they send you a letter.”
“Tom I just have to say that I’m a little annoyed. After everything you accomplished at this school, I would have liked to have seen that acknowledged in some way.”
“I know Mom, and I would have liked to have won something too. But I really didn’t do anything that special. Plus we know what I did. That’s all that matters.”
I understood what he meant. He had a great year, and a great middle school career. He was graduating with a cumulative average of 87 for three years, ran track this year, and was in chorus. He was well liked by his peers, and his teachers loved him. But, in the scheme of things he hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary for a kid his age.
Except, he did.
My mind flashed back to nine years earlier when a younger and thinner me was sitting in a small room with a special education teacher and an elementary school psychologist, while Tom was interviewed by the speech therapist in another room.
These two women had the job of telling me that due to my son’s low test scores, they didn’t think that the regular kindergarten program was appropriate for him. They were suggesting a special contained classroom in our district. They also mentioned that Tom might have to eventually leave our district in favor of a program better suited for children with his needs.
I started to cry.
“Mrs. Radigan. We know this is very hard to hear for parents.”
“I’m not crying because of Tom. I’m crying because I can’t believe I’m sitting in the same exact room that my parents sat in thirty years ago when they were hearing the same prognosis for me. I can’t believe nothing has changed.”
With that a five-year-old Tom entered the room with the speech therapist. I could see her mouth to the special education teacher, “Oh my God, this kid is so bright.”
Apparently when Tom walked in her office, he saw a poster of the Beatles and went on to tell her things even she did not know about them. He also mentioned her picture of JFK, that he was the 36th president and that Lyndon Johnson was his vice president. She was completely charmed by him.
That meeting changed their idea of Tom. About a year later, we got the official confirmation that he was dyslexic and dysgraphic. He always worked so hard and did his very best all the way through kindergarten to fifth grade. We were told he was socially gifted and a great kid. But his scores were still horrible.
Five years later I found myself again in a room full of people telling me that Tom was going to need to be placed in a special program for middle school. I pleaded his case, met with the middle school principal, and finally trusted that as soon as they met my son, they would learn that he was able to handle the workload. His paperwork showed his disability, but it didn’t show his strengths.
Sure enough I got a call the first day of school from the middle school psychologist. She had met Tom and was beyond impressed. In fact she was so impressed by the articulate, intelligent boy in front of her that she was positive his school sent over the wrong paperwork.
When our school district’s Committee on Special Education felt he wouldn’t be able to take a foreign language or doubted whether he could handle grade-level work, we brought him to meetings with the school staff and let him plead his own case. And he proved his point by not only passing Spanish but by getting the highest grade in the class and earning honors in English. This fall he will start high school as a freshman in a college track program.
We are beyond proud of him. And he is proud of himself. He also now knows that he can do anything he wants to. But maybe he was right, in the eyes of the world he had not achieved anything that special. He was a bright boy who was doing what he was expected to do.
Imagine both our surprise when the phone rang on Friday morning. My friend wanted to know why we weren’t at the awards’ ceremony because Tom received the Personal Achievement award in Social Studies. We never got the letter.
My heart sank. How could we have missed this day? I told Tom about the award and I apologized that I never saw the letter.
“I won an award?”
“Yes. You were picked among all the eighth graders. Maria said your teacher gave a beautiful speech about what a great young man you are and your interest and passion in social studies.”
I felt horrible we missed it.
”Tom I am so sorry.” I wanted to cry.
“Don’t be sorry Mom. I won an award and it had nothing to do with my learning issues! I won!”
That moment I realized that we didn’t have to be there. He won so much more than could ever be expressed by a single sheet of paper.