Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

He Was Labeled Retarded
by Sharon Miller

In May of 1997, my husband Brian and I traveled to Russia to bring home our first son. He was diagnosed with "developmental delays," as are most children of orphanages, but was expected to "catch up" quickly. We brought Harrison home and began our adjustment into parenting a sixteen month old who had recently discovered how to run... everywhere. He was slow to grasp language, and our pediatrician encouraged us to have him tested by a child development specialist. We thought he needed more time to adjust to his new life, which now encompassed physical freedom from a crib most of the day, all the nutritional food his stomach could hold, and constant visual/verbal stimulation. We chose to wait.

In November of 1998, we traveled back to Russia to bring home Harrison's new brother and sister. Jared and Jade were 9 months old when they came to the United States and, like Harrison, were diagnosed with "developmental delays." We were toying with the idea of homeschooling almost as soon as we had all the children together. Brian had attended a Catholic school, and I was a public school "chronic under-achiever." With no real positive school experiences to draw from, Brian and I decided to give homeschooling a go and joined a support group.

When the twins turned four, we watched as they both passed Harrison developmentally. Their language skills were more advanced, their play was more purposeful and it was easier to engage them in activity. Brian and I panicked. We made the appointment with a developmental specialist who was supposedly one of the best in the nation. We paid $700 so an occupational therapist, a physical therapist and a social worker could spend a combined total of two hours "testing" Harrison. When the doctor finally sat down with us, we were terrified at what we would hear. We listened as our son's mere six-year existence was dissected, his skills evaluated, and a forecast of his future was presented to us. We were told that at six years old he was functioning at the level of a three-year-old. By definition, he was "severely mentally retarded." We were told that we should focus on helping him with his activities of daily living. "Teach him the basics," they said. "How to make a sandwich, keep himself clean. Potty training will probably be difficult. Most likely, he will need to be placed in a group home as an adult. Fortunately for him, he is a sweet boy and is enjoyable to work with."

Brian left the room in tears. My head was spinning. Harrison played on, unaware of the implications this evaluation had on his life. We were encouraged to enroll him in kindergarten for the remaining three months of the school year to be able to take advantage of all the "benefits" public school could provide. He would have a case study done by a social worker as well as hearing and vision testing. An individualized education plan would be set in place for him. He would have an aide assigned to him to help him with his school work. Brian and I were lead to believe there was no way we were qualified to give Harrison any of what he needed in terms of his education. And so, with tears in my eyes and a feeling of dread in my heart... I took Harrison to school.

In that three months’ time, I kept hearing what a "normal" six-year-old could do. The more Harrison was tested and the more he didn't "fit" into the school’s idea of the correct box, the more tests they put him through. He was becoming more and more "abnormal" by school definition with each passing week. Having an aide assigned to him was supposed to be helpful. Instead, it made him feel different and somehow not a "big kid" like the rest of the children. It was uncomfortable for him. Being in school focused on his weaknesses, not his strengths. School for him was about working on what he couldn't do, not what he was good at. I became more and more angry as I watched my beautiful, gregarious, joyful son become cautious and less confident in the things he loved to do. He went on a field trip once which required him to bring a sack lunch. I cut his sandwich up for him into bite sized pieces (he had a habit of stuffing his mouth), and his teacher asked me not to do that anymore because it took too long for him to eat. At the end of the three months, we were told Harrison would have to repeat kindergarten. The only part of the whole experience Harrison seemed to enjoy was performing in the of school play. I missed him terribly.

We then moved to a rural town, and September rolled around. With the words of the specialist still ringing in my ears, I was still not confident in my ability to give Harrison what he needed. We went so far as to enroll him in kindergarten and meet the teacher a week before classes were to start. Brian and I were told then that Harrison's records had been reviewed and he had been placed in the class for children with learning disabilities. (I had specifically requested that the words "severely mentally retarded" not be included in the report from the developmental specialist. I asked that the focus of the report remain informational and objective. I felt that labeling Harrison in such a way would automatically lead people to make assumptions about his level of functioning which was not fair to him. My copy of the report arrived and to my shock, my request had been ignored.) There would be twenty-one children with him with varying needs attended to by one teacher and one aide. Some of the children had educational needs, some had behavioral issues, some had physical problems. At that point, the light went on. I asked myself how on earth one teacher and one aide could possibly give my son the quality attention he needed and deserved? I called the school, informed them we would be homeschooling, and so began our journey.

That was four years ago. Harrison is now on the brink of turning ten years old. Jared and Jade are seven-and-a-half. We spend all our days together. Inside, outside, wherever the day takes us. We meet with other families for stories and crafts if we want to. We go to the library once a week. We go camping ‘till we just can't camp no more. It is a challenge for me to keep up with everyone’s interests. Harrison is an artist. He loves to paint, color and work with clay. He has a new idea every day for some sort of contraption. He challenges my vision. Harrison is an actor. He puts together dress up outfits and acts out stories he's heard or movies he's seen. He loves Harry Potter and Dr. Seuss. He talks about becoming a paleontologist or a doctor who delivers babies, and he wonders who his wife will be. Harrison wants to be a father one day. Harrison rides his scooter, kicks a soccer ball and wants roller blades for his birthday. He wants to travel to Australia and to Hawaii. He loves music and wants to learn to play the guitar and the piano. Harrison loves to create mosaics. He wants to help cook the Thanksgiving turkey.

By public school definition, Harrison is the farthest thing from "normal." Does he read? Not yet. Are his math skills that of a public schooled ten-year-old? Nope. As for social studies, last Wednesday, my children introduced themselves to a woman in the park with a schnauzer. Harrison spoke to her for ten minutes about dogs. He was articulate, polite and confident. Science? Harrison asked to make a "tornado in a bottle" one afternoon, and that prompted a discussion on how tornadoes and hurricanes are similar and different.

When speaking of any child, I have learned to ask myself what exactly is "normal"? Thankfully, a definition eludes me. My hope for my children is that they never feel the need to measure up to anyone else's definition of "normal." Harrison, like his brother and sister, is a unique soul. His methods of learning go against established developmental specialist methods, as well as public school methods. But "severely mentally retarded"? Not by a long shot.

How happy Brian and I are that we found the strength to focus on Harrison and not the assessment of a specialist. We see our duty to Harrison, and to Jared and Jade, as helping them to decide how they learn best. We want to help them learn to identify their own limitations and then how to work within those limitations so they can feel content and fulfilled in this life. Past that... the rest is gravy.

Sharon and her husband Brian are currently unschooling Harrison, Jared and Jade in Dixon, Illinois. Harrison, Jared and Jade are currently schooling their Mom and Dad in the important things in life: how to get really dirty, how to dream BIG, and how to love without fear. They all share their home with two dogs and a bunch of cats whose numbers vary with the change in season.



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