Posts Tagged ‘language’
One of the great things about international schools (and the reason I push so hard for them to admit Pudding), is that every kid there knows what it is like to be different. Sometimes we have had excellent teachers who worked hard to include Pudding. Sometimes, the kids themselves have stepped up. The last year here has been challenging in a number of ways, but one thing I never had to worry about was other students not accepting Pudding.
We don’t have any explicit social skills teaching here, for better or for worse, but Pudding does have an excellent aide to help her navigate the social world at school. Though her methods for interacting are sometimes perceived as unusual, Pudding has always been socially motivated. And where she has a will, she will always find a way.
Soon she had a close set of girls in her class who became friends. In class they would sit around her. At concerts, sports days, and assemblies they would support her, in a non-intrusive and accepting away. They found her level and they met her there. Her friend Ana* was a natural at this, perhaps having observed her mother, an occupational therapist who had previously worked with children on the autism spectrum.
Last year Pudding wasn’t allowed to participate in Spanish classes, which was a great source of frustration for us all. When I would collect her after lunch, she was often visibly (and audibly) distressed at having to leave her friends. One day her friend Sofia* drew her a picture of the two of them to let her know she was missed too. And so began a correspondence between the two, that continues to this day.
On days that Pudding had a hard time leaving, she now began sending notes to the kids going to Spanish lessons. And here is where things get really special- they sent them back. Concrete reminders that she was accepted and missed. She belonged. I would often find caring notes and pictures from kids in her grade I had never met before. Her ability to connect with children even beyond her close set of classmates.
Sometimes the acceptance took a while longer, but resistance is futile. Pudding took a shine to Cho*, a boy in her class last year, and he was pretty intimidated by the strength of her not-so-subtle affections. Over the course of the year, he went from avoiding her to becoming a good friend.
One of the bad things about international schools, is that most children who attend them do so on a temporary basis, like us. So recently we had to say goodbye to Ana and Cho. It feels no exaggeration to write that Pudding was heartbroken. Pudding worked through her feelings by sending notes.
In the meantime, Pudding’s friendship with Sofia continued. The two progressed from sending notes and pictures to small gifts and tokens. At least once a week, Pudding would come home from school with a gift bag from Sofia, and she would find or make items for Sofia in return. In time we have managed a successful play date, and both Sofia and Pudding are looking forward to the next one.
But she still misses her friends who have moved on. When I mentioned that another mother was going to visit Ana and her family her native country, Pudding knew exactly what to do- she would send gifts to go with her. She carefully selected items, wrapped them in paper she decorated herself, and sent them to Ana. I just heard today that Ana was delighted to receive her present. She was sad that her friends in Argentina had forgotten her, and Pudding’s gift was a concrete reminder that she is loved and missed.
The school has allowed her to attend Spanish lessons now, and she keeps finding other ways to connect with new friends. Her ways aren’t always conventional, but her sentiment is sincere and unmistakeable. Every effort is a gift.
*Not their real names. Neither is Pudding, in case you didn’t know!
Cubby was sharing with me about his day at preschool. They’d read Mr. Daydream, one of the Mr. Men books, and he was confused as to what a daydream was. I came up with some kind of explanation, painfully aware that I seemed only able to describe such an abstract concept in terms that were just as confusing.
By way of demonstrating that he got it, he let me know about a few things he daydreamed about…his birthday, going into space, being a fighter who fights for sport(!), and so on. Yep, he got it.
Then I turned to Pudding, and tried to engage her in the conversation. I wanted to know what she daydreams about. This has a 50/50 chance of success these days. The topic must be of interest to her, and she must be in the mood for talking. Her receptive language is undoubtedly better than her ability to express herself, but on abstract topics, there is less of a chance of her understanding.
I really, really did want to know what she daydreams about. So I waited. I gave her the room to decode my words, then decide if she wanted to respond, then figure out how she could respond. Barely a few seconds, but a length of time that still feels unnaturally long for someone without these challenges.
And then she gave her response, and as always- it was worth waiting for.
I daydream about bake sales.
Because she does. She was thinking about the boy scout doughnuts for sale at school that week. This girl loves her sweet treats, and they were on her mind. Even this most simple sentence is years in the making. It has taken effort on her part, patience on mine, many sessions of speech therapy, and even more time.
But it was worth it, because finally, if I want to know what is on my girl’s mind, I only need to ask. And I’ve been daydreaming about that for years.
We were traveling in the car to a village called Clarens for the weekend. The kids’ grandparents have been visiting, and Spectrummy Daddy thought his parents would like to go to this artists’ haven in a valley in the Free State surrounded by mountains. I agreed, because I thought is sounded like heaven for all of us. It was.
But we were late setting off. I had a work event that day which included Spectrummy Daddy getting hit in the face with a whipped cream pie (I have a weird job). The event had run late, and then with picking up the kids and getting stuff ready for a weekend away…later still.
We finally set off and hit all the rush hour traffic. I was getting panicky, because much as Johannesburg has street lights and paved roads, that wasn’t going to be the case where we were headed, and this just isn’t a safe country to be driving at night. Especially with all the men-folk in a different car with the GPS.
Actually, we did have Cubby with us in the beginning, though I’m not sure he counts as a man yet. He wanted to be in the girls’ car at least. As we crawled along in the traffic, I noticed Pudding was the wrong kind of quiet. I looked back and her face confirmed what evidence supported a few seconds later: she was car sick.
Pudding has been car sick a few times before, but this was bad, and it was already getting dark. We found a small shopping center off the motorway, cleaned up as best we could, changed clothing, and allowed Cubby to switch back to the boys’ car, which had become much more appealing by virtue of being vomit-free.
Traffic was even worse as we got back onto the motorway. We inched along, and with cars cutting in and out, were positioned further away from Spectrummy Daddy and the rest of the gang in the boys’ car. I was trying my hardest to keep their car in sight. I knew how vulnerable we were without a GPS, especially as it got darker and harder to navigate.
I was more concerned with Pudding getting sick again, and kept checking my mirror to see that she was still okay. I barely had time to react as a white car swept in from the side, almost hitting mine in his attempt to enter the motorway.
I was furious. Already upset from the turn our trip was taking, this car had almost caused us an accident before we’d even left the city limits. But feeling vulnerable already, I tried to keep the road rage in check, I brought the car to a halt so it could enter in front of me without hitting. I didn’t need to lose what was left of my cool.
But the man in the white car had turned back to me and was gesticulating, but I didn’t understand what he was saying. He is saying words too, but I can’t hear them, and the movement of his lips means nothing to me. I doubt he is speaking English.
Then he started clapping at me…but slowly. The hairs on the back of my neck were raised. He is starting something! We’re stuck in this traffic, and this guy is trying (and succeeding) to intimidate me!
Or is he?
I can’t understand his gestures AT ALL. Is he being apologetic? Does he feel bad that he almost crashed into us and is saying so, but there is a cultural divide? Is it possible that the slow clap could not be sarcastic? And a woman is in the passenger seat, maybe I’m getting this wrong.
So I don’t react at all. I don’t smile. Or nod. I don’t shake my head. I keep my eyes focused ahead as though I’m oblivious. The traffic is bumper to bumper and not much safe space to manouever myself anywhere, but if he stops, if he is going to get out of the car to hurt us, I’ll pull off onto the hard shoulder and speed my way around. I’m mentally prepared for highjacking.
But for now, I just need to remain calm and alert. I don’t need to overreact.
Yet this man seems desperate for my reaction. He won’t stop with his gesturing and clapping. Then his wife gets involved, doing the same thing. And it is dark, and I’m not sure where I’m going, and my kid is sick, and I can’t see my husband’s car, and I’m scared and WILL YOU PEOPLE JUST STOP TRYING TO PROVOKE ME???!!!
And then the wife works it out. I don’t understand! So she tries a different gesture, and I breathe a sigh of relief as she chooses a thumbs-up sign, one that even a white western woman like me would be able to understand.
And I do. With a large smile I return the symbol, and the man and his wife do the same and we are all smiles and thumbs and nobody gets hurt. We move on. Slowly.
We crawl on into the traffic and a night that gets darker and darker. I have hours of driving to reflect on the incident with the white car and my reaction to it. I wonder if this is how it can be for Pudding- when you struggle to understand body language and gestures, when communication is both basic and foreign at the same time, does she feel this afraid? Does she misinterpret smiles as threats? If an olive branch looks like a loaded gun- how do you ever trust this world enough to make relationships in it? I’m profoundly aware, once again, that if I faced Pudding’s challenges, I would be curled up in a corner and refusing any interaction. She takes my breath away with the simplest of actions.
When we finally get there, it is Pudding’s turn top be anxious. She won’t let me go out of sight in this unfamiliar place. I try to calm her with my words, and then abruptly realize that she won’t be able to interpret them if she is already feeling vulnerable.
So we climb into bed together, and I offer her my hand. She recognises the gesture, and moments later falls asleep, her hand still holding mine. One sweet gesture at least, we both share and understand.
In case you hadn’t dropped by lately, this blog has been pretty quiet this year. For someone who normally has an overabundance of words, I’ve hidden behind pictures.
The day after Christmas, I lost one of my closet friends. Even as I type know I feel a pain that I can’t find the words to describe. Rachael was truly one of the best people I have ever known. I’m mad that she was only in my life for twenty years, but I cherish every moment we shared.
She made a disability advocate of me years before parenting would take me that extra step. The world was a better place for having her in it, and I will miss her for the rest of my life. She would have been 35 tomorrow. In the midst of grieving, we had another sudden death in our Consulate community. I’m once again lost for words, and without my outlet, I find it hard to process all this loss. I can’t make sense of the senseless.
Without writing, I am out of my comfort zone. I turned to the next best thing- my camera, and tried to content myself with viewing life through a lens. But there is always more going on outside of the frame.
In the midst of all this, Pudding has truly found her place. She is reaping the rewards of all the support and effort that goes into teaching a different thinker. My girl is reading! Not just odd words and signs, brand names and adverts. She is reading books, and learning to write her own stories.
My biggest wish for her- that she can narrate her own life story- just took a huge leap forward. She will have words. They will delight her, they will inspire her. They will give her comfort when needed. And she will own them. She will own her story.
Last week I met with the Director of Teaching and Learning at Pudding’s school. She asked me if I would take part in the conference they are holding about inclusion in international schools.
I was overwhelmed with anxiety. I can’t do public speaking. I express myself best through the written word, I couldn’t even imagine talking in front of that many strangers. This is way out of my comfort zone.
But how can I not? How can I not persuade other international schools embarking on a journey of inclusion that they need to develop programs for children like mine? They need to open up their doors.
They need to get out of their comfort zone, and so do I. I sought permission from my boss, and he went one better- he offered me his support. He reminded me that what might seem like weaknesses can be our biggest strengths.
I don’t mind stepping out of my comfort zone, if it means helping to persude more schools to do the same thing.
A recent post I wrote got a lot of attention. I’d dashed it out quickly, before starting work, as part of another blogger’s link-up. It was a sensitive subject: calling out Ann Coulter’s use of the R-word, and no sooner had I published it than I was bracing myself for the backlash.
I should have taken longer than a couple of minutes to write that one. I should have made it even more clear that I don’t have a political agenda, but a personal one to do my best to ensure this is as accepting a world as I can make it for my children.
And I know how ridiculous that sounds, and that I will never be enough change how people think and speak and treat each other, but I also know that I have to try. I know that I’m not on my own. And I know that I’d do anything to prevent my children being called that term.
The number of views on that post kept creeping up, until it far exceeded anything else I wrote. While I was pleased that so many people were interested in learning about why the R-word is offensive to the special needs community, I thought how strange it is that the most read post about my children is about something that shouldn’t apply to them at all.
I got comments that day, but they were all of a consensus with me. I couldn’t help but wonder about the ways my piece had been shared, and what other people were thinking and saying about it, but nothing negative came my way.
Another autism site occasionally takes my posts and publishes them for a wider audience. A few days after publishing my post, they shared it too. Here, the comments became offensive: I was a “cry baby”, I should “grow up”, “it is just a word”. There were supportive comments too, but what really stuck in my head was the person who insisted that I was “using a blog dedicated to handicapped children to score points against a Conservative woman (I) don’t like.”
I made a conscious decision not to respond to any of the comments there, and asked the site to no longer use my posts. I understand that some welcome debate, and encourage opposing views with the aim of persuading them to their own way of thinking. In this case, no heed was being paid to what I’d written. Assumptions were made about me, and what I had to gain from writing, that had nothing to do with the actual words I’d written. There would be no changing minds here.
But that didn’t mean that I forgot about the accusations made against me. I was angry and hurt. I’m offended by a person using the R-word be they a friend or celebrity, politically left or right. Am I using my children? I’ve always written this blog with the intention of sharing it with them.
This is our journey. We laugh, we love, we grow, we make mistakes, we reflect, and we learn. If what I write helps other people on their journey, I’m happy for that- but there is no ulterior motive here. This is simply the way we encounter the world, and how the world encounters us.
And yet those words stayed with me. They held me hostage. They made me question what I’d done, and if I should any longer write publicly. It would be so easy to stop, I have so little time anyway.
Even when I forced myself to write, just so that I wasn’t allowing someone else to make that decision for me, it didn’t stop the little voice in my head from repeating those things over and over. Then I got a comment from a new reader:
I’ve begun following your blog and I find it so moving, amusing, and delightful that I decided you needed to know! It seemed fitting to share it under one of my favorite posts. This makes me think of “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop, and the play on perspective made my eyes tear up a bit! Though I have no children of my own, your blog makes me feel like I can handle whatever comes my way with grace, compassion, and humor. Thanks
That comment made me question if I’d handled this situation in a way that was true of what she’d said. Not really. I’d allowed myself to feel all the weight of negativity without sensing any of the light. Ignoring all the support and community to focus on a person’s opinion that is far removed from us. Who not only doesn’t understand, but won’t try to.
And if I stopped writing for any reason other than it was the right time for me and my family, I wouldn’t be living life on my terms. I thought about what I would want my children to do if they were attacked in a similar way, and found my own example severely lacking.
When I think about how I want them to handle whatever comes their way, I want it to be with grace, compassion, and humour. Do I want this reader to be right about me, or a harsh critic?
And what if, what if one day somebody were to call Pudding the R-word? Would I want her to feel held up by the way we see her, or weighed down by one offensive word?
Thank you to the lady who wrote that comment just when I needed it. Thank you to each and every one of you who take the time to read, and particularly those who comment. I don’t always have time to respond to them these days, but I am going to make sure that I pay attention to what you say. That I really feel your words, and give those the weight that they deserve.
Maybe then I’ll handle things that come my way with the grace, compassion, and humour that we’re all capable of.
I keep getting calls on my work cell (mobile) phone for my predecessor, but the person calling doesn’t understand English, or the version of it that I speak. During last week’s hectic preparations, I kept getting call after call disturbing me. The person on the other end didn’t respond, and I became more and more exasperated. In the end I took to saying “wrong number” and hanging up.
At breakfast on Saturday morning, those calls started again. Eventually I gave the phone to Spectrummy Daddy who told them they had the wrong number and they listened and stopped calling. Just like that. Obviously they understand American, not English.
The kids are very interested in phone calls. We usually use skype to talk to our families, and the kids can see who they are talking to, which makes them happy. With phone calls, they have to know who is on the other end of the line. Sometimes it is impossible to actually have a conversation because of the incessant questions from both Pudding and Cubby about who I am talking to and what they are saying.
Saturday morning was no different.
Cubby:Mummy, who was talking on the phone?
Me: Wrong number.
Cubby: Was it number six or seven?
Me: (laughing) No, it was just that somebody called the wrong number.
Cubby: Who is called the wrong number? Is it number eight?
No longer at sixes and sevens, we know it is number 8, with her curves in all the right places! We’re on to you and how wrong you are. You’d think after a few years at this that I’d have learned to speak more literally, but I’m still learning.
Yep, our lines are definitely crossed!
On Tuesday morning I was in a hurry to get the kids to school and return home for the delivery of our household effects. The usual route to Cubby’s preschool was heavy with traffic, so I opted to go a different way.
Cubby: I want to go to the goat’s cheese store!
Me: What?! [I am the only member of our family who eats cheese, and even I don’t remember the last time I bought goat’s cheese.]
Pudding: Goat’s-cheese-store, goat’s-cheese-store. The goat’s cheese store, Mumm-eh! [Pudding is now pronouncing Mummy in a weird way. Not sure why.]
Me: Thank you, Pudding.
Cubby: The goat’s cheese store! I want to go to the goat’s cheese store.
Me: What do you want to do at the goat’s cheese store?
Cubby: Buy goat’s cheese.
Me: [Of course.] I don’t know where there is a goat’s cheese store.
Cubby: I fink it’s around here some place.
Me: Oh, okay. But, anyway, we’re going to school now.
We come to an intersection where the Pick n’ Pay hypermarket is located.
Cubby: There it is, Mummy. The goat’s cheese store!
Me: Aah, I see! You mean the grocery store. Say “gro-cer-y store.”
Pudding: Grocery store.
Cubby: Gross-er-cheese store.
Me: Hmm. Or you could call it a supermarket.
Me: Yes, that’s right.
Cubby: I don’t want to go to the supermarket. I don’t like soup, Mummy.
Funny that, he usually likes soup. Maybe, just maybe, he likes goat’s cheese now instead.