Bound to Succeed

May 9, 2019

The first words, in any language, that I heard Rahul say were “Batman, Superman, Spiderman”. When he was 7 1/2 years old we met for the first time, although I had been preparing to adopt him for 9 months. We met at his orphanage, and he was brought into a reception area where I was waiting for him. We sat together for a few minutes looking at each other, then I pulled out my laptop and we looked at photos together. The first one I showed him was of my niece and nephew dressed up for Halloween as Batman and Supergirl. Rahul looked at them in wonder and quietly whispered, “Batman, Superman, Spiderman”.

By the time we got on the airplane to come home we had determined that Rahul could count to 100 in English, could say “Hi Mom, how are you?” (while giggling and holding a hand over his mouth) and knew the English words for most things in picture books. When he arrived in the US he hit the ground running learning English like crazy. He never got frustrated while trying to explain things, and luckily I knew enough Hindi to bridge a few gaps. A few days after he arrived, he began pointing to his feet and repeating a word in Hindi that I didn’t know: “chappel, chappel”. When he saw that I didn’t understand he said “Grandpop, chappel” and pointed again to his feet. When he saw that I still didn’t understand, he dragged me into our apartment and went digging through my closet until he found my flip-flops. Triumphantly he held them up and said, “chappel”! OH! You want flip-flops! Yes! Great idea! Let’s go! And we went to the store to buy flip-flops. He always had a way of explaining to me what he was trying to communicate. And when he didn’t know the English word for something he would ask. Then I would hear him repeat the word to himself over and over again in a whisper, just like he had said “Batman, Superman, Spiderman”. And he never had to ask for that word again.

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Superman

When he started school in NYC he was really starting school for the first time. His orphanage had sent the children who were about to be adopted to school, but Rahul told me that most of the time the kids would be loaded up in a van, taken to the school, and when they would get there the teacher wasn’t there, so they would load back into the van and go back to the orphanage. My adoption agency hired a tutor to work with Rahul for a few months before I brought him home.  I met her in India and she cried when she met me. She really loved Rahul and was going to miss him. She was the one who had taught him all the English he knew.

After a year of schooling, although his vocabulary was very good,  Rahul still couldn’t read or write English at all. His teachers were beginning to get worried. They had him tested, and pulled in every resource they could think of, but when I requested in the Spring that he repeat 3rd grade with the same teacher, they were thrilled with that idea. He was definitely not ready to move on the 4th grade. So he got to go through 3rd grade one more time with Ms. Neuhaus.

But after another year, he was still really struggling. He was barely at a kindergarten reading level. He would get frustrated every day and put his head down or sit under his desk and the teachers had tried everything they could think if to help him. So one morning they sat me down and talked to me about taking him out of their school. They felt like they had tried everything and he wasn’t learning. So maybe he would do better in a private school. Or home schooled. I got the message: take him anywhere but here. But I knew that this school was the place he should be, I just had to get some more people to believe in him there.

So the next day I talked to the vice-principal about putting him in a Special Education class. It’s called a 12:1:1 class because there are only 12 students in the class, plus one teacher and one full-time para-professional. She loved the idea and took me to the class so I could see the students. She said they were a lovely group of children and I signed him up that day.

We had been seeing therapists and psychologists for Rahul’s depression, PTSD and attachment disorders with very little improvement to his mental health. At the same time as I signed him up for the Special Ed class I finally found an amazing psychiatrist who began working with us. She strongly suggested having Rahul receive a neuropsych evaluation and told me it would cost about $5000. I had no idea how I would pay for that until I had lunch with a friend who is a psychologist. She set me up with a non-profit organization that owed her a favor. They did the most amazing, thorough testing for free. From their study of Rahul we learned that he did not have a learning disability, but he performed as though he did because he had missed out on some fundamental building blocks of reading. They had a lot of practical directives and wrote a report that followed Rahul though the next five years of school, guiding his teachers to know how to help him learn.

Once Rahul settled into his 12:1:1 class, he started to ground himself in learning. He made strides, especially in math. And socially, it was really helpful for him to be around other students who struggled in similar ways to him. His teachers were excellent and his school continued to pull every resource available to support him, but he still could not read. In fifth grade, another 12:1:1 class, his teacher began to talk to me about his potential. He had become very strong in math, and he worked really hard, but he was still only at a 2nd grade reading level. He had been going to school for 3 1/2 years, but had barely progressed with reading. I knew from all the therapy work we had done that his mental and emotional issues were blocking him from learning in this area. And whenever his teachers would appeal to me to work with him at home on letters and sight words I flatly refused. I explained that although the Rahul they saw at school was very pulled together and focused, when he got home he would fall apart. Home was his safe space and I devoted most of my waking hours to helping him through the big emotions he needed to process. I explained to his teachers that I was already his Mom, his Dad and his Therapist. I could not also be his Teacher. He did not have space for me to be one more thing.

And that’s when Jessica came into our lives. She was a client of mine and when I would cut her hair she would tell me about these difficult things she had been through in her life. And she also talked to me about her work. She was Bank Street educated Learning Specialist at one of the top private schools in NYC. Because of all the things she had shared with me, I trusted her and told her a lot about Rahul’s traumas and mental health. She immediately had an idea about how to help him learn to read and we worked out a barter agreement: haircuts for tutoring. Within 2 months of working with her, Rahul jumped from a “first semester 2nd grade” reading level to a “second semester 5th grade” level! He jumped 3 1/2 years in 2 months! Jessica is obviously brilliant and she also is very compassionate, and has remained a great friend and a trusted guide for all things having to do with Rahul’s brain.

Once he could read, Rahul was off to the races. When he graduated from 5th grade his teachers were nervous about how he would do in middle school. They supported my idea to bring him out of the “self-contained” classroom and into a new model his middle school was trying that integrated “special ed” students with “general ed” ones. A group of 15 special ed students would have a dedicated support teacher that would travel to all their classes together and co-teach the class with the general ed teacher. I thought this would be a perfect setting for Rahul, but his teachers were a little worried that he would be overwhelmed at the pace. When I went to the orientation at his new middle school I remember thinking that if Rahul could hold a 79 GPA that would be an amazing achievement. I don’t know where that number came from, but it became my goal for him.

Right off the bat in 6th grade he blew me away. His grades were much higher that the 79 average I had imagined, all in the high 90s! His teachers believed in him and were invested in him. This school was no joke. It’s run by a brilliant, dynamic principal, who has assembled a team of administrators and teachers there that you would never expect from a public school in the Bronx. In NYC public schools when a student has any type of special needs they are assigned an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that dictates all the supports the student needs and it has to be reevaluated every year, with the parents and the teachers meeting together. In elementary school, these meetings started out being quite extensive, but after a few years it would just be me and one teacher signing papers in a hallway. There wasn’t much to discuss. When it came time for my first IEP meeting in middle school I walked into the room and couldn’t believe what I saw.

Crammed into a small office were every single one of Rahul’s teachers, several administrators and support staff. The woman in charge of the meeting exclaimed that she had never had so many people show up for an IEP meeting before! Then one by one, the teachers explained that they didn’t have any idea that Rahul had not been able to read until just recently or that he had only moved to the US a few years prior. They also were surprised to learn of the academic difficultly he had. One by one they told me how he was outperforming their honor students and they recommended that he switch to an all-honors curriculum. Every. Single. Subject. They explained how he was more mature than their other students and quick to grasp concepts. How he put extra effort into building relationships with them and understood their jokes when all the other students were oblivious. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! My mouth hung open and my eyes widened as they each shared their vision with me of the amazing student was was and would become. They all spent part of their day in this meeting while they should have been teaching, but they felt it was that important that Rahul move into not just general education, but an honors level curriculum.

So he did. The next year and every year afterward he has excelled in all the honors classes he could take. By eighth grade he was declassified, meaning he no longer needed an IEP. It’s so rare that a student is declassified that several of his teachers attended this paper-signing event and we made it a little celebration. He remained at the same school throughout high school and he has been at the top of his class throughout. He slogged his way through 4 years of French, which was the one subject that always eluded him. And it pulled his GPA down a little, but he felt it was important to get all the way through the course. By the end, there were only 4 students in his class and he won the most improved student award. In Eleventh grade he won the top math prize in his grade and the second prize in Science. He has ended up with something like a 94 GPA. And this year, his senior year, he and another student were voted by their classmates as the students most “Bound to Succeed”. Rahul is not the valedictorian, not by a long shot. And he’s not the class president. And most of his classmates don’t know his story at all. But they obviously see something special in him. I think it’s a combination of his grit and perseverance and intellect and focus. One of his teachers told me earlier this year that Rahul thinks on a higher plane than everyone else. Almost every teacher I’ve met over the years tells me they wish they had a whole classroom of Rahuls. They love teaching him. I see how God has put amazing people in his life to teach him and help him overcome the huge hurdles life had dealt him. Without Jessica, without my friend who set up his free neuropsych evaluation, without his very special schools that made every special allowance for him and gave him, literally, everything I asked for, without the vision that so many people have had in his life, he would probably be an average student. A 79 GPA would be the best he could do. But he would never have realized the very great potential that lived inside of him.

So now as he heads off to college and the next phase of his life, I don’t see any other future for him than that his is bound to succeed.

 

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Rahul’s amazing journey through learning:

The Last First Day of School

Clone Me

 

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The Last First Day of School

September 5, 2018

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Rahul’s first first day of school, age 7

Every year that Rahul has been with me, I have printed out a copy of his school calendar to put on our refrigerator. There’s one page for each month, so as each one ends I rip it off and throw it away. The first full school year he was with me I was shocked to discover that I was completely overcome with emotions when I threw that last calendar page of the school year in the garbage. I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. The year was over! I would never get it back. And we would just keep moving on like this until one day there would be the final calendar–senior year. I suddenly realized that in his final year of grade school each month would hold a special pain as I threw out the last September, the last February, the last June…

Well, here we are. It’s Rahul’s first day of his senior year. The last first day of school.

Rahul didn’t start school formally until 3rd grade. He had some lessons in his orphanage in India, but couldn’t read or write Hindi (his native language) or English. And when he arrived home with me in April 2008 it was practically the end of the year. I put him in a 2nd grade class, and he had a few weeks of school where he got to participate in field trips and perform in concerts. One concert, his school’s annual dance concert, was life-changing for me. I didn’t know what to expect–actually, I didn’t know what to expect about any of his school experience–and I had a conference call with my work team that morning. I thought surely I would be finished with the call by the time the concert started, but the call just kept going longer and longer. I tried to keep up, but I had my video camera in one hand, my regular camera in the other and my phone to my ear. (If only I had an iPhone back then!) And as Rahul’s group got up to perform, tears were streaming down my face as I watched him keep up with the class that had been learning this dance for weeks. I hung up on the phone call and quit my job soon after. I had realized that I couldn’t do it all and would have to find a more flexible job if single parenting this child was going to work.

He repeated 3rd grade with the same teacher both times to give him a chance to catch up. Then we switched him to a Special Education classroom in 4th grade when he still hadn’t learned to read. The summer before that school year he had a neuro-psych evaluation done and I wanted his classroom teacher to have this valuable document with all his test results and recommendations on it before school started. But despite my constant calls to the school, I could not get through to his teacher. So on the first day of school I marched him into his classroom to hand it her. Except when we got to the room there was no one there, the lights were off and the chairs were on top of the desks. We walked all over the school looking for his teacher and finally found her in the cafeteria. Apparently that’s were the Special Ed students gather in the morning. No one had informed us. I confirmed with his teacher where to pick him up at the end of the day and left my once excited, now crestfallen child in the cafeteria. At the end of the day I waited outside the door he was supposed to be exiting from and watched as every 4th grade student in the school ran out into the arms of their waiting parent except my son’s class. I was really angry and panicked by this point, because Rahul has an attachment disorder and if I don’t show up on time it triggers a PTSD episode. He thinks I’ve left him and am never coming back. Even now. So that day I marched into the school to find him and there he was, with his confused teacher, wandering the halls. I was supposed to pick him up from a different door. I had already made multiple calls to the school that day to complain and when I got home I made one more. I found an ally in Mr. Manny, the vice principal, and he assured me we could work together to improve things. I was still very upset and uneasy, so I decided I needed to go to his school and call on a different ally. I left Rahul home, walked the 2 blocks back to his school and walked around and around the school, praying. I prayed for every single human in that building. I prayed that the adults in the school would love Rahul and be charmed by him. That they would always have their eye on him. That he would find favor with all his teachers. That he would grow and learn and be safe and feel secure. I prayed until I was done, and in the end had probably walked around the school 10 times.

And this walking and praying has become an annual ritual for me. Each year, on the first day of school, I take time off of my job and I walk around and around his school, praying. I pray until I’m done. And as I walk around I picture the instructors at Hogwarts casting spells of protection around the school as the dementors are closing in. I realize I’m not casting spells, but I love to picture creating that same type of bubble around his school. I imagine my prayers traveling through the school like incense wafting through the halls and under the doors and up the stairs, until the whole school is covered by God’s protection and love. I walk away secure and confident that my child is not alone in there. That he has a spiritual army walking with him wherever he goes, whispering in the ears of his teachers, moving in their hearts.

Someday I will write about all the amazing things that have happened to Rahul throughout his school career. It’s nothing short of a series of miracles. But for now, I want to absorb this last first day of school. This last prayer walk around the campus. I want to make it count, for him and for me.

And as I move through this school year, throwing out each month on the calendar as we creep closer and closer to the end, I want to remember that armies surround me too. That I am not alone in my sentimental recognition of Rahul’s lasts and firsts. And that there are still many “firsts” yet to come.

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Rahul’s last first day of school, age 17

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