Desperately Seeking Someone to Blame

My son has limitations. They are no one’s fault, especially not his. I know this. Yet I am angry. All the time, I am angry.

In moments of clarity, which do prevail, I conclude that to have learned all that he has in the four years we have been a family, Daniel is not only not behind, but he is gifted. He may be levels and years below his peers in reading, writing and reasoning, but in the first five years of life, which his peers spent being loved, playing with toys and leafing through books, he did nothing. There was nothing to even hold.

In our first two years together, by the time Daniel turned seven, he had learned sixteen of twenty-six letters, some of which he could identify either as only a capital letter or only a lowercase one. Some he could write, but not identify; others the other way around. After two years in kindergarten, countless hours of crouching over workbooks and lined paper at his desk or at the kitchen table, he had learned four colors–black, white, yellow, and red–and could recognize, sometimes with light prodding, sometimes with exhausting effort, the numbers 1, 2, 6, and 7, the latter two as a result of having had two birthdays, which had etched his age into his memory. The only two names of shapes he was able to memorize were star and circle. He couldn’t draw either, as he still struggled with coloring within lines or making out the shapes of letters and numbers, which represented no meaning at all. We had color days, when he wore a blue shirt, blue shorts, a blue hat, ate blue M&M’s, and colored and wrote only with blue crayons and markers. The next day, I would ask him what color his shovel was or to show me something blue, and he would point at a green pillow or purple sweater, and say, this? It wasn’t until the end of our third year together that Daniel learned to tell blue and green apart, and identify more colors, like orange and purple and brown. But even then, he often confused all colors for each other, except black and white, and brown because that was one way he identified himself.

Sometimes, a letter would be among the ones he knew for weeks, and then it would suddenly join the ones he could neither identify nor sound out. He watched phonics videos; we practiced relentlessly. Once, I had him write the letter v on line after line of lined paper of which we always have a replenished stack. Each time he wrote the letter, he said vee. When he had filled half a page with uneven check marks, I said, good job; so, what letter is this? He looked up at me from the paper peppered with v’s, pencil still in hand, eyes and mouth wide open. He had no idea what the letter was. First, I scolded him for not paying attention, not trying. Then, I made him feel worse by saying that he wouldn’t learn to read until he learned the letters. Then, I tucked him in at night, and walked for two hours, weeping aloud on barren streets, worrying the occasional passerby, telling myself I had no right to call myself a mother or a teacher, praying to be forgiven and granted the patience and wisdom to raise my son well.

He is nine now, and he knows the numbers, letters, colors, and shapes. He reads, albeit with tremendous struggle. He writes, most eloquently when he is penning notes to friends and family to wish a happy birthday or to apologize. The apologies are almost exclusively addressed to me, usually after we have struggled through a terrible few hours of homework that have left us both angry, drained, and hurt. When he hands me a note, I usually slip it into my pocket until I am out on my late night walk, and I can weep. It is I who should be apologizing — for being rough, demanding, relentless, as if the story of his life weren’t enough to make me back off, leave him be, stop pushing him where he can’t reach. It is I who should be offering an apology, which I do almost every time. Except I can’t stop pushing him. I can’t leave him be.

I am raising a black boy in America. I wish I could have written the sentence without mentioning the color of my son’s skin, but then I wouldn’t be telling the whole story. I am terrified of what happens to young black men who give up on themselves, or who come to believe that they can’t achieve. I am short of breath every time I imagine my son older, as angry as he is now, but also feeling that he has failed. I can’t stop pushing. I can’t leave him be.

I know why he reads like a five-year-old, thinks like one, and sometimes acts like a toddler. My husband and mother also know. So do our extended family and friends. But the world sees a big, strong boy, who acts like he shouldn’t. The world doesn’t know why, and most people wouldn’t care to understand. Why should they?

When I had first met my son, he was five years old and didn’t speak. I was told he never would. I didn’t listen. When he couldn’t learn the primary colors after three years of every imaginable way to teach, when he could’t read, although everything in our home was covered with lined paper labeling almost every item in sight, when he couldn’t learn the numbers from one to ten and couldn’t tell me how many muffins were in a bowl, I sometimes told myself I should embrace that my son’s limitations were such that he couldn’t and wouldn’t learn certain things. But I could never find it in myself to stop pushing and leave him be.

He has earned many awards in school, most of which are given to him for outstanding effort and for helping others. He makes terrific collages, tells remarkably eloquent, engaging stories, reads, writes, and solves math problems. Although he continues to perform below level in academic work, he is thriving by all measures. He is charming, funny, and deeply sensitive. And most of the time, he is happy.

Daniel adores his little sister, and cares for her with a kindness that is touching, and a painful reminder of the unmet needs of his own early life. He tells us to be gentle when we are changing her diapers and worries that the apple slice might be too big for her. He embraces her, laughs with her, and tells her she is so beautiful and so sweet. Every time she learns something new, he gasps in awe, lets out a hearty laugh, and exclaims, wow, Imani, you are so smart! I marvel at his generosity of spirit, and almost every time I watch my children play or share snacks, I ache.

My daughter is nineteen months old. She points at objects we name, recognizes a few numbers and colors, and knows the names of some of her body parts and favorite foods. She knows she prefers to hold the marker in her right hand. She insists on feeding herself, brushing her eight teeth, and sometimes, washing herself. This is a list of things my son began to learn when he was five and a half years old–because that’s how long it took for him to become unstuck and join a family, where life could begin to unfold.

For four years now, I have wished with all my being that I had someone with whom to be angry for this, whom to blame and curse for the losses for which I cannot and will never be able to compensate. My boy shouldn’t be struggling this way. No child should; not for such reasons. After a slew of genetic, psycho-educational, and medical tests, we know for a fact that nothing in his DNA or his constitution is making it so painfully difficult for him to learn. It is only the time that was lost, the five years of his life that were wasted, during which some believed and some told him that he couldn’t and wouldn’t learn.

The anger I carry for this is violent. I want to lash out against whomever, pounce my fists on their chests, scream that they are beasts for taking away my son’s chances to succeed. But there is no one. So I turn against myself, angry that I am not a good enough mother or teacher to help my son bridge the many gaps. And I get angry with him–for not trying hard enough.

The other day, when it was time for homework and we were both exhausted from the demands of our respective classrooms, my son couldn’t read at all. He couldn’t decode the simplest words, ones he has known and used for quite some time now. When it was time to write sentences using words from his weekly vocabulary list, I had to dictate every sentence, repeating each word multiple times, spelling every single word. When he had to write the word and, I refused to help him, now visibly, viciously angry. Sound it out, I demanded, and he recoiled and sank into the chair. Sound it out, Daniel. Um, u? he asked? E? I? I banged my fist on the table, and said, and, Daniel. Eh-nuh-duh. Nothing came. I spelled the word, three times, and berated him harshly, as he struggled to write the three letters. Later that evening, he wrote an elegant note for his father’s birthday, of his own accord and without a single error.

A few days later, when we were doing math, he struggled through every problem, even ones for which he knew how to find answers. He arrived at a wrong answer for each problem, and there was no justifiable cause for the kinds of errors he made. When I asked him, again angry, to tell me what was one plus one, he fumbled with his fingers, trying to count something I couldn’t begin to understand. I barked the answer, and told him he wasn’t even trying. We moved on, and for another problem I asked him what was more, a plate with three apples or a bucket with fifty. He said, the plate? I told him to finish homework with his father. My hands were shaking. My legs felt limp. When he was asleep, I walked the barren streets and wept. I am a terrible mother.

It isn’t always this way. But it is this way often. Tonight, I stood in the Union Square park, crying, and asked my friend, what is going to happen? She told me because his heart is good, my boy will be all right. We have to believe that he will be, she said. I know this. It’s why I never stop pushing, why I never leave him be. I will never stop believing in my son, in everything he can and should do. But what makes a good mother, relentless faith in her child, or the ability to recognize her child’s limitations and know how far is too far? Whatever the answer may be, I don’t see what is too far for my son, haven’t decided what things are out of his reach, even if the gaps have grown into chasms. If I don’t believe in my son, no one else will. Why should they?

(June 2013)

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