Sanctuary

One of the great joys in my life, is our homeschool group. The women who started and run it are, without a doubt, among the most amazing people I have ever met. Having been through stuff that would make your toes curl, the lessons they took away have made them consistently empathetic, tolerant, compassionate, and kind.

Also, they’re quirky as all get out and so are all our kids, so there’s bucketloads of that particular, tar-black sense of humour.

We all bask in finding this concentration of other mothers who Get It; even if the particular diagnosis doesn’t apply in your house, you’ve had the experience of trying to raise a child who doesn’t follow any of the developmental rules and therefore having to overhaul every last one of your expectations. And then keep overhauling. When someone arrives with teeth gritted, everyone else has a pretty good idea of what they’ve likely been through that morning. Both parents and kids are treated with an extra dose of kindness, and everyone feels, you know – understood.

I know these exceptional mums love what they’ve created, and I also know that this doesn’t stop it being physically, mentally, emotionally and sensorily demanding, very hard work, the sort that would drive most school-teachers to despair or cruelty or quitting. But instead they have created that very rare, very special thing, a place where extraordinarily challenging kids – the ones who are always butting so painfully against the world – feel completely accepted and valued.

And, you know how I know? Because this morning, this happened:

My daughter and some of the other kids have been reading a book by a local author, who also happens to be friends with the group’s founder. She’s been invited to come chat to the kids, later this week, so when I ‘bumped into’ her online, I said, we have friends in common; I’m looking forward to meeting you this week! She replied, oh, are you with the school? Yes, I said, but you’ll be better prepared if you think of it as a circus. (Having no better description of what it’s like, being in a roomful of 2e kids, especially one where they feel fully accepted for who they are.)

At this point, CraftyFish came in, so I related the tale to her, knowing she’s excited to meet the author, and that she’d get a kick out of the circus comment.

I didn’t get that far, though. As soon as I mentioned the word ‘school’, she puffed up like a society matron smelling a fart. “Do NOT call our group a SCHOOL,” she exclaims, outraged. “It is NOT a SCHOOL. It’s a SANCTUARY.”

Can I invite you to sit with that, for a moment? Because there is a lot packed into that one word: The sense that school (even the wonderful school we went to) asks us to be something else, something other than who we are, to meet other people’s expectations, often regardless of your own. The converse sense of safety and recognition that our group provides. The sense of ownership, of belonging. The sense that this is, in fact, a place safe enough for her to do things that have so far been challenging, such as … reading a novel. The drama of the delivery, sure, because as long as you’re not hurting someone else or being disrespectful, that’s okay.

It made my heart melt, it did. It is all I would wish for anyone, but perhaps most for our quirky kids: that they find a sanctuary.

The perfectionism is a @#$*!! post

out-of-focus picture of gum tree branches against sky
©careerusinterruptus

Ho, boy, perfectionism. THAT miserable disease. Too often the term’s bandied around like it belongs to high achievers: Strive for perfection, get straight As! Sure, sometimes they can be a little driven, but hey, on the whole, it’s a good thing, right? That tendency will get them far in life.

Bollocks.

Perfectionism in our house bolted the door and hamstrung the horse before it ever left the stall. Perfectionism is a caltrops, a shackle, a monstrous barrier to progress. Perfectionism is a severe learning difficulty.

Lemme tell you a story.

One day somewhere in his third year, Mr Pixel wrote me a note. I couldn’t read it, of course, because it was unformed pre-school scribbles, but I made valiant efforts to guess at the content.

He wasn’t fooled. He wanted me to READ it. When he realised I couldn’t, a look of pure disgust settled on his face, and that was it. He was done with writing. DONE.

Just how done, I had no idea.

You see, Mr Pixel had decided that since he couldn’t, instantly, write intelligibly, then by god he wouldn’t write at all.

I didn’t know that, of course.

How could I?

He wasn’t even three, for goodness sake; I just figured, it would come.

So we gave him plenty of opportunities. Besides free painting and drawing, there was colouring-in, dot-to-dots, white-boards, and mazes – ways to practice writing-like movements more forgiving than forming letters. Mr Pixel wasn’t interested. (In retrospect, I should have twigged when he’d use his finger to trace a maze, but nothing that left a mark.*) We had fat crayons, markers, pencil grips. He ignored everything.

Perhaps he had fine- or maybe gross motor issues? We swam, we had Lego, play-dough, squeeze-balls, kinetic sand – anything to strengthen his muscles.

We tried an occupational therapist. Lovely young woman, sporty, full of giggles. Mr Pixel adored her – though not enough to do what she asked. “It’s my pencil and my hand, I’ll hold it how I want,” he said, barely five years old. (SAF. It’s frickin’ real.) $900 later we quit flogging that horse, because having refused to play any of the OT’s homework games with me, Mr Pixel had eventually quit engaging with her at all. He’d worked out what was really going on, and he wasn’t having a bar of it.

School didn’t push. They recognised that kids mature at different paces and were confident that he’d write when he was ready.

Which may well be shortly after hell freezes over. Five years later I’m pretty sure you could fit every mark he ever made at school onto one sheet of A4 with a nice wide margin for framing.

Yes, I know. Dysgraphia. But how can you tell? It’s a completely self-reinforcing cycle. Is he refusing to try because it’s difficult, or is it difficult because he refuses to try, or both? How do you help someone who has simply decided they Won’t? Hint: treating it as if it’s dysgraphia – offering to scribe, for instance, typing, or voice-to-text software – doesn’t work. All you get are dirty looks and a zipped lip.

Text-to-voice, on the other hand, worked brilliantly for about a fortnight, during which Mr Pixel typed reams of swear-words into my phone for my car to say while I was driving.** (Cheers, inventors of Bluetooth, bet you didn’t foresee that.) Then the novelty wore off and we were back to No Writing.

Not writing has one major benefit, you see. Most schoolwork requires writing, so a kid who won’t write has pretty effectively shielded themselves from ever have to risk being wrong, or making a mistake that others might see. This principle works right across the board: If there’s any chance an activity won’t be instantly mastered – which is pretty much everything – it’s off the agenda.

THAT is perfectionism, people.

It kills me and it breaks my heart.

I have no answers. It goes without saying that anything Mr Pixel does want to try is greenlit. As parents we talk frequently about our learning efforts in his hearing, emphasising the frequency and usefulness of mistakes. He watches educational videos and we talk ideas. And we keep providing opportunities, not just for writing but other, low-risk, open-ended activities like paint-pours or making fimo beads – our homeschool group is perfect for this, god bless those people.

Minecraft and Lego have both been great for trying and failing, without losing face. He’ll type texts for me if I’m driving and when his server crashed, he asked for help composing support messages to the host.

And after years of that, we are finally starting to see writing, in the sanctuary of our homeschool group, with a teacher who absolutely gets Mr Pixel (and a class full of others like him). With their encouragement – and their very broken-down, structured lessons – he’s begun producing stories and paragraphs that don’t just say ‘poo poo poo poo’. (Even that was only a one-off.) He’s getting there, having a go, learning what success feels like and more importantly, that mistakes are survivable. Which after all, is really the only way to break perfectionism’s paralysing grip.

* = I figured it out when CraftyFish – who owns many untouched workbooks, including The Gifted Kids’ Workbook, Create This Book, and The Big Life Journal – explained that she won’t write in them for fear of “ruining them”. At least she Wrecked This Journal; Mr Pixel wouldn’t even do that.

** = Yes, I let him, because HE WAS MAKING WORDS. Plus, the pair of them giggling their heads off was such a nice change from the screaming.