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Adoption Blog: Be Bold or Go Home

Resisting Labels at School

Last week, two envelopes arrived in the mail from our school district, one addressed "To the Parents of Gobez,” my third-grade son, adopted from Ethiopia, and one "To the Parents of Didi,” my third-grade daughter, adopted from India. My chest tightened with dread. Through experience I've learned that such envelopes often mean, We've made an important decision about your child's education. By law we are required to notify you, but we don't have the time or resources to answer any questions, so we are not enclosing the name or number of a contact person. Thank you.

I opened my son's letter first: He had tested into the district's Gifted and Talented Education Program (GATE). OK, so this was good news, right? The letter went on to explain, "The GATE program consists primarily of differentiated instruction in the classroom whenever possible/as determined by the individual teacher or enrollment in optional after-school courses available through the rec department." In other words, the district has no money to lavish on educating the "gifted."

I sighed as I turned to Didi's letter, for I knew what it would say: She had not been selected to be a part of GATE. Diagnosed with dyslexia, she is a special education student. Though she participates (and excels) in a regular classroom, she is pulled out for 25 minutes a day for one-on-one reading instruction. She's also entitled to special classroom accommodations, including extra time on written tests and a separate room for test taking to limit distractions. Did she receive those special accommodations on GATE testing day? Since there isn't really a gifted program, only the GATE label, it seemed pointless to inquire.

Even though Gobez and Didi are in the same grade, they aren't twins or even biological siblings. We adopted Gobez at the age of 4 from Ethiopia. Didi arrived at age 5 from India, in the middle of the school year, and so we opted to wait until the following fall to enroll her in kindergarten when Gobez would also be starting. It was the right decision, though she would have preferred to be a year ahead of her brother in school, thereby cementing her alpha-dog status. It's been extremely painful for her to struggle so profoundly with reading while her younger brother just breezes along with the same material. If Didi were to know the outcome of the GATE test right now, she would be devastated.

My husband and I have decided not to tell either of the kids their test results—and I was happy to learn from my son's teacher that many parents choose not to reveal GATE status to their children. The information will simply become part of his academic file, a positive label that teachers attach to his name. Because the black male athlete is a powerful cultural stereotype and the black male scholar is not, ever since Gobez started school, we've been worried about the teachers pegging him as a future pro athlete. His kindergarten teacher even joked that she is saving his autograph to sell on eBay when he makes it big. Perhaps the "gifted" label will encourage his teachers to see him more clearly as the well-rounded child that he is, a boy with a keen math mind and a powerful dropkick. As his mom, I believe his greatest gifts are his relentlessly cheerful disposition, his energy, and his compassion. I marvel at these strengths of his every day.

The list I've come across of talented, accomplished people living openly with (or are rumored to have had or have) dyslexia—Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Davis, Bill Gates—is long, but my daughter wears the label heavily at school. Her peers and probably many of her teachers don't know that researchers at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity believe this learning difference to be "a hidden source of great abilities." Like so many with dyslexia, Didi is an unusually talented artist, a creative problem solver, and a startlingly hard worker. Though she is only 9, I regularly turn to my daughter for advice on everything from decorating to fixing broken household items, for her mind works in nimble, inventive ways that mine does not.

As parents, we cannot help but want the best for our children. We want them to excel in school, to be labeled by the powers that be as "good" and "gifted," but maybe the gifts that will bring them the most success in life cannot be captured in a classroom or quantified on a standardized test. In the words of another famous dyslexic, Albert Einstein, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid."


This post was originally published on Mama Manifesto.

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My oldest son was diagnosed with developmental dyslexia in 1991.  I still don’t understand the diagnosis exactly.  He’s not adopted; I am. 

There are so many things that can contribute to a learning delay.  My gut reaction from the start was to blame his troubles on 55 hours of labor, more drugs than I’ll ever remember, and finally, me in shock, and him taken by c-section.  Yet, even all these years later, we don’t know the cause.  Maybe it was a result of him starting kindergarten at a DoD school where the emphasis was socialization, then transferring to a school stateside where everyone learned to read the previous year.  Maybe it’s genetics.  In fact, we’re doing some genetic testing right now.  But we don’t know yet.

Adoption just throws an extra variable into an already complex equation.  I was always at or near the top of my class.  Yet, my son was struggling to learn the alphabet.  In fact, he didn’t learn it until he was in fourth grade.  In every other way, he functioned perfectly normally, but he could not decipher the written word.  While I did know my biological family at that time, I didn’t grow up with them.  I was taking their word for family history, and sometimes people are less than excited about discussing these matters. 

The fact is, all these years later, the cause of his problems are just as speculative as they were 20 years ago.  He was labeled, and his younger brother was not.  My youngest son had no difficulties learning.  They’re now in their mid 20’s, and as life would have it, it’s the older one who has stolen the spotlight.  By the time they were in high school, it was my youngest son who felt left behind. 

You see, while my youngest son was doing well in school, I didn’t focus on that because I didn’t want to hurt my oldest.  In hindsight, that was a wrong decision.  It was true that my oldest was in SCI while everything came easy to my youngest, but what was really happening was that my youngest was not being rewarded for his accomplishments.  My oldest, on the other hand, had special attention devoted to him.  He was by far the highest functioning child in SCI, so he was the teacher’s right hand man.  By junior high, he was their student council representative.  He did eventually learn to read, and today, he is in a high tech career field that requires continuous education and strong leadership skills.  He is doing very well for himself. 

My youngest turned into my little rebel, went to work in a factory, and was seriously injured before he turned 21.  He’s now going through physical therapy and trying to put his life back together.  Unfortunately, the accident involved being hit in the head with 1000 pounds, so his first task was to redevelop his language skills.  He’s really just lucky to be alive.  His recovery is progressing well, but he should have been straight off to college.  Unfortunately, he was ready to be done with school.  School was not important to him.  He wanted to do other things. 

I understand as well as anyone the guilt experienced by parents when one child has a learning disability, and the other does not.  But I would strongly advise anyone to allow BOTH children to claim their accomplishments in full.  What you don’t want to do is inadvertently send a message that academic achievement isn’t worth celebrating.  It is.  And children who don’t have a learning disability need to be celebrated just as much as those who are trying to overcome obstacles.  Make hay while the sun shines.  If one child is doing well right now, celebrate it right now. 


By Jeanne on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm.

Hi Jeanne,

Thanks for reading and for sharing the wisdom that comes from your experience. I’m so sorry that your son was injured. Your advice to celebrate in the moment makes so much sense. All the best to you!

By Sharon Van Epps on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm.

Well, the injury didn’t make that story any better.  Of course, people get hurt at college as well.  The real tragedy was that he was working at that factory instead of attending college.  It was never my intention to discourage him in school, but in retrospect, that may be exactly what happened.  I should have been openly encouraging him and calling him my good little reader instead of patting him on the back privately.  I unintentionally taught him to hide his accomplishments. 

It’s very difficult to find a balance when one child is doing so well, and the other is being subjected to every stereotype in the book.  I can remember being told that I should be concentrating on “life skills” with my oldest.  After all, he may never be able to balance a checkbook otherwise.  (He did somehow manage to pass calculus in high school.)  smile At one point, a school psychologist told me my son may commit suicide if he participated in 5th grade math class.  I didn’t miss a beat.  I simply explained he could kiss federal funding goodbye if my child was not seated in that class.  My son easily passed the class, but the psychologist vanished from our school system.  It was a battle.  It was a serious battle making sure my son didn’t fall through the cracks.  All the while, my other son wasn’t receiving the recognition he deserved. 

I certainly understand your motivation.  I understand the labels.  And I wish I had it to do all over again.  I would do things differently.  Good luck.

By Jeanne on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm.

The Einstein quote said it all! Nice post.

By Stacy Clark on Friday, May 13, 2011 at 4:05 pm.

Good post Sharon,

My wife and I are also worried about labels being applied to our son, and he’ll just be starting Kindergarden in the fall.

My son has made amazing progress since coming home from India almost 20 months ago.  He knows his alphabet, can count at least to 15, and is even learning to spell a few two and three letter words like UP and CAT.  We’ve been told that he may be gifted and should do quite well in school ... IF he can overcome one issue.

We’re somewhat worried that our son will be labeled as ADD or ADHD because he is very active, to the point that he can’t seem to stay on task and follow directions.  He seems to crave sensory input and frequently moves around and will even bump into his peers seemingly for no reason other than he wants to do that.  He loves anything FAST and will even spin around, I guess to get that feeling of being in motion or something.  Teachers at preschool say they’ve tried something called “heavy work” which they say has worked on other kids.

A few weeks ago we spent three hours in our son’s IEP meeting making decisions about what assistance he will need in the fall.  I should also add that my son is legally blind, so at least part of the discussion was about Braille and other related services.

The only advice I have for you is to constantly advocate for your children in school.  You’re their best advocate and the laws these days allow for parents to have more of s say in their child’s education.

By wichuck76 on Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 11:50 am.

wichuck76…You may know about sensory integration disorder (SID) but in case not, you son’s behavior is very very typical of it (bumping, spinning, all of the sensory seeking activities).  A great book is “The Out of Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz.
    Our daughter also has sensory integration disorder ( she LOVED the tire swing on the playground) and has done really well with a great of large motor exercise (in her case swimming….she’s been on a swim team and swims an hour or so a day)....She also saw an occupational therapist who specializes in SID for various therapies…..
  SID is definitely not the same as ADHD and very treatable.

By SusanC on Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm.

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Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
Ethiopia, India

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