06 Dec We Tried Normal – 2e Family Stories: Chapter 12
Raphael is in high school, despite a rocky educational career that has included escalating behavioral problems and several suspensions. Susan knew he was different from the day he was born. He was very alert, difficult to get to sleep, and always wanted to be around people. As soon as he could walk, he would toddle over to anyone nearby and try to get his or her attention. He was sweet and chatty and people thought he was adorable. As he grew, he began to talk to people about all sorts of topics. Wherever he was, he wanted to tell people about the things he knew. He was an adept conversationalist by the time he was five.
Then he started school. Kindergarten was not too much of a problem; he was often reprimanded for talking during circle time and work time, but since these periods were short and interspersed with playtime, Raphael could adhere to the rules. But as he progressed through elementary school, his constant talking got him into trouble. Throughout most of his elementary years, he sat at a desk away from others, sometimes even facing the teacher’s desk or a wall, to try to get him to focus on his work. However, even with these isolation techniques, Raphael rarely got his work done. If he couldn’t talk to his peers, he spent most of his time daydreaming or doodling when he was supposed to be working on his assignments.
Putting him in group work did not help him to be any more productive. He often disrupted the entire group with his funny stories, clowning, or conversation. Though he didn’t get any work done, Raphael loved group work, he came alive any time he could be social and interact with others. The only time the teachers could get Raphael to focus on his work was when he was doing a hands-on project.
For example, he had always loved science and when they did science experiments he was intensely focused and on task. Susan said, “When he got to do science, he was a completely different student. He got so excited, creative, and enthusiastic about science; that was the topic he loved the best. The only problem was, he rarely got those opportunities in elementary school.”
Raphael could produce a winning science fair project and talk at length about various science topics, but could not stay focused on work that required him to sit quietly and do rote practice. Consequently, he often received unsatisfactory grades on his report card, even in science, a subject he loved and in which he clearly excelled.
“He would just zone out when the teacher gave instructions. Once he spent a whole class period doing this beautiful drawing with gradual tones and lots of detail, instead of paying attention. Most of his struggles at school were because of the way schools are set up. So much time is spent on worksheets and quiet deskwork, and so little time on hands-on activities and socializing. I feel like our school system is more about the paper chase and less about each kid’s needs.”
Raphael’s reputation among his teachers became increasingly negative. Each year began with a cumulative folder full of reported failures. Over the course of his elementary schooling, Raphael’s teachers had instituted a variety of modifications and interventions. Numerous point systems, reward systems, and punitive systems were tried, but few had any notable results. Raphael did not feel like many of his teachers liked him, and that had a detrimental effect on his attitude toward school. As Raphael’s behavior problems increased at school, the district’s behavioral specialist was called in to evaluate him. By the end of fifth grade, Raphael’s behavior was so consistently disruptive that Susan decided take him to a psychiatrist for evaluation.
Susan contacted her pediatrician and asked for a recommendation to a child psychiatrist. “I advocated for full psychiatric evaluation, including an IQ test, because I wanted to know what was really going on. Something was clearly amiss. Here was this really smart kid who can’t or won’t comply with anything at school.” Raphael was diagnosed with ADHD and some visual processing issues, but also found to have a very high IQ. This diagnosis qualified Raphael to receive accommodation for his disability, but there were no requirements or programs to accommodate his giftedness.
The psychiatrist prescribed medication and Raphael began to take it daily. This worked pretty well in the morning, because Raphael was not a morning person and tended to be more subdued then. But as the day wore on, Raphael would start to ramp up. Often, by the afternoon, Raphael was back to being disruptive in the classroom. The interventions helped, but did not significantly improve his academic performance or overall behavior. All in all, he was not a successful elementary student.
But Susan believes the worst consequence of being out of control, for Raphael, was the rejection by his peers. “By the middle of elementary school kids started to avoid interacting with him because they didn’t want to get in trouble. Then sitting at a desk away from everyone, all the time, added to his being ostracized. He did have a couple of friends that he played with when he was not in school, but he wasn’t well liked. It made me so sad to see this kid, who wants nothing more than to interact with people, be pushed away and not allowed to do it.”
Adding to Raphael’s feelings of failure were the inevitable comparisons to his older sister, Kiki, who was a model student and daughter. Kiki entered high school the year Raphael entered middle school. Susan noted that Raphael began middle school, with not only a bad track record, but also the added pressure of measuring up to Kiki’s reputation. She was a straight A student who excelled in everything she did. Kiki was a natural leader and well liked by her peers. She also had compiled an impressive resume of extracurricular activities, including many that emphasized her considerable gifts. She won both a writing and a science competition in seventh grade, and a coveted spot on a high school Olympiad team.
By comparison, Raphael didn’t have many positive academic attributes or experiences to recommend him. While Raphael’s disability accommodations followed him to middle school, the teachers were not as diligent about adhering to them. Since most teachers saw about 150 students per day, Raphael was lost in the crowd. He began to disengage, even from the social aspects of school. John’s tolerance for Raphael’s poor school performance was waning. John expected him to be more serious about his schooling now that he was in middle school. He wanted Raphael to understand that the stakes were higher and the failures more serious. Susan was worried about Raphael, too, but her worries were more focused on his self esteem.
John began to put pressure on Raphael to perform academically. Susan tried to run interference, but John resented what he perceived as coddling their son. Raphael was sensitive to the tension between his parents, which caused him to act out more at home and school. He spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office or serving detention. His relationship with his father deteriorated during his middle school years. John was very angry with Raphael, but also angry at the school. “No one at school was willing to do much to help Raphael succeed. It was so frustrating because I knew how smart he was and I felt he could have easily been on the honor roll. It was hard to watch that much potential go to waste.”
While Susan wasn’t as focused on his academic potential, she didn’t think the school had been very helpful either. Raphael was bored and disinterested most of the time and no one seemed to want to address it. “All they saw was his behavior. There was just no recognition of what he could do. I think if someone had focused on his abilities and interests, and maybe found ways to help him to work at a higher level in those areas, he might have been a much better student.”
Susan didn’t think Raphael fared better socially in middle school either. He attracted the other kids with behavior issues, but even those kids tended to drift away over time. “Raphael is an intense kid and I think he burns his friends out because he doesn’t know when to stop. He expects them to be engaged in his agenda, at a high level, all the time.” Even his psychiatrist commented that Raphael needs so much attention that he “sucks all the energy out of the room.” Susan noted sadly that Raphael is a kid who desperately wants friends but can’t keep them. In contrast, his sister, who easily makes friends, doesn’t really seem to care if she keeps them or not.
Kiki always had various circles of friends based on shared interests. Susan remarked, “There were the sporty kids, the drama nerds, the manga anime freaks. She got something different from each of them.” Kiki was often very strategic in her friendships. She was keenly aware of the social dynamics and often analyzed her own interactions with each group. “She kind of looked at her relationships in a meta-sense, like ‘here’s the social hierarchy, I’m going to do this to fit in.’ It’s strange that she built up these strategies. She understood the social melee and mixed in really well, but it was like an experiment to her. One day she was explaining it all to me and she even drew me a chart to illustrate her networks!”
Susan and John have tried not to compare their children, but the contrast is stark. One gifted child has found a way to make school and social systems work very well for her; the other has not. Kiki was very systematic and calculated about how to approach schooling so that she could reach her goal of attending an Ivy League college. In fact, she was very hard on herself and had extremely high expectations. “She beat herself up a lot. She understood that the pressure came from the outside, as part of our competitive society, but I couldn’t get her to see that it doesn’t have to come from the inside, too.”
Susan worried that Kiki was too focused on school. She would have liked to see her ease up a bit and take time to enjoy life. But John was very proud of Kiki and reinforced her perfectionistic tendencies. John put most of his parenting time and attention into supporting Kiki’s efforts and dreams. He has not been as involved with Raphael since he entered high school. “I feel like any influence I could have had on him is gone. His mother always protected him from dealing with the consequences of his actions, so I guess she will have to live with his failures.”
High school has been much more difficult for Raphael than middle school. The workload is more intense, the teachers are less willing to accommodate and mitigate his issues, and the environment is more stressful. Raphael was suspended twice during his first year of high school for repeated disruptive behavior. The worse he did in school, the worse his relationship with John became, which put more of the parenting burden on Susan. She admits that the amount of time it took to deal with all of Raphael’s issues his first year of high school has left her exhausted. “I was too tired to deal with everything, so most of the time I just gave in or gave up, because it was easier. I know it is a passive and ineffective way to parent, clearly, but I just couldn’t do it all.”
Then another problem began to emerge, Raphael became obsessed with thrill seeking activities. “He’s a dare devil, which is frightening because he has very poor judgment. He is obsessed right now with extreme mountain biking and skateboarding. I don’t think he is necessarily trying to be risky, but he is impulsive, and that makes me worry. I worry that his thrill seeking could take a darker turn, like getting into drugs or extremely dangerous sports like free climbing or base jumping. I just think he has that kind of risky personality and intensity. Kids like that are hard to keep from danger.”
Susan admits she has been challenged by Raphael’s inability to conform; she knows that he is aware of what needs to be done, but he hasn’t been willing or able to do it. “I don’t believe it is strictly his problem, I think he is responsible for his behavior, but I also think the system has set him up for failure. There just isn’t any path for him to succeed.” Susan wishes she could find some way to help Raphael be successful socially and academically. She knows that his struggles affect his self-esteem. He sees how much his dad focuses on his sister and hears him talk about how proud he is of her. Raphael frequently compares himself to his sister and finds himself lacking.
Susan notes that Raphael’s discipline issues have always centered around his immaturity, his impulsivity, and his need to be the center of attention. Susan believes that much of his behavior stemmed from not having an appropriate outlet for his intellect or active learning style. “I feel like his gifts have been swept under the rug for so long that no one sees them anymore, especially Raphael himself. No one actually believes he is a gifted kid because his behavior overshadows everything.”
Susan feels that she is not going to be able to have any influence on Raphael much longer. He is failing his classes and she fears he may drop out of high school. Susan thinks that the only way he might be able to earn a high school diploma is through a continuation high school. She is angry at John for emotionally abandoning his son, and feels that has contributed greatly to Raphael’s problems.
When she looks back over Raphael’s schooling experiences, Susan is embittered by the lack of options and support for him throughout his schooling. In hindsight, she wishes she had pulled him out of public school as soon as they began focusing on his behavior. “I know there were teachers who tried, and God knows I saw how disruptive he was in the classroom, but there was a lack of dedication to finding solutions that would make school work for him. He should have been in some program that had him doing hard physical activity and hands-on learning every day. I often wonder how different things would be if I could have afforded some private school that had an outdoor focus.”
Susan is distraught to think about Raphael’s schooling reaching a dead end. She thinks he could have loved a career in the sciences, especially something where he was outdoors, like zoology or marine biology; but she believes he has been too damaged by the system to pursue a secondary education. She hopes that she can help him figure out some alternative route to finding a career.
In contrast, Kiki achieved her goal of admission to an Ivy League school and is close to graduating with honors. Susan thinks that this will, again, make Raphael feel like a failure by comparison. “The damage of focusing on Raphael’s disabilities even reaches into our family relationships. I don’t know that my kids will ever be close as adults and it makes me so sad. I know Raphael sees himself as a loser and doesn’t have much hope of ever measuring up to his sister.”
Susan is also worried that Raphael might never achieve successful adult milestones, such as a career, marriage, and family. “I don’t want to have a forty year old living at home, sitting in his boxers playing Xbox, and that is really a fear now that he is failing high school.”