A few years before I got married I worked in college admissions for a small women’s college in Vermont. The students that applied mostly came from the Northeast and for many of them they were first generation college students.
I remember a conversation I had with my friend, the assistant director of admissions. We were talking about a potential student who we knew would be a great fit for the school but hadn’t sent in her deposit yet. The assistant director had multiple conversations with the young woman. Finally, the applicant said “I want to come to your school. I just can’t put pen to paper to send in what I need to.”
It’s a sentence that stuck with me for some reason. Maybe it was the clever use of words to describe the difficulty in getting an idea out of her head and putting it out there for others to see. Maybe I just admired her honesty. Whatever it was it’s a phrase I’ve used often now as a parent when describing Howie’s difficulties in school.
It was vacation week this week and Howie needed to catch up on some work from school. He had begun to check out about a week before vacation started and work wasn’t getting finished. Yesterday morning he came to work with me and with a lot of reinforcers, we got down to work. He was working really hard on a math sheet consisting of addition and subtraction of three digit numbers. He was concentrating really hard on watching the signs and borrowing or carrying when necessary. After every question he asked for a mom squish.
With about six questions to go, he put his pencil down.
“My brain is buzzing!”
I looked at him. His body was slumped in his chair. He was spent.
“Your brain is buzzing?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“It means my brain is buzzing. Can I be done?”
I decided to push a little bit. “We can be done with this one. But let’s do a few more smaller problems and then we will be completely done.” He had one sheet of single digit subtraction with a few problems left to complete.
“Okay.” He said quietly. He did the ones I asked. “Now can I be done?”
“Yup. Nice job!”
He took out his iPad and began to play his Blocksworld app.
“Hey – does your brain buzz like that a lot?”
“Sometimes,” he answered. He looked up briefly at the original three digit math sheet. “When I do work like that.”
It’s clear his frustration level comes from not being able to get the answer out of his brain. In school he uses phrases like “Mrs C! I have butterflies in my brain” when he’s asked reading comprehension questions and he starts to shut down. He can only complete three out of six rows of a subtraction math test in the allotted time. When questions are modified or time restrictions are removed, he can get the answers correct. It just takes a teacher willing to sit and connect with him. Or help him get pen to paper.
He knows his stuff. He can read and answer questions about the book when it’s something he’s interested in. He can apply math concepts to real life situations and when given his time and his space he can do word problems and regular math problems. In his way.
In the middle of vacation week on a particularly rainy morning, Howie was doing laps inside the house. He grabbed a kitchen timer and timed himself doing one lap in the house.
“I did that in 16 seconds!” He exclaimed. “Now let me do some homework. If I did two laps in the house, at the same speed, my time should be…32 seconds! Let’s try it!”
And for the next 10 minutes, he timed himself doing laps and predicting what his times would be.
It makes me think a lot about the pen to paper issue going forward for Howie in school. The work is just going to get harder. The gap between what he knows and what he can get out of his head will grow when taught in a traditional school setting. He could start to fall behind academically – not for lack of ability but for an inability to do it in the manner required. His intelligence is his strength and it pulls him through the difficulties he has sitting, attending and well, putting pen to paper.
So what will happen to him emotionally when his grades may not reflect his true knowledge? How do we keep him from giving up trying to put pen to paper at all? And how to we make sure he continues to have teachers who stop and listen to his “butterflies and buzzing” to help him through?
I wish I could remember what happened with that applicant all those years ago. I can’t remember if she ended up matriculating or if she went somewhere else or didn’t go to college at all. I hope that wherever she ended up, she was happy with the decisions she made.
I’m forever grateful to her for teaching me a phrase that would help me understand Howie better than any other. And as we work through the butterflies and the buzzing in his head, I’ll make sure he knows that others have trouble putting pen to paper too.
“If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old-time movie
‘Bout a ghost from a wishin’ well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free
As long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see ” – If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot