Education Opinion

This Boy’s Life

By Nancy Flanagan — October 28, 2010 8 min read
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Thanks to Kaydonna Wolfcale for writing and sharing this story about her son’s experiences with schooling in the post-NCLB world. What makes the story powerful is the fact that it’s so ordinary--Ryder could be anybody’s promising, energetic, much-loved little boy. Kaydonna is an educator herself--a Texas kindergarten teacher who stayed home to raise her three sons--and her disturbing tale is marked by a recurring pattern of strengths and successes turned into punishments and failures. Meet Ryder:

Within the first hour of life, Ryder held his strong head up and looked around at his new world. He didn’t even seem like a baby; he was mature-looking, heavy and huge. Over the next few months, he grew fast. He was wearing 24-month clothes at six months.

My son was advanced in everything he did. He rolled over the first time at five weeks (got it on video!) and he crawled, walked, ran and jumped long before he was supposed to.

He had muscles, strong bones and a strut just like his daddy. By 12 months, he could jump flat footed up each step on the porch.

At his 18-month checkup, Dr. Young asked what words he could say. I said, “He can say everything. He talks in sentences.” My English-teacher sister said, “He can even conjugate verbs!”

Some mornings I would read him 15 books before 9:00 a.m. He could “read” some of the books too--he had lines memorized from his favorite videos, and had a “Handy Dandy Notebook” that he carried around, like Steve in “Blue’s Clues.” He was amazingly smart and had an unbelievable memory and creativity.

At 21 months, he knew all his ABCs (out of order) and numbers and could identify shapes. He didn’t go to preschool. I was a kindergarten teacher staying home to raise my babies.

Then, he turned five. Nine months later, he started kindergarten. He was very independent and happy to start to school. It was time and he was ready! Such a tough, strong confident little dude. And kindergarten was fine. His teacher said he was “wonderful.” He already knew everything he needed to know. Ahead of so many others in his class.

During first grade things started to change. He started to not like school. Homework was hard. He would cry and say he had a stomach ache. I would take him to school and not be able to get him out of the car. He would cry and say he was sick.

Many times he said, “My teacher only likes the girls.” I knew the worksheet/paper-pencil curriculum was geared more to girls, but Ryder was excited about reading chapter books and loved the magic tree house books. We bought the whole set at Wal-Mart! Although he didn’t really love school, he made good grades. During this first grade year, his beloved Grammy lost her long battle with cancer.

Second grade was great. His teacher was young, fresh out of college and pretty! He loved her and she loved him - no question about it. He still made good grades in school. He applied for a motocross race to be held in Texas Stadium. Part of the application was a copy of his report card and a referral from his teacher. I remember thinking he would be the smartest kid entering the race!

Then third grade--an absolute disaster. Worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. My smart little boy was slowly disappearing. I am totally against medicating a child to concentrate - but we were suddenly in desperate survival mode, wondering if medication was our only option. The timed math fact pages-- three a night! --were driving us insane. He just couldn’t memorize the math facts and the pressure of timed tests was almost abusive.

He HATED to read--but had to meet the Accelerated Reading goals or he would be left behind when the class took the AR reward trip to Wonderland Park. So he met his goal - but hated every single story. He was overwhelmed by reading test-prep worksheets. Most of the grades on those worksheets were failing. He did pass the high-stakes TAKS test that year - but he hated school so much, many nights he would cry himself to sleep. I collected over 1,000 test prep worksheets, most with failing grades--all completed in a single year.

Frustrated, we left public school and enrolled Ryder in a private school. The advertisement sounded too good to be true --everything I believed in, aligned with research-based best practice. His 4th grade teacher told me, in the second week of school, what a terrible student Ryder was. She had a class full of troublemakers and he was one of them. His work quickly went downhill. I didn’t even recognized his handwriting; it was worse than it had been in first grade. Suddenly it seemed my son had some kind of problem. Learning disability? Dyslexia? What? Why is he suddenly a failure?

Thank goodness for sports and motocross. It was good for Ryder to come home and get on his motorcycle and go as fast as he could, flying over huge jumps. He won hundreds of trophies, racing all over the country. He loved baseball and made the All-Star teams in 3rd and 4th grades. Sports were always his stress relievers and where he found success.

He survived 5th grade with a kind, easy-going teacher. By 6th grade, it was clear that it was time to go back to public school. The private school had fewer resources and teachers lacked training. All three of my boys are rough and tough small-town country boys and seemed out of place in the private school.

We transferred to another school. Suddenly, success with all three kids-- a complete turnaround! The best part was the extra activities. Ryder got to play drums in the band! He loved playing percussion and really enjoyed band class. But when he didn’t pass the TAKS math test and barely passed reading, he was informed he would have to take study hall instead of band. Instead of computer class, he would need two math classes. We still loved our new school, especially the athletic program. But mid-football season, I got a call from the doctor: the MRI results were in, the summer elbow injury was worse than we knew. No more 7th grade football, as the damaged growth plate needed weeks of 100% rest.

I also got a note from one of his favorite teachers, “Ryder is not trying in school. After he stopped playing football, he just quit trying in class.” My first thought was to discipline him. But then I realized--everything he loves to do has been taken away: football, motocross, drumming. Because he’s left-handed, he was having a hard time doing his school work. When he was finally allowed to use his left arm again, it was just in time for TAKS test season.

During track season Ryder, who never complains of pain, started to complain that track was ruining his knees--that he couldn’t run fast any more. A few days before the first track meet, I e-mailed the coach and much to my surprise he replied, “Ryder can’t go to the track meet. He didn’t pass science. We were counting on him helping our team, we are very disappointed.” I didn’t know--a surprise, and an embarrassment.

His reading and language arts teacher was concerned he might be dyslexic. I asked that he be tested. But a school committee decided to not test him for dyslexia. I went to see the principal. who said Ryder was getting better on his benchmark tests. If he passed the test, we would know he does not have a problem.

The next day I sent a written request demanding that he be tested. But the TAKS test came before the dyslexia test. He didn’t pass two of his TAKS test.

Two weeks before the end of 7th grade he was finally diagnosed as dyslexic--two weeks before 8th grade. There is only one dyslexia specialist, so as an 8th grader he went to her class at the elementary school for an hour and a half. He didn’t want to go to the elementary school. He didn’t want help. He just wanted to be left alone at this point.

Ryder was supposed to be at his dyslexia class at 7:15 each morning in the elementary school. He HATED the class. He was learning letters and sounds and cursive handwriting--all “baby stuff.” He was angry about having to go.

It doesn’t look like he will get to play football this year. Several times, he has said he wished he could go back to band class. His friends are having so much fun and he loves to play the drums. Because of his TAKS test scores, he isn’t allowed to take band class.

We discovered he had major growth plate damage to both knees. Running track really did ruin his knees. There is now a possibility he will never get to play football again. All of his classes are to improve his academics in order to pass the tests. He now believes there is no way he can pass 8th grade. He can’t do motocross, because he can’t use his knees until they heal. This is a tough season for my awesome, talented son-- 8th grade is a very important year. He is learning to be a teenager. He needs a success.

If only I could rewind to the days last spring when he told me “track is ruining my knees.” I keep thinking about the time when the coach sent Ryder to run--for punishment--the mile. He took the punishment, running that mile after two months of excruciating pain in his knees.

The dyslexia? I recently voiced my concerns about Ryder sitting in little kindergarten chairs learning letter sounds. The teacher very quickly said she would end the extra class. What a relief! Suddenly, Ryder was excited to get to school again. At his 504 meeting a few weeks ago, his reading teacher told me he could read on an 8.6 reading level. He still has a hard time getting his work done and he doesn’t like to read, but the teacher said he actually reads better than a large percentage of his classmates.

Does he really have dyslexia? Or burn-out? Or high-stakes test-induced dyslexia that began in third grade? His K/1/2 teachers all told me they remember his great reading and writing abilities. What happened in 3rd grade?

I know everything happens for a reason, but it’s been very hard for a mother to watch her son go from smart, athletic and so successful to being a kid whose potential has been denied.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.