Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Upside of Orchids

After reading my last two posts, one might conclude that it's better to be a dandelion than an orchid. Sure, one forgoes the shot at the particularly odd brilliance of a well-nurtured orchid, but doesn't being an intelligent, well-adjusted dandelion outweigh the risks of emotional instability that come with orchidness?

Maybe. Maybe not. In thinking about children I've known, one set of siblings stuck out immediately as a clear illustration of the upside orchids and, by extension, the risks involved in dandelion-ness.

Years ago, I was a substitute teacher in a rural New Mexican school district. I taught all grades, so I got to know several sets of siblings fairly well. In one family of six siblings I taught the eldest 6th-grade girl Shania, a second-grade boy David, and the kindergartener Brianna. Brianna and Shania were in special education. David was not. When I taught Shania, I would ask her about her work. She would answer, "I don't know" to my questions often, but with further probing, I often found she did know. She knew a lot. She lacked confidence in herself, and risking being wrong seemed a safer option than being proved wrong. Shania, I suppose, fits the dandelion mold well.

Brianna I taught in the beginning of the year, and then again toward the end. When I first met her, her teacher was drawing dots on her paper for her to trace in order to write her name. When I began teaching her special education class in late April, she sat waiting patiently as I asked the class to write their names on their papers. "Brianna, does your teacher still make the dots for you?" She nodded. "Phoney, baloney, I know you can write your own name! You may have her fooled, but you're not foolin' me!" (Okay, I didn't know if she could write her name, but it was a gamble that ended up paying off, luckily.) Brianna, in shaky handwriting wrote her name, looked up at me, and beamed. She did it!

How did she manage to go through almost an entire school year without once being asked to write her own name? I don't mean to cast blame on her very over-worked teacher, but I can see how Brianna managed to slip through in this case. First, she looks really young. She's petite, and looks much younger than the other five and six year-olds in her class. And she rarely speaks. (I remember she got pulled out by the speech therapist quite often. I often wondered if her speech pathology was a motor problem or just one of extreme shyness.) Brianna mostly sits quietly, smiles, and looks heart-breakingly cute. In an otherwise rowdy kindergarten class, she's every teacher's dream. And an unmistakable dandelion.

David is everything his sisters aren't. Prone to outbursts, tears, and frustration, I know he drove his regular teacher to fits of screaming herself. When I subbed David's class, not one minute into our day David had his first meltdown. I asked the class to take out their pencils and paper. David erupted, "I don't have a pencil! I don't have a pencil!" "Maybe you can borrow one from a friend?" I offered. "I don't have any friends. Nobody likes me! They all hate me!" "Nonsense," I said. "I know your class is very kind and helpful. I'm sure somebody here would like to be a good friend and loan you a pencil. Now, who here has a pencil they'd like to share with David?" Hands shot up among cries of "me, me! I do! I do!" David, within his family as well as his class, was an orchid among dandelions.

After reflecting on my experiences with these three siblings, it's apparent to me how Brianna and Shania tested into special education and David didn't. David, when faced with a problem he couldn't solve, would dissolve into tears and cries of "I can't do it! I can't!" And someone: a teacher, a parent, a fellow student, would come to his aid and help him solve his problem. Brianna and Shania, on the other hand, would say nothing about the difficulty, and thus, never gained mastery over tasks. Not because they couldn't do it, mind you, but because no one noticed that they needed help. And so their brother's orchidness became a cumulative advantage that determined his testing above the threshold for special education while his sisters fell below it. His orchidness expressed itself in such a way that allowed him to get the help he needed while his dandelion sisters slipped through the academic cracks.

It makes me wonder, as a parent, when do I fail to notice when my more dandelion-leaning daughter needs help simply because she doesn't express it in a way I've come to recognize in her older orchid sister? Perhaps there are other downsides to dandelion-ness that have gone unnoticed. I hope that for Shania and Brianna, someone recognized that despite quiet, good-natured ways, they needed academic nurturing just as much as their orchid brother.

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