Please Don’t Label My Son
Letter to My Son’s Teacher
I know you are tired. At pick-up today, my son’s classmates descended upon me, broadcasting the type of day it was for you and him (He didn’t listen! He fell on me! He got in trouble on the playground!). I am tired, too.
But here’s a clue about my son: he senses us. He communicates with all parts of him. What other children express with words, he articulates with his body. Still yourself and you can hear his staccato motion tap a Morse code message:
Help me. Help me. Help me.
It’s hard to grasp, I know. We have read about “children like him,” but his actions push us so far beyond the perimeters of our comfort zones, we sometimes fail to recognize ourselves in his company. I admit, there are days when as his mother, I am my worst version of myself. Yet everyday, I dig deep inside the bottomless well of maternal love to extract a sliver more. Sometimes it feels like I dig so deep that nothing at my source remains. I’ve seen you at that precipice, too.
Previously, I envied mothers whose children blended in more seamlessly (and quietly) into social norms. But the milestones against which I measured my son only eclipsed him. Now, I find myself letting go. Daily, I recalibrate. But acceptance does not flow easily.
This summer, my family will traverse twelve time zones to the other side of the globe as a step towards acceptance. Over four days, a team of professionals will assess the kaleidoscopic workings of my son’s brain; the output of which — a report and psychological diagnosis — will interpret behaviors we have tried to decode since his infancy. After years of consulting professionals in our resident country of Singapore, my husband and I are prepared for the diagnosis. However, it is the unretractable label which follows in its wake, for which I am not ready. I steady myself.
But there is irony in my stance: this label I’ve always known.
I typed it into Google since before he was two. Everyday, I paired that label with each twinge of mother’s intuition. I suspected that label when, as an infant, he couldn’t enter malls because lights and noise made him scream, quivering for hours. The label dined with him in rainbow bites of red, yellow, green, exploding if a spoonful strayed from his pattern. When he took shelter beneath tables at birthday parties, I hid from that label. I sought solace in it, too, as words like “momentum” illuminated his toddler vocabulary and, at age five, he explained the Big Bang Theory.
(Label) and eye contact.
(Label) and friends.
(Label) and IQ.
(Label) and meltdowns.
(Label) and anything you could imagine from epigenetics to gluten-free diets.
I even typed (Label) and your school name, to augur his future next year (It didn’t look good). That label won’t help the school help my son.
What my son needs is already within you.
I’ve seen it.
He needs compassion and commitment from adults who believe he has the ability to do right even in those moments when everything he does appears wrong. He deserves to be told on his hardest of days — like yours today and mine last week — that we still believe in his inner brilliance.
It is our role as parents and educators to recalibrate our norms that say how he sits, communicates, and behaves must always be in sync with our own. When the divide between his capabilities and our expectations is too wide, it is WE, not he, who must adapt. As adults, we must cross that fissure and step into his world, so that we can help him find a path back into OURS.
A label won’t change his scientist brain, gentle heart, binary thinking, nor steady his erratic behaviors. But, I fear, it has the power to recalibrate his world. In a quick scan of the eye, that label will shape narratives that others tell about him. In turn, it will narrate the stories he tells himself. That label will follow him throughout his life. Each time a teacher opens his file, he will first be known by boundaries defined by others.
My son deserves to tell the world who he is.
Teacher, please listen to him. Here’s what that label will never tell us:
- For the first time in his life, in your classroom my son has a friend.
- He is working on a scientific proof to determine if God exists.
- He believes he has magic powers; he’s creating a spell to bring my mother back to life so I no longer mourn.
- His best friend is an elephant in Bali named Novi; they communicate telepathically.
- He wants to calculate infinity.
- He writes poetry.
- He makes up languages in code.
- It is impossible for him to lie.
- He draws before he writes, because he thinks in pictures.
- He calms himself with coloring.
- He tells me that sometimes feels like “the only person on earth” because there is “too much going on his head” which blocks him from understanding others.
- Sometimes, when his body is out of control, all he needs is an adult by his side.
- He feels that it is his “destiny” that “life is hard.”
- He tells me his brain is “different.”
Teacher, perhaps you didn’t know what it would be like to welcome a child like mine into your class. But my son didn’t choose to live in a body with that label adhered upon him. That label won’t make his days easier.
Teacher, on days like today, when he and I need you most, please don’t give up on him.
Teacher, please help me tell his story through his narrative. Help me counter the broad brushstrokes of adult observation with the intricate details of his inner world. If we are to “help” my son — accept and embrace him with empathy and unconditional love — we must learn to quiet the noise of our interpretations so that we can understand the nuances of his. Teacher, help me reframe how his future will be written. He is more than a label. He is our son.
About the Photo:
My son contributed to this piece, not only through his inspiration, but through the photographed LEGO mini figures. I asked him to create a visual that showed boys whom others think are “different.” He meticulously created characters, each one unlike the other.
About the Essay:
The goal of this essay is to increase dialogue between families, educators, and specialists to understand children with special needs. It is not a critique of any teacher or school. It is an invitation for compassionate collaboration.
About the Author:
Based in Singapore, Susan Margolin is a no-longer-closeted writer and mother of feisty 3 year old daughter and talented 7 year old son with special needs. She is currently researching models and gaps in educational services for children on the autism spectrum in Asia. This is her first publication.