Bracelets for Our Brothers
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What is your definition of success?
Posted on January 29th, 2017

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
Albert Einstein


I will never, ever forget this moment as long as I live.  We arrived with our two daughters in America the first of April last year after spending almost a month with them in Bulgaria.  Our time in Bulgaria was about survival. When we got home, however, the reality of needing to enroll them in school, and prepare them to function in a classroom set in.  Our girls did go to school in Bulgaria, but I use both "go to school" and "school" lightly.  We saw the school.  Not much teaching and learning going on there.  And, our oldest, had about 120 unexcused absences from cutting classes and terrorizing the village they lived in instead.  If you're doing the math, that's pretty much the whole school year to that point.

Anyway, back to the moment of truth.  We'd been told our girls were on target academically.  We decided to put a math worksheet without language in front of them, just numbers.  Basic one-digit addition.  The first question was 5+3=.  Evvie, 13 years old, wrote 10 as her answer.

That moment of realization stung.  I will never forget the looks my husband and I exchanged with each other in that second of disbelief.  She and her sister filled out the rest of the page, all of the answers were wrong.

That is where we started, and it has been a long road academically the last 10 months.  It has been a long road developmentally as well.  Milestones that children typically reach at certain ages that our children have long since passed are still largely unmet in our house.  Things that seem simple and we assumed they'd come home knowing how to do are still daily struggles of coordination, motor skills, and connecting cognitive dots.  Tying shoes, using utensils to eat, opening food packages, brushing teeth, brushing hair, putting clothes on independently, putting shoes on the correct feet, buttoning pants or shirts (for a long time we were able to avoid this with size 6 or smaller pants for Stella that had snaps, but now she has outgrown those), zipping, using scissors, holding a pencil, forming letters correctly-- all of these things are daily challenges for both children.  And, single-digit addition is still a struggle, too, some days.

This is not because our children are unintelligent.  This is not because our children are incapable.  This is not because our children are uneducable (which is what we were told by their caretakers and teachers).  This is due to extreme neglect.  While most children, by the age of 9 and 13, have had multiple adults in their lives helping to reinforce and teach these concepts, our children were experiencing unspeakable abuse and neglect at the hands of adults.  Children cannot learn when they are in a perpetual state of fear.  The lasting impact on the brain, their ability to connect the dots and learn these concepts, is astonishing.

That day, that moment that 5+3 equaled 10, forced my husband and I to take a long, hard look at our definition of success.  At the time I was teaching high school in an affluent area where GPA, SAT and ACT scores, AP classes, AP scores were the priorities for many families.  College applications, sports and fine arts accolades, academic achievement, scholarships, a major that will allow the the child to earn a degree in a respected field and probably earn a large salary were at the top of the priority list for most of my students and their families.  It was such an interesting dichotomy to work in that environment, and then come home and help my 13 year old child hold a fork properly and assist her with getting rice to sit on it, make it to her mouth, and not all over the floor and table.

I am not being pessimistic, and if you spent long enough talking to me, you will understand the great deal of idealism and optimism I still hold for my children.  However, we have come to terms with the reality that college is probably not in their future.  Academic accolades are not things we are on the look out for.  We are not concerned about standardized test scores except those that measure their English acquisition.

To be honest, I think we are still defining daily what success will look like for each of our children.  They are different ages, have different personalities, different strengths, and will probably be able to achieve at different levels.  However, what I can say has become the priority for us in our definition of success is this: that they are able to live emotionally stable lives and become good and productive human beings.  That's all.  Everything else is a bonus.

We also have learned to celebrate the victories our children have along the way.  Here are some examples:

-- the day that a greater percentage of food ended up in their mouth vs. on the table/floor
-- the day they were able to ask someone where a public bathroom was located and go there without our assistance
-- when the majority of the time shirts were put on with the tag in the back and shoes were put on the correct feet
-- the day they could bathe independently
-- the day they could open a ziplock bag without adult assistance 
-- the day that 5+3 equaled 8

We are still working on shoe-tying, buttoning, and using a knife to cut our own food is probably in the distant future, but we are getting there!

What is YOUR definition of success for your child?



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