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April 13, 2009

Listening for Huxley, Saving a School

-24 Sometimes I get so incredibly pissed at the world. Especially when something happens to a child. Recession hits us grown-ups and we turn to each other and we deal with it.

But the kids take the hits, too. They take the hits with no power to fix it.

My friend Cathy has a son, Huxley. Cutest kid. But he was barely walking when we noticed that he was the kind of smart that doesn't fit on a chart. As a toddler he kept Cathy and her husband running constantly to answer his questions and keep him stimulated throughout the day.

Other kids like to rock out on saucepans with wooden spoons. Huxley found a screwdriver and took them apart. Then attempted to create a kiln in the backyard so he could melt them into a new alloy.

When he was old enough to start school, it opened a whole new can of worms.

Kindergarten, for Huxley, was like my overtaxed PC. The teacher would teach something and he would get it. Then he would have to wait for the rest of us to get it. He'd squirm. He'd get bored.

Cathy got a call. And another. Huxley was turning into a problem

Huxley grew miserable. This great, awesome place full of colors and sounds and all sorts of new experiences was actually a form of torture.

Cathy hunted for solutions desperately. She was told that smart kids like Huxley need to learn to get along. That they need to learn to be quiet, sit quiet. Be grateful for their intellect. She was her son was demanding more than his fair share of the teacher. That he was willful, and ungrateful, and awkward.

By now, Huxley hated school. He played sick. He begged to stay home.

President Obama said; "Dropping out is quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country, and it is not an option - not anymore."

Huxley wanted to drop out.

He was 7 years old.

Cathy and I would talk on the phone, late at night. I didn't understand. I admit, sometimes, I thought she was making too much of it. I mean...smart kid, what's there to complain about? Don't we all think our kids are 'above-average', anyway? I'm embarrassed, now, thinking back to the soothing noises I made.

Super-gifted kids have more in common with Rain Man than Doogie Howser, MD.  That kind of intellect often comes bundled with social challenges, processing particularities, and all sorts of issues that I never heard about before.

Where people like me look at Cathy and think she's an elitist for demanding special attention for her son - the reality is that Huxley is a special-needs kid. It just so happens his special needs come bundled with the ability to build a hovercraft he could ride on at 8 years old.

(He won a science fair with that one.)

Although not mentioned on the district's website, Cathy found a local program for gifted students called "The Achieve Academy".  In sum, it was 3 teachers tucked away at one of the elementary schools.

Cathy was in tears after Huxley toured the Academy. She said the other kids looked at him and he at them and it was recognition at first sight.

He started at his new school last fall. Huxley bloomed. He had to work hard at his homework, something he never had to do before. He made friends, learned to ride the bus, and Cathy began to relax.

Cue the Happy ending.

Except? Not.

Recently, Cathy got the news that the Academy was being cut. Buried in an article that didn't spell out the specifics was the plan to eliminate the entire program. Superintendent Taylor said he was doing it to "act proactively" against possible budget deficits.

The kids would be sent back to their old schools, with the teacher:student ratio bumped to accommodate (up to 29 kids per teacher). A new administrator would be hired to coordinate.

Huxley broke down when Cathy broke the news to him; his heart a little broken. "Please don't send me back... please," he begged his mom.

The Village Academy kids of Ponoma, CA famously asked "Is anybody listening?"

President Obama answered; "It was heartbreaking that a girl so full of promise was so full of worry that she and her class titled their video, 'Is anybody listening?' And so, today, there's something I want to say to Yvonne and her class at Village Academy: I am listening. We are listening. America is listening. We are not going to rest until ... you can reach out and grasp your dreams for the future."

The recession is hitting more than the kids of California. The Achieve Academy kids of Lebanon, IN are counting down their last weeks together. With petitions and signs and emails, they've begged the School Board to save their program. They've hunted up corporate sponsors, and demanded meetings.

But in a rural town where money is tight, and nurturing the super-gifted looks like an indulgence... hope dwindles.

The recession? It hits kids, too. If only I had a superpower, that could make things better. If only, I was more than just one person. 

Sometimes, the best we can do is to pay attention.

I'm listening, Huxley.

[Learn more/get involved on the web or at the Academy's Facebook group.]

Elizabeth left managment for a balance of freelancing and parenting in 2006. She blogs at former Corporate Mommy.

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