She is my sunshine in the rain
When I see her, I feel no pain
How dare they tell me otherwise
Her star’s so bright, it blinds my eyes
If in your box she doesn’t fit
If in your classroom she can’t sit
Then it is a loss for man
Because there’s so much that she can
She can clap and she can speak
She can sing and she can seek
She can jump and she can play
She’s normal as the night and day
You say there’s No Child Left Behind
And that idea makes you blind
Look at her close and see her light
She will be great and smart and bright
I never thought that parenthood would make me one of those mothers. The mother who has three children not welcome into a regular education classroom. The mother who stands at the sidelines, cheering her children on, while simultaneously worrying that they will never belong or be part of the “regular” world.
Don’t get me wrong. My children are very normal. If you would see us on a chol hamoed trip, you wouldn’t ever think that anything is wrong with them. Aside from the regular tantrums and very loud screaming (occasionally sounding like a dead animal), my children are just like all the other children at the farm, or the amusement park, or the restaurant.
You would never guess that not a single one of them can sit in a regular education classroom in their yeshivas or Bais Yaakov. You would never guess that they all have an IEP, and you would certainly never guess what it says inside: child with a learning disability. Sometimes, I look at my children and wonder if maybe it’s just me overreacting or not being able to sweep it under the rug. Maybe if I were less on top of the education of my children, they would slip under the radar and fit inside the box. They could get the coveted seat behind a desk in Darchei, or Yeshiva Ketana, or TAG.
But then I think about each child and their disabilities and wonder how anyone could do that to their child.
The story of my 2 boys is a simple one. They came first and paved the way. My oldest is dyslexic and his yeshiva simply told me that they have no resources to help him learn how to read. I banged on every door. Called every yeshiva in the neighborhood. Begged them to accept my child. Promised that I would hire a tutor. But to no avail. They all said that a 3 year reading delay is not something they are equipped to deal with. And just like that, my dreams of a perfect childhood for my son were shattered. We sent him to a special education school called Shefa, where their only goal was to teach children to read, no matter how many years behind they were. He is really benefitting from the program, and back then, I thought that one out of three children with an IEP was fine. I consoled myself by looking at my 4 year old and my baby with the hope that they would be OK.
But then, my 4 year old was not fine. When I finally decided to have him tested, all the results came back saying one thing: child with learning disability.
My son was in a yeshiva that had no place for him. They told me they had no resources for him either. Even the Jewish special education school that I wanted to send him to was reluctant to take him. I wanted my son to have Jewish education, but it seemed less and less likely that he would. The schools were built to accommodate one type of a child, and my little boy did not fit the mold. There is very little wriggle room and even with that, all schools want a child without problems—even the yeshiva programs that are special education schools.
By first grade, my son was accepted to Cahal. Cahal is a yeshiva program that accommodates and tolerates much more than any other yeshiva. My son sits in a small classroom in the basement of the yeshiva with 6 of his peers and best friends. He has a rebbe. He has learned to love Yiddishkeit. The fact that Cahal accepted my son saved me from having to send him to public school. The fact that there is a Jewish program that is willing to teach my son is a blessing for us as an Orthodox family. The fact that Cahal has widened the box of what is normal is what puts that smile on my son’s cute little face.
My daughter has gotten older and had begun to attend a Bais Yaakov school. She is a beautiful little girl and the cutest thing on earth. My daughter is a regular child, a normal girl. She talks, she smiles, she laughs. She also tantrums and cries. She is all of 4 years old. What could they possibly expect of her in my local Bais Yaakov? A Bais Yaakov that has 7 parallel classes. A school that caters to so many children.
Apparently, they expected an angel. At the end of her 3 year old program, I was told that my daughter should not come back to Bais Yaakov. My daughter was no longer welcome in their classrooms. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.
This was my 3rd child to be kicked out of a mainstream program. It felt like a nightmare repeating itself all over again. It didn’t feel real. By this time, I was ready to sweep everything under the rug just to give my daughter a normal childhood. When I went to the meeting, the school spoke of how my daughter threw toys and held on to the teacher’s skirt all day. They said she had severe social issues. When I heard the words child with a learning disability, I burst into tears. They began to say that my daughter needed a special education classroom with no more than 12 children. All I could think of was my daughter’s precious smile, her giggly laugh, her childish dreams. I took out my phone and showed the special education committee sitting around the table a picture of my daughter on her fourth birthday, smiling into the camera while holding a bunch of pink balloons. This didn’t make any sense. This was not fair. Here is where the buck stopped. Here is where my foot would come down.
I begged for my child to be admitted back to Bais Yaakov. I ensured a SEIT and a social worker, as well as an OT. I did everything in my power to keep my daughter securely in the box Bais Yaakov expected her to stay in.
And then, my beautiful 4 year old daughter got sent to the director’s office for saying “no” to the morah. The floor fell out from underneath me, as my daughter asked when kindergarten would be finished already because it was taking too long. Apparently, I was not privy to any information on this event. And I was scolded severely the next day in the director’s office.
“You have anxiety Mrs. Young! You are giving your daughter anxiety!” As if the anxiety in my daughter was something that I did wrong. “It was by the grace of G-d that we took your severely socially disabled daughter back this year, and you should be grateful to us for having her here. She is not a regular child. She belongs in a special education classroom.” She then went on to mention which programs had openings. And let me tell you, these programs were for children with severe issues, not for children who say “no” to their morah.
This was their way of putting me back in my box. Apparently, my alarm over my daughter was out of the norm for this Bais Yaakov. However, they didn’t realize the fact that boxes don’t contain me and that I was not going to stay quiet over something that I felt so strongly about. I am always a voice for those who cannot speak, and I am a major proponent of righting the wrong in life. I am not afraid; I have been to places that Bais Yaakov can only dream of. I don’t come from their walks of life, and to me, this behavior looked like the opposite of kiruv. I came home that day and threw my sheitel on the floor. With my uncovered head, I sobbed and howled, wondering why in the world I decided to take this path in life, to become a frum Jew, just to come to this day and to have my children—all of my children—rejected by the very system that was mekarev me. I can’t be frum anymore, I cried out to Hashem. I can’t do this.
How can we learn from this story? How can we make the box we put our children into bigger? How can we give our children more opportunities to shine instead of wither? How can we give our children a happy childhood instead of a stressed one? How can we combine learning and education together with acceptance and self-esteem?
Educators, directors, mothers, mechanchim—listen, look, pay attention. Each child is a beautiful individual person. Each child deserves our respect, and yes, some slack. Don’t reject. Accept. After all, they are just children.