Monday, May 22, 2000

Sensitive or stressed?

On my daughter's last report card, her teacher noted that she is a "very sensitive child." Now, this could mean she's particularly heedful of the feelings of her friends, a kind child who cares about others. It could mean she reacts badly to allergens in foodstuffs or the environment. It could mean that her sense of touch is highly developed. But it doesn't. I know what the teacher is really saying. "Sensitive" in this case is merely shorthand for "cries in class."

Now, to my way of thinking, a sensitive child would cry because somebody said something mean to her, or because somebody was leaving her out of something fun, or because somebody was doing something better than her, or because somebody looked at her funny. She would feel these things deeply, think about them often, and weep with frustration or despair. She would brood on them, and remain on the brink of tears for hours, even days. Not so my girl. She's mostly oblivious to the ways others treat her. If she mentions that someone's been picking on her, it's mostly because she can't understand why they're being so stupid. A brooder she ain't. She cries alright, but it's mostly when she doesn't know what to do--when a school assignment is confusing, when she's in an unfamiliar place, when she misunderstands someone's directions. I wouldn't call that "sensitive," myself. I'd call it..."in need of better stress-management skills," maybe. But what do I know. I'm just her mother.

No, the conventional school wisdom about my daughter is that she's "sensitive," and that label has been sticking to her since she was five years old. And since she's "sensitive," and learning disabled, and a poor little orphan to boot, she must be nurtured and protected and hugged and coddled. Last year, when I tried to wrest her out of a self-contained special-ed class and into a regular-ed inclusion class, I was told in no uncertain terms that it would "destroy her." And I wanted to say to these people, "This is a child who left the only home she had ever known and went off with strangers who spoke a strange language--went off on her first car ride and her first train ride and her first plane ride--to a place where everything was new and strange and foreign. If that experience did not destroy her, I doubt there's anything 2nd graders can throw at her that will."

In fact, she's done just fine in the inclusion class. But now and then they give her a worksheet that looks daunting to her, and she cries. The teacher or aide explains how to do it, and she stops. The aide describes it as an anxiety attack. The teacher describes it as "sensitive." And her speech therapist is worried that if she gets the wrong teacher next year, it will "destroy her." Her IEP specifies that she should have a caring and nurturing teacher. So all those careless and soul-crushing teachers on staff? Out of the question!

Ah, well. Sometimes I think what she really needs is a teacher who will say, "Hey! You're 10 years old. What's with the tears? Snap out of it!" No matter how sensitive you are, it's really not okay to be crying at school. Someone should be giving my girl that message, but they're all too sensitive to her sensitivity. If she was really all that sensitive, she would know that her peers think it's kind of weird to be teary, and she would be bothered by their disapproval. No such luck. She'll either have to grow out of it, or avoid stress altogether, or find some mean adult to give her what-for.

Won't be me, though. I'm much too sensitive.

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