Have you ever read The Things They Carried? For many of us, one of the stories that makes up the book is required reading, but in what grade I cannot remember. I remember being told the relevance of the story and how it was stressed that we needed to appreciate what we were reading. An accounting of the Vietnam War, it’s a collection of stories to give you true insight into the mind of the soldier, thousands of miles from home, living and dying on marches, carrying the things of survival, of reminder, of comfort, while living a life that has stolen all of that from them.
What I remember about The Things They Carried was the weight.
“The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20 round magazine. The riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines…adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum.”
In this particular short story everything is discussed by it’s weight from the rifle to the M&M bag. The soldier can only carry so much and still run, still maneuver, still fight. Things are sacrificed for an easier weight, for an easier burden.
Recently my son said to me with each birthday someone adds 10% more weight to his shoulders to carry, but at 10 and in 5th grade, the weight was much greater than 10% and it’s more than he can carry and he’s breaking.
As we enter a new year of evaluations and ARDs, that made me consider, in the world of education, what is in my son’s backpack? What is the weight of the things he has to carry?
My son, the 10% should simply be growing a year older, a year smarter and the burden that comes with that growth, but for you, my love, it’s so much more.
If I describe your life in terms of climbing a mountain, I must give you a backpack of things to carry. This bag represents your life and the things you must carry with you.
First we will place a brain that process differently. While I happen to think it’s rather beautiful, it’s not considered “normative” and I know every kid wants to fit in and be like everyone else. If there wasn’t the concept of what education is, we might never know or care about the differences in brain processing, but sadly we live in a world where education caters to one kind of brain, and I’m very sad to say, it’s not your kind of brain; so without realizing it, this was placed in the bag when you were in PK4 when we were told you couldn’t blend letters into sounds.
Next let’s add watching your peers read in Kindergarten and grasp the alphabet. You did not yet know that you could not even understand the alphabet as symbols and distinct sounds and how that all tied together, but that difference was showing. I’m sorry for the weight it added to your bag, and that I didn’t realize yet again what had been added to the weight you carry.
Advance a year and add in the thoughts that you’re not as smart as your friends who happen to be reading chapter books (long story there) while you read 1st readers and could not, in all truth, read them at all. Everyone cheated off of your math work, but your handwriting wasn’t legible and was, and is still, labored. You noticed the differences right off the bat and placed the shame of those differences in the bag.
Next was the profound belief that you were in fact stupid. Sometimes you are able to set this one down and walk forward without it, sometimes not. If not, the weight it adds is profound.
Adding in the belief of stupid adds in several other items to carry. These include shame, embarrassment, anxiety, depression, fear of rejection, fear in general.
With each passing school year, as you became more profoundly aware of the differences in what your classmates read versus what you were reading, the bag grew heavier.
For many like you, as they fall farther and farther behind, the widening gap only makes those things they already carry that much heavier. Success helps lighten the burden, but does it take the weight away completely? Do long term ingrained fears linger indefinitely, making the weight ever present?
For you, my son, the ability to read began to improve. You set down your shame at not reading what your friends were reading, but you were still aware that it’s easier for them than for you. How much of the shame do you hold onto? You won’t tell me.
You’ve come to understand you are not in fact stupid, not by a long shot. That weight is set down at least, but the burden the came with it still seems to linger in your bag. Is it the size of an M&M snack bag, or as heavy as a dictionary? You’ve relied on your extreme intelligence to get through, to perform at the expected level without core skills. It was a compensation, a trade-off, not mastery, so the relief of your burden is not given to you. In fact quite the opposite, the bag is heavier than you realize, but your brain has been carrying a lot of the load so your back didn’t feel all of the weight.
But, as the slope gets steeper the work gets harder. Your muscles burn in response to the increased incline, the weight carried is felt even more. Your intelligence doesn’t alleviate the weight as your burden becomes more obvious. Your muscles do not grow weaker, but no matter what you do the weight keeps getting heavier. Your handwriting and fine motor issues have caught up, making their weight in your backpack tangible, and once again, profound.
For dyslexia, which is a language processing issue, the nature of the questions and their intention to trick you at every turn to make you better at taking the STAAR, puts more weight into the bag.
Along the way the tools and resources of remediation have helped you walk up the incline, and they will continue to do so, but the balance has to constantly be recalculated, new tools added to help, old tools taken away, a period of adaptation, but of course, you’re not allowed to rest. Somehow the adaptation and your vigilant forward march must happen at the exact same time, and never fast enough to be immediately helpful. There is always a lag and a learning curve that can widen the gap further, add more weight, but my hope is that when that learning curve ends, that extra weight proves to just be temporary, not permanent.
The emotions associated with the weight of the burden is hard for me to calculate or know. I know it’s in there. I know you’ve added it. You didn’t mean to, but you did. I don’t think you have the language yet to understand, but it’s there.
And, it’s not fair, my love. It breaks my heart for you.
I cannot stop the ever increasing incline of the slope, but I do all I can to help you carry what you must carry. At some point too, I must let you climb alone, without me, without your father too. I’ve climbed these mountains, though without the weight you yourself carry. I’m not meant to climb them again. No one is.
You must, and you will, learn to carry it on your own. My prayer is by then the tools make the weight bearable. I even hope it makes it unnoticeable. I will fight for every tool, aid, tip, trick, just, fair, right, thing I can fight for to lessen the weight you carry. I can do that for you, for now.
And it’s ok to rest. I hope you know that. Please know that. It’s ok to set it down and breathe. The view on the climb is rather spectacular, after all, and should be savored.
Try to remember too that at the end of the day the only one sitting in judgment on you, is you. Yes, others will sit there and time you and say you’re not moving fast enough and pretend someone else is carrying more weight and doing it better, but they all lie. They will try to measure you, to judge you, to correct you, but they don’t get to. Their measurement, judgment and correction is meaningless. They don’t want you to know that no race is the same, no competitor is equal and the weight carried by all is unknown.
More importantly they do not understand the weight you carry. They cannot pick it up and feel it. They have no idea how much it weighs you down.
The weight you carry is real and hard. It will hurt you too, my love. Life will teach you lessons on the burden of the weight you carry, what is important to carry, and what is important to set down. I will try to teach you these things, but in truth you won’t hear me.
But, please see me along side of you, trying to help. For as long as I can climb with you, I will do all I can. I cannot carry you or the weight you yourself carry, but I’m here, and you can do this. You amaze me every single day. The beauty of what your life will be is unimaginable to me, but I still dream for you. I can’t wait to watch what you achieve, both because of, and in spite of, the things you carry.