When: Spring 1984
Where: A conference room at an elementary school
Who: A principal, a note-taker, my mother, and Mrs. Marshall (my teacher)
"We have the results of all the testing we did for your daughter," the note-taker announces. "While she is a smart young lady, she struggles to pay attention and complete tasks. She is more concerned with social things and has difficulty disciplining herself to learn."
"And what does this mean?" my mother asks.
The principal leans forward and links her hands as she sets them on the long, narrow table, "It means she is going to need more support in order to learn. She has a disability that is keeping her from rising to her full potential."
Mrs. Marshall refrains from sighing and instead smooths her bouffant. Her wrinkled face is carefully powdered, her eyebrows artfully brushed and plucked to create the perfect arch. Her turquoise silk blouse is neatly tucked into her beige slacks, and a gold necklace is clasped around her neck. She counts to ten in her head and waits.
"Disability?" my mother prods. "And that is?"
"All the testing shows your daughter has ADHD, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." The note-taker busily scribbles all that is said as she continues. "It can be controlled with medicine, and you'll need to speak to your pediatrician. Learning is possible for her, but it will always be difficult for her to sustain the necessary attention required. There are supports we can put into place that will help her during class, but medicine will really provide the foundation."
My mother's brow furrows, and Mrs. Marshall takes note.
"What are the side affects of medicine?" The uncertainty in my mother's tone is simple to detect.
"Oh," the principal makes a dismissive gesture, "that depends on the type, but usually they are minimal and the help the drug can provide outweighs the cost."
My mother taps a thoughtful finger on the table. "I'm not sure I-"
"There is another issue to consider," the note-taker interjects. "Kara hasn't achieved the progress and growth necessary to move on to fourth grade."
My mother rears back. "She has passed all her subjects so far." She turns questioning eyes onto Mrs. Marshall.
Mrs. Marshall prepares herself for battle, squaring her shoulders. "Yes, she has demonstrated appropriate understanding of all academic areas. It's true she has difficulty attending, but somehow she manages to learn what is needed. Eventually."
My mother looks back at the note-taker whose gapes at Mrs. Marshall.
"I think what we're actually referring to is her social and emotional growth," the principal adds. "School is not Kara's forte. What usually hurts her are the demands learning puts on her. When you couple that with the complexities of forming friendships with her peers, all of it causes her emotional distress. You can see her sadness and confusion."
"Humph," Mrs. Marshall breaks in. "And forcing her to repeat third grade will make her happier?"
"It will give her the opportunity to mature, and perhaps she'll find friends more her style." The note-taker has paused in her scribbling.
Mrs. Marshall leans forward, raising her brow at the woman who has spent only a few days with the student. "Kara struggles with her peers because she doesn't tolerate meanness. She has an astounding imagination and creates perfectly beautiful stories. Math isn't her love, but she manages. She is a singer and a lover. She believes in flying and jumping in mud puddles." Mrs. Marshall turns to my mother. "If you agree to make Kara repeat third grade, you will crush her spirit. She won't understand and will take it too much to heart. She is a sensitive girl. It's true she needs to mature, but that will come. She will be fine. She's her own person and will get all her ducks in a row when she's good and ready."
My mother is staring at Mrs. Marshall. The principal and note-taker have gone quiet.
Pride swells inside Mrs. Marshall as she can still hear the air ringing with her passionate speech. After twenty-five years of teaching, she knew how to analyze a child. She wasn't wrong.
After a few tense and silent moments, my mother turns to the other ladies. "Thank you for your hard work, but I'll not agree to retention, nor will I agree to the results of the testing. I prefer to wait, to see how she does."
And that was that.
Mrs. Marshall, my third grade teacher, saved me from repeating a grade and spending an extra year in school. She was the hero I never knew I always wanted.
I can't believe it. A teacher. A hero.
But, it really did happen. Not quite that way, of course, but she did say that retention would crush my spirit. Even if everyone else had agreed with her -- and they must have -- that's drama I never expected from someone like Mrs. Marshall. She was so concerned with Math. Yuck.
But I'll let her like it since she literally saved me.
I wish I'd gotten to thank her.