It broke my heart to hear Cait say those words to me. High school has been more of a challenge than I expected. Twice we’ve had the administration of the school call and ask permission to start the paperwork for getting Cait a chronic health designation. Twice she has refused.
“I don’t need it, Mum!” She insisted vehemently. “And I don’t want it!” She added under her breath.
And I don’t push. I know as a college professor, she won’t get any special treatment at university. So we improvise and try to figure out what will work for her.
In the first semester of Grade 9, Cait missed 20 or so full days of school due to ongoing migraines, auras and fear of seizures. In the second semester, her attendance was just a poor. They stopped counting days and started counting hours – she’s nearing 150 hours of missed classes! No wonder she’s struggling but still she’s determined that she doesn’t need special treatment.
Cait is a diligent student. In the fall, she would email each of her teachers and get the work she missed when she was too sick to even open her eyes for more than the few minutes it took to write the messages. Her migraines are particularly debilitating and the medication given to treat them makes her sleep. So not only is she missing classes, she’s unable to work on missed material until the migraine has passed. Her fall routine became school work until 9-10 pm each night on the days she was well and sleeping 24 hours on the days she was not.
In the first term, despite having the majority of her academic subjects scheduled then, she was able to pull off good grades. I thought her second semester would be easier. She only had Math and three electives but Math proved particularly challenging.
Cait has struggled with arithmetic since she started taking Topamax. I wonder if the medication (known as “Dopamax” in some circles) affects the organizational thinking she needs to complete simple mathematics? Regardless, her inability to even guesstimate answers combined with the fact that the teacher refuses to let the students use calculators in 9th grade was a disaster for Cait. For the first time in her life she was faced with failing a course. She was devastated. After the tears stopped, she asked what she could do. She wants a career in science and she knows that she needs higher level math to achieve that. She already knew that she’d never be allowed to dive (important to a marine biology career), now she was worried she wouldn’t be able to complete the coursework required for following her dream job. At 15 years old, doors should be opening for her, not closing.
Then while she was hospitalized in May, she had the good luck to have several sessions with the teachers who work at Children’s Hospital. One of them was a Math teacher. As she worked one-on-one with Cait, she pinpointed the problem. She told Cait that she clearly understood the higher mathematical concepts but the arithmetic was the problem. Her suggested solution was to use a calculator. When the teacher left the room, Cait’s entire attitude had changed. She wasn’t stupid at math, after all! She was actually fairly good at it!
We decided to look at other options and are lucky enough to have an online option where we live. Cait started her online Math course at the start of June. She is permitted to use a calculator and she says she understands the material better when she goes through it online rather than when the teacher is explaining it. She said that if she continues to enjoy it, she’s going to do all her Math courses online and maybe a few other academics.
As a teacher, I’m reminded that we learn far more from our failures than from our achievements. And there is always a way. You just need to find it!