By Melinda Sacks
Spring semester, senior year of high school. It is both the end and the beginning for our son, Alex, who will finish high school in just eight weeks, leaving behind 13 years of struggle and more than his share of unhappiness as a student with significant learning disabilities.
For Alex, it is a time of great anticipation. He counts the days until he is done with high school. He looks forward to attending junior college and taking the classes he actually wants to take rather than only those that are required. He talks about working more hours, saving his money, and getting a place of his own.
For his father and me it is a bittersweet time, but not for the same reasons it might be for many parents whose children are heading off to colleges across the country this fall.
We are both relieved and worried. Relieved that Alex will graduate despite the fact that he lacks confidence as a reader, math facts still elude him if he is under pressure, and dragging him out of bed for school every morning has been like prying a rabbit out of its burrow as it presses all four feet against the sides.
But what will the next few years bring for a young man who still doesn't like to prepare his own meals, regularly finds his bank account overdrawn, and has only one friend, with whom he often argues? Will he figure out how to manage his spending, or prepare a meal that actually contains protein instead of his standby "meal" - a massive bowl of Kona chip ice cream? Will he find a community of friends who will put up with his being so strongly opinionated and his habit of speaking before thinking? Will he secure the accommodations necessary to help him to manage a college-level class?
These are the worries that keep me awake at 3 a.m.
Amazingly, in spite of his learning disabilities and attention problems, Alex has always had big plans. He enthusiastically talks of going to college, even though we know taking even one college-level course is going to be an enormous challenge, no matter how many accommodations are made. He intends to continue working at the two jobs he loves - one as a referee and coach at the local YMCA and the other as a substitute teacher for the after-school program of the neighborhood elementary school.
While school has always been a trial for Alex, he has since the age of 14 been able to hold down a job. Perhaps because he is such a kid himself, working with young children has come naturally to him. He knows how to play, and the kids love him. Over time and thanks to a few nurturing adult bosses, he has thrived in the workplace, learning how to live within the boundaries and structure of a job.
Each day when he arrives home from his morning-only high school classes, Alex gets on his bike and rides to work, where he runs YMCA lunchtime sports programs for a different elementary school every day of the week. Three of those days he then gets back on his bike and heads to his second job working in the after-school daycare program in our neighborhood. He arrives on time, and he gets babysitting offers from the parents of his young charges because he is so popular and responsible.
Can either of these jobs lead to a career that would provide enough income for him to be self-sufficient? Might he be able to manage the schooling required to earn a teacher's aide certificate, or pursue his dream of getting a teaching credential and teaching kindergarten? On good days I believe it is possible.
For the first year after high school, though, the plan is that Alex will take two classes at junior college, and work in the afternoons. Somehow he will have to manage the homework, something he hasn't had to do at his tiny private high school where all the work is done in class. No doubt tutors and time at the resource center of the junior college will need to become part of his routine.
He says he can do it. I hope he is right.
Alex has had a part-time job since middle school. He has had a bank account and money to spend on video games, electronic gadgets, pizza, and iTunes™ music. And spend his money he does.
In spite of the fact that we've harped on saving and shown him how to track his money online, he makes impulse buys that wipe out his account in a minute of excitement over the latest Xbox™ accessory or a new San Francisco Giants baseball cap.
Never was this impulsive spending quite so dramatic as the time Alex had to find a ride home from school because his father and I both had meetings. Alex finished his classes and decided that the taxi cab I suggested he call would be boring. Always inventive, he called a local car service and booked himself a limo, never asking the price.
As my husband arrived home after his meeting he witnessed a white stretch limo pull up in front of our house. Who should step out but Alex, grinning ear to ear - and seventy dollars poorer.
While we can laugh at his impulsivity, we are also painfully aware that such a blunder for a young adult living on his own could translate to being unable to make the monthly rent.
So we are looking for a teen money management class for Alex to take this summer, since our refrains about saving and thinking carefully about purchases continue to fall on deaf ears.
And these aren't the only areas of concern.
I've given up trying to get Alex into bed by 11 p.m. We say goodnight and fall asleep with the sounds of a basketball video game wafting from the living room. "I'm 18!" he responds when we say he'll be overtired again tomorrow.
Getting Alex to prepare his own food is another issue. We know he makes dinner when he babysits - warming up leftovers, baking a pizza, or scrambling eggs. But at home he won't lift a finger except to scoop ice cream.
Alex's schedule is difficult to keep track of, because it varies from day to day. After saving up for a Palm Pilot organizer Alex was thrilled to add the sleek white electronic device to his Bluetooth cell phone earpiece and video iPod (all of which he paid for himself). But just a week after he got the Palm, he left it in his pocket; it went through the wash and was ruined.
Deflated, he lay in bed that night, telling me what a stupid son I had and how he could never do anything right.
Throughout Alex's childhood therapists and experts of every variety have given us advice. Talk to him about his disabilities, they told us. Get him to acknowledge what is hard for him (sometimes it seems just about everything has been hard). Be realistic about what he can do in the future. We listened to such advice for years while the kids around us won scholarships, athletic competitions, were accepted to Ivy League schools, and traveled to exotic countries to study abroad.
At our house getting through the day without a call from the principal's office or a progress report claiming, "Alex will not stop talking in class," or, "Alex never turned in his essay on To Kill a Mockingbird, therefore he received an F," was a major accomplishment.
Ironically, Alex has rarely wallowed in his difficulties. Some would say he is in complete denial. But the truth is that I think it's important for him to hold onto his belief that he will someday make a lot of money, drive a nice car, live in a two-story house, and run his own school. As one therapist told us when Alex was a little boy, "Alex gets up every morning and puts on his suit of armor. He can't allow a chink in it, or a criticism to get through, or everything would crumble."
So we walk a fine line, telling Alex he can do many things but that each one takes lots of hard work. But we never say never.
It's hard for me to imagine Alex moving out, even though he is 6 foot 1, almost 19 years old, and holding down two jobs. After all, he still doesn't want to stay home alone when my husband and I go away overnight, although he doesn't like to admit it.
I'm not sure if he'd shower and shave if I didn't nag him.
He might live only on ice cream and Oreo cookies if left to his own devices.
But then Alex will surprise us with some comment or action that proves he is far more thoughtful and independent than we give him credit for. He helps an elderly woman who has fallen and walks her home to be sure she is all right. He cooks pasta for the 8-year-old he babysits and loads the dishwasher before the parents get home. He calls the junior college he plans to attend and gathers information about working at the school radio station, and then sets up a meeting to visit.
My husband and I look at each other and our heart's swell with pride, and with hope.