Wednesday, November 14, 2012

This Side Of The Mississippi

"From the very beginning..."
Undergraduate Days - Student Teaching

I’m sure many of you have seen the stage presentation of “Our Town,” written by Thornton Wilder. If you have, you might remember a conversation that takes place between Emily Gibbs and her mother.  She quite openly asks her,  "Mama, am I pretty?”  She continues to badger her mother long enough that finally Mrs. Gibbs turns to her 12-year-old daughter and says, “You’re pretty enough.”

My wife, Becky, has been in the school system for more than 35 years. And when you’ve been married to a school psychologist for as many years as I have, you’ve been subjected to every kind of test and utilized as a virtual guinea pig. From the WISC to the Woodcock, and each new test that came out, I took more IQ tests in her early years so that she would not only know how to administer the test, but, at the same time, give her ample practice in scoring.

As I suspect most people might have done, I always asked at the end of each test how well I did?  “So, dear, am I smart?” And without ever divulging numbers or showing me the actual results, she would pretty much look at me and say, “You’re smart enough.”

The tougher role would come later when faced with the reality of sitting down with the anxious parents of a six-year-old child who awaited real test scores.  She would see a generation of children grow up in a world where, all too often, a difficult child is often quickly and incorrectly labeled with ADHD; where learning disabilities are “instantly diagnosed” on the Internet and taken as fact. And, over the course of 35 years, she would eventually see children of students she once worked with, knowing she had their trust and the best interest of their child.

There were moments she treasured – running a social group twice a week for four years at an elementary school with an intervention specialist, a speech therapist and a school counselor. The children they mentored were the social “misfits” that didn’t have many friends and they worked with them on reading facial expressions, developing conversational skills and playing games appropriately.  The children became a support system for each other and eventually became more socially interactive.  One of the fathers wrote how he truly believed this social interaction saved his son’s life.

Over the course of the years, I’ve affectionately called my wife “the best school psychologist this side of the Mississippi.”  It was my way of letting her know that the job she was doing was not going unnoticed.

And during all these years, through all the politics that take place in a suburban school system, she’s kept one, simple mantra: “Keep your eyes intently focused on the child, and you’ll always do the right thing.”

It was usually in the first couple months of every school year or near the end that requests for evaluations poured in, asking for more weeks in the school year than actually existed.  That’s when “the best school psychologist this side of the Mississippi” needed her own advice the most.  “Keep your eyes intently focused…”

The evening chores were usually just a precursor to her late nights of scoring and reports written to parents who needed the cautious guidance of a woman who not only interpreted the scores, but calmed with a soothing voice when under-achievement was confirmed by the reality of a learning disability, or the knowledge that the child of an over-achieving set of parents would never reach their lofty goals.  Or, hearing the elation in a parent’s voice when told their child had qualified for gifted.

While working on her final case presentation in the school neuropsychology program, she tested a student that she had known from the second grade.  They spent 12 hours testing on several Saturdays, which is more than a typical case. The insights gained and the relationship they formed proved invaluable in supporting this young lady. The final report contained significant information that her teachers found useful in helping other students.

And so, tomorrow, “the best school psychologist this side of the Mississippi” is going to retire after 35 years.  A career that began with teaching Special Education students in Northwest Ohio, to earning a Master's degree and further certification as a neuropsychologist, will close a chapter in one of the best school systems in the state.

With that will come some celebrating and best wishes and more than one opportunity for me to bestow that moniker upon her.

And if the occasional questioner comes up to me tonight and asks, “Was she really that good?”

Well, if you’ve listened to the story this far, you might imagine what my response will be.  Certainly the words of Mrs. Gibbs might come to mind.  But tonight, those words simply won't do.

I’ll pause for a brief second and respond with as much pride as I can muster, 

“She wasn’t just good enough…she was the best!”