Posts Filed Under IEPs and dyslexia and schools and the struggle

To my son who doesn’t give a shit about school

by Janelle Hanchett

A couple of days ago as we drove to school I asked you about your math assignments. You were behind by three. I asked you about Monday’s homework, which you didn’t do. You had told me you’d do it at recess on Tuesday.

In the car that morning, you told me you didn’t do that either because you wanted to hang out with your friends.

My thoughts pummeled me: HERE WE ARE AGAIN. No homework. Behind on assignments. Goofing off in class. Zero initiative. WHY DOESN’T HE CARE AT ALL.

I got mad. I yelled. I knew the torrent of words pouring out of my mouth were useless – because I was being an asshole, and you’re 12. And I was yelling.

You walked away. I called your dad.

“He doesn’t care,” I said. “I don’t know how to make him care. How do we make him care?”

I thought about how I always cared about school, about grades, about being the best in the class.

Why can’t he be like me? He should be like me. That is what I thought until the truth settled in.

When I went to school, I fit. When I went to school, I was lifted. I was told I was smart, capable, one of the “good” kids. I spoke well in front of others and read well and wrote well and I could focus easily. When I did the work, I earned good grades. When I tried a little, I earned awards.

But you, son, are dyslexic, and you try harder every day than I ever tried in the entirety of my grammar school life and what you get is last, lowest, special ed. What you get is confusion, not fast enough, illegible. You get “hurry up” and “focus” and lower grades. Sometimes you nail a math test, but you know your spelling lists are shorter and I do too and you know the other kids do it faster, and we all know what that room is, and why you go, and how most kids don’t.

When you speak, it’s hard for you to find the words. The more impatient people become, the more you freeze. Your brain and its “rapid naming” “disability.” When you write, it takes nine times longer than it “should.”

And reading, oh, fuck reading. Am I right? Just fuck it all the way to Christmas.


When I went to school I got teachers who loved me and I helped the “lower” kids and nobody could have told me school wasn’t made for me.

You have teachers who love you. You’ve also had teachers who can’t stand you – dismissing you like a fly that keeps circling their dinner plate. You had a teacher once who actively sought holes in your accommodations. Any chance he got, it seemed. I had to fight for every single basic, logical extension of your accommodation.

At the conferences, I could see he couldn’t stand you. I felt it. I saw it.

You lived it. You knew it.

We told you he was an asshole, but that you had to “keep trying,” because sometimes in life you have to function alongside people who don’t like you, who don’t want the best for you, who frankly don’t give a shit about you.

But I suppose that day sitting across from that loathsome man who should have retired many years ago, who looked at my son as a bother, a dumb kid, a lazy kid, and wished he were somebody else’s problem—I suppose I knew somewhere that this is how you would always be viewed by some, and someday, you may view yourself that way, too, and give up.

Because nobody at school cares about the way you build or understand engines. There’s no test for building complex Lego designs with working parts and tying crazy ass knots, cooking and baking and loving your family. There’s no assignment to demonstrate the way you never forget directions to a place, even if we only go once, and it’s really far away.

You told me when you were five you were “born with maps in your brain.” Everyone in the family – EVERYONE – asks you first, “Where are we parked? Was this the place? How do we get there again? Is this the exit?”

You tell us how you know. We don’t understand.

But that isn’t the intelligence that races to the top at school. It isn’t tested, viewed, understood, or praised. Nobody even knows you have it.

So what do I do, son?

Do I punish you? Ground you? Force you? Do I use mighty force?

Do I babysit you each and every night? Do I hold your hand every goddamn moment?

Do I yell FUCK THE SYSTEM and just let you fade into the dark, simply accepting you just aren’t a school guy? Some of us aren’t. There isn’t one path to genius, to “success,” to a good life.

Do I talk and talk and talk? We’ve done that so many times. The promises. The tears. We beg. We explain.


But what really kills me, my love, is that I remember the day when you walked into your classroom for the first time with your squared shoulders, carefree hope, and tiny backpack. Just like the other kids, you bounced to school. I remember your confidence and delight, you willingness and engagement – before you knew you were different, before you knew school wasn’t made for you.

I remember when reading didn’t quite matter yet (though those days were numbered). And as it slowly dawned on you, as teachers grew “concerned” (but oddly, strangely, infuriatingly, wouldn’t test for dyslexia until second grade, thereby simply letting you slip slip slip into oblivion right from the start), I remember the way your step slowed, your shoulders fell, your body folded in half on the bathroom floor as you felt the physical manifestation of unbearable anxiety and stress.

But you didn’t give up. And you wouldn’t give up, and something about your spirit kept you fighting, harder than me, than them, than I’ll ever understand.

Back then, by the time we got to the freeway after school, you were asleep, your head resting on your shoulder, or against the window. I’d watch you and think, Wow, how tired he must be after such a day of work.

And now, you’re 12 years old, in sixth grade, and I wonder if that spirit has been beaten out of you, or if you’re just a boy who’s bored. Have you given up? Have you screamed fuck this and fuck these people and fuck feeling stupid but most importantly FUCK THIS LEVEL OF WORK?

I want to tell you to try simply because you’re doing it. Because anything worth doing is worth doing well. Because every day you show up at that school, so do your goddamn best, right?

But when I think about my past, about something that was excruciatingly humiliating and difficult for me with virtually no returns whatsoever, I think about sports. God damn how I loathed PE. I was two left feet. I could never touch my toes. PE teachers glared at me from afar, wondering how I could possibly be that bad at literally everything. My softball coach hated me with a fiery passion. The useless, throw-away, non-player player.

I quit. No, I flipped it off and then quit. I didn’t care about sports and I would not try because the entire process was miserable, embarrassing, uncomfortable, and it was so obvious my talents lived, um, ELSEWHERE, that effort seemed pointless and futile.


Is that what you’re doing?

So here we are, the year before seventh grade, and a few days ago you were three assignments behind and I was an asshole.

Because I am afraid, son. I’m afraid and I cannot see the way. Where is school bullshit and where is it vital? Where do I push you and where do I hold back? Where does your dyslexia end and standard kid laziness begin?

God damnit where do I end and you begin?

How do I help you?


I guess what I’m trying to say is I love you. I’m here to learn. If I could take your hand and lead us, I would.

But what I really want is for you to take mine, though I wonder again if that’s how this sort of thing works. They say it’s on me. They say it’s my job to make you fit. I believe more it’s our job to carve some new way – you and me – into a world not quite ready for you.

After all, you’re the one with maps in your brain. Show us the way.



I wrote a book, and you can buy it now.

Look what Publisher’s Weekly said about it:

“Hanchett offers a startling account of her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in this raw and riveting memoir….Readers will cheer Hanchett toward her triumphant recovery.”

Raw and riveting! Yay! I promise there aren’t that many exclamation marks in the book. Nobody likes that many exclamation marks. Okay bye.

If he can do the impossible, can we?

by Janelle Hanchett

Last week, my 11-year-old son Rocket hopped into the car after school and handed me a piece of paper as he said, “I want to be in the school play.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “cool!” But then I looked at the paper. It was a permission slip for auditions. My eyes widened.

“What do you have to do to audition?” I asked, scanning the paper, suppressing mild panic, then realizing: “Dude you have to sing a song!”

“I know,” he said, all casual.

“Wait. Do have to do it on a stage in front of PEOPLE?”

“Yeah, mom.”

“Well, awesome!” I said, and started driving to mask my vague horror at the prospect. (Motherhood protective reactions are not uniformly rational. I have realized this over the past 15 years.)

I thought of him standing on a stage, singing. I thought of that time in kindergarten he brought a stuffed white seal to class and the kids “didn’t even think it was cute” and how he cried after his bath about it. Okay, he was FIVE. Whatever.

I thought of how he would feel if he didn’t make it, or was given some 3-second “overflow” part without words, and I thought about how I, as his mother, need to keep my fucking mouth shut about my desire to shelter him from pain, failure, and humiliation.

I don’t know much, but I know for a fact my job is to at least TRY not to pass my fucked-up life techniques on to my kids.

If I were in fifth grade, had no singing or acting experience, and was informed of an opportunity to sing some ditty on a stage – to be judged by parents and a few thousand cruel children (which is how I would see it) – I would for sure throw the paper away with a shudder, immediately, just to get the idea the hell out of my head. Possibly I would burn it, and sanitize my fingers just to be safe.

But what Rocket doing this is even more unthinkable than me trying it in fifth grade. You see, he has severe dyslexia, part of which is a rapid naming “disorder,” which means his brain often takes a really long time – and I mean a lonnggggggggg time – to retrieve the words he needs. Under the most relaxed of circumstances, he gets tongue-tied, and then when he sees you waiting, he feels anxiety, and puts his head down and closes his eyes to really think, and the longer it takes, the more stressed he becomes, which makes his brain freeze even more, and often this continues until he grows frustrated and/or cries, or walks away saying, “Never mind.”

Occasionally, he thinks of the word. We try to help him. But it’s so hard for him, and so hard to watch.

So the idea of this boy standing on a stage and attempting to belt out a song under anxiety-producing conditions took my breath away. My brain screamed, “YOU CAN’T DO THAT SON! FIGHT THE URGE! KNOCK IT OFF! BE SAFE HIDE DO NOT TRY WEIRD SHIT!”

But I kept that inside and instead went with, “Wow, Rocket, I’m so proud of you! You are amazing. I don’t think I could do it.”

And he said, “Well, I’m not afraid. I’m lucky that way.”


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how little power we have to keep our children safe. As I watch what’s happening with our government, as I watch it fill with big bank big oil climate-change denying anti-human rights white supremacists, I feel a sense of powerlessness and dystopian wonder as if we are caught in a sci-fi flick. (It’s a terrible movie, by the way. It ends in nuclear war. Everybody dies.)

Meanwhile, our leaders on both sides are eerily quiet. People say “Let’s wait and see.” What, pray tell, are we waiting for? Are we not there? Are we simply expected to go silently into that good night?

We wake up, send them to school anyway.

Aleppo. Hate crimes. Autocracy. Oligarchy. A president-elect who prefers Twitter over intelligence briefings.

We come home, make dinner.

I wonder what kind of world my kids will face. Can a reality TV star destroy the world in four years? Does that “checks and balances” thing really work?

My grandmother is killed. People ask my children and me for details of the crime. I want to explain this is not a True Crime drama. This is our life. I rage, consider railing at them, but I’m silent, because I don’t have the fucking energy. Not today.

My son gets in the car, says he wants to try out for the school play.

I wonder if he will grow tongue-tied. I wonder if he will crumble on the stage. I wonder if a snowball of anxiety will build until he rushes off the stage and folds into himself in the hallway, like when he was five, or, as I would.

I tell him, “Let’s practice the song.” Let’s practice it over and over. Let’s get as strong as we can. Let’s do it, son.


We play the song from YouTube. We print it out in a font that’s easier for him to read. He practices as 6am with headphones on. On the day of the auditions, I bring him his favorite drink from Starbucks – a green tea latte – and some lemon cake and I tell him, “I am so proud of you. I can’t even tell you.”

But I don’t stay, because I fear he will see the worry in my face, and I know my energy will bring him anxiety. I wonder if I’m a horrid mother for not staying. I go out to my car and cry, because I’m afraid, and proud, and tired.

My mom watches him.

He has to restart three times. It’s a full two minutes of false starts. The teacher says, “You’re doing great.” His head falls and my mom thinks he’s going to cry.

But he lifts his head higher and says, “I’ll try again.”

On this fourth and final attempt, he gets through the song. By the end, his voice raises and he’s got “enthusiasm.” His body rocks to the beat of the song.

When he gets home, we all cheer.

I’m not afraid. I’m lucky that way.

They teach us to go on. They teach us to do what cannot be done. They teach us to look at the beauty, to see where we are lucky. They teach us to keep trying even if the world feels against you, and you can’t see a way out, and the numbness and desire to hide is creeping so close you can almost touch it.

They teach us to be human, and remind us how beautiful “human” can be. They teach us to be unafraid. Or try, terrified.

I’ll try again, he said. And sang the motherfucker. 

You and me both, kid.

2017, Love, Humans. Let’s do this.


P.S. He got a speaking part! Thanks, world!

What if I asked you to rethink the “low” kids?

by Janelle Hanchett

Growing up, I understood that there were two groups of students: The smart ones and the dumb ones.

The ones who couldn’t sit still, who fidgeted, who “got in trouble a lot,” who got “bad” grades, who the teachers didn’t like – they were the dumb ones.

Maybe it was their fault. Maybe not. Who cares. All that mattered was they weren’t as good as the rest of us and somewhere, somehow, I knew school was made for me.

I felt a little sorry for them because their work was never on the walls and they never got picked for anything. Their position was locked forever in the barely shrouded “ability level” groups.

Call it “Group C” all you want, teacher. We know what it means.

I shook my head in irritation and sat back in sweet superiority.

They were the low kids.

I was with the high kids.

Basically, we could never mix. School was MY ZONE. They were interlopers.


Hey. Hi. I have one of the “low kids” now.

It’s hard to look at your son and know that some teachers will dismiss him as just another problem to be passed on to the next year and each new school year feels like teetering over the edge of a deep chasm waiting to see if we’ll fall, or, which teacher we will have.

It feels like a fucking lottery. (Thankfully, we won it this year.)

It’s hard to see your son in all his complexity reduced, once a year, to a pdf of psychological assessments and charts and tables, the far right column stacked with numbers correlating to the “low average” and “deficient” and “at risk” section of their bell curve, over and over again like a brick across your face even though the very first line states “high intelligence.”

My boy will be the one coloring on his notebook while the teacher is talking. He’ll be drawing a battle-axe on a tiny sliver of paper. He’ll be fidgeting with a loose screw on the desk leg.

He’ll be the slowest to read. He’ll be pulled out of the room. He’ll be on question #1 when the class is already done with the worksheet. He may be told to “hurry up.” He may have a pen ripped out of his hand. He may have an aide sit next to him and say, “You’re doing great. What can we do next?”

He’ll be tongue-tied in the front of the room. He’ll be struggling for the right word. In the timed spelling tests, he’ll get 1 out of 10.

And you may see him as the low kid. You may see him as the interloper. The trouble. The bother.


What if I told you he memorizes directions to cities we’ve been to once?

What if I told you he fixes our vacuum by scanning the damn thing and tells me how small engines at the fair work even though nobody has taught him about engines or vacuums or maps?

What if I told you he does math word problems in his head and what if I told you when he’s sitting there flicking the end of his pencil over and over again that HE IS ACTUALLY LISTENING, that is him listening, and if you ask him a question about what you just read he will tell you all about it and even more than that he’ll tell you what he knows about it because he’s curious.

What if I told you he’s curious, wise, and trying?

He wants to be with you. He wants to succeed. He wants to be a “high kid.” Fuck these categories. He wants in anyway. We all do. That’s how this system works, you know.

He wants to speak more clearly. He wants to talk as fast as you. He wants to get his thoughts out he wants to decode he wants to read at the level his brain is capable of comprehending

but mostly he wants to not be broken.

Shamed and punished.

For being dyslexic.

(But even that he can’t say. That is what I say, and fight for, and will accept nothing less than.)


What if told you he has a headache at the end of each school day and falls asleep by the time we are at the freeway exit because every hour my kid works at school feels like an entire day and he gets up every morning and does it anyway. Because he wants to have his work on the wall.

What if I asked you to remember that?

What if I asked you to remember that when you’re teaching or volunteering or speaking with your “high” kids or watching that kid who’s always behind, like an irritant, an intruder, a distraction from the “smart kids” who “want to learn.”

What if I asked you to rethink the whole scenario, all the “low kids.”

Because the main difference between my kid and yours is that SCHOOL IS NOT MADE FOR MINE.

(Possibly, it’s not made for either of them, but that’s another blog post.)

So here’s to the kids in the back. And their parents.

They’re higher than we know.

It’s up to us to rise.

And meet them.

I share this photo often because it's everything I'm trying to say in one image.

I share this photo often because it’s everything I’m trying to say in one image.