The toughest school year I have ever experienced finally came to an end on Friday. Not only did we master the art of homeschooling, we figured out how to nurture what matters as each child did their best to make the most of this school year. All the materials submitted are now home and I have begun to do the wonderful task of sifting through to figure out what to keep and what discard. Something about seeing my children’s words and art warms my soul always. Like this little poem my daughter wrote with her friends called ‘BabyBirds.’ I remember how happy she was to have written this one with her friends and to actually read it for myself makes me proud. They began by describing the day. The sun is shining they note. Another spring day. Birds in the sky are chirping, some being born today, breaking out of their eggs to meet the warmth of the day. I can’t even imagine what goes into the mind of a 3rd grader to write in this way but I’m am glad that school allowed this exploration of the mind. Like how mother bird goes out look for food to feed her babies eager to learn the ways for the world. I imagine the same must be true for my daughter and her friends. For all birds, even baby ones have to learn about the world, whether with chirping or finding food to eat. But here comes the hard part for even mother birds and it’s that’s one day, even baby birds will leave the nest. They too will one day spread their wings and fly, far faraway from home. And when they do, the hope for mother birds, as with all mothers, is that they explore the world, full of possibilities, full of a life worth living, in their own terms. That what reading this little poem did for me today. As the school year finally comes to end, may all children, my own included, continue to fly, and soar to new heights. I keep this poem her as a proud mother bird.
The school year is coming to an end. My son is thriving. Something that seemed so difficult to do back in the fall, seems so easy to him these days. Homeschooling a child on the spectrum was by far one of the difficult things I have ever done. Not because my son isn’t bright, but more so because home is home and not school. Merging the two, home and school was too much for his brain to handle. And so we had our share of meltdowns, so many that recollection won’t even do them justice. So why even keep this? Because I see the possibilities and potential everyday. I see his light even as the school year slowly comes to an end.
It’s like a switch is flickering, deciding still if to stay full lit, but definitely hovering towards light. That’s what schooling my son feels like these days. Pure night and day. Pure joy and bliss. To watch him do work all on his own, without prompting, without cajoling, without pleading, without even bribing him, none of which worked on our tough days, is bliss. That this day has finally arrived even as the school year comes to an end is like the quote I shared previously about things being impossible. With kids on the spectrum, it will always feel and seem impossible, until they in their own unique way, defy expectations. I was simply fine with whatever we got out of him. But to see him pushing himself, without my help is the light I needed to see at the end of this pandemic school year tunnel. For kids like my son, ‘there is always light,’ like Amanda Gorman would say, ‘if only we are brave enough to see it.’ I see it everyday, and it truly fills my heart with joy. Keep this light for boys, and children like my son. They will defy expectations if only we are brave enough to see it, brave enough to them light up this world. And to see them in their light, to see and feel their potential is the very thing I needed as we begin to wrap this very strange school year up. It’s amazing how he continues to light my world.
My son never ceases to amaze me. He did again with math during homeschooling today. He was preparing for a test next week and his teacher wanted to assess whether he would be able to do it all by himself. The instructions were to give him the worksheet and let him be. I knew this was going to be a long morning. I gave him the worksheet and his pencil. He wrote his name with ease, without any prodding. I should have known that would be the sign of how our morning would occur. He proceeded to start and before completing the first problem, he asked whether he could have my computer afterwards. I said yes. The worksheet was complex, at least to me. It had both addition and subtraction. His brain loves order and so I figured this may not be an an easy one for him. The first math problem asked that he add 8+7. He stared at the problem and did nothing. I asked that he focused. His mind wandered. He asked if he could have the computer again. I said sure. He asked whether he could do the problems on his own. I said by all means. He asked if I remembered how he used to do all his work by himself at our old house. I said of course and can you do the same now. He started to play with his pencil. He looked at the worksheet after close to 3 minutes and said 15, the answer is 15. I was shocked.
I expected him to count, to write out sticks, anything from all we have been doing to teach him how to do math. He had other ideas on his own. I actually thought it was a fluke too and proceeded to ask that he try the next problem, this time 9+8. His mind had other plans of its own. He asked if he could have the computer after work again. I said of course. He reminded me that he could do the work on his own. I said please go ahead. We did this back and forth until he blurted 17, the answer is 17. I was now in awe. How come? If you know what we go through with teaching him anything then you would understand.
Here is a kid who has a love hate relationship with school work with the hate winning on most days. But on days where love is supreme, nothing can stand in the way of the brain’s many gifts. So I proceeded to walk away. Maybe I’m the distraction. Maybe he can’t seem to focus because I remind him always to focus. I went in search of additional light as the room felt dark to me. I stepped away for about 3-4 minutes and by the time I returned, he was on problem 7. I checked prior math problems. They were all correct. I said nothing and watched in silence as the brain did what it knew best. A short time later, he was done. He didn’t count, he didn’t draw sticks, he just looked at the math problem and supplied the answer.
I really have no words except to keep this here today. This is a reminder to myself and to all mothers with kids on the spectrum to say that we should never underestimate the brain’s many unique ways. Here is a child for whom homeschooling can be though, for whom even math problems can be difficult at times, but today, when he did what worked for him, everything, including completing a math problem that seemed complex was as gentle as a breeze. Keep seeing this form of thriving with kids on the spectrum. They do and can underestimate even your own ideas of their abilities if you let them be. Keep thriving even with math
Marsh wrens are little songbirds that build multiple nests in their territories. Often described as dummy nests, males build these nests for three reasons. First as a courting center, male wrens use dummy nests to attract, sing and display their male fitness to females. And it’s a battle for desirable sites, desirable mates. For to attract a prospective mate requires displaying nests that not only impress, but also remove other males from their territories. Second as a decoy, dummy nests are used to confuse predators, thereby reducing predation around breeding nests. So the more dummy nests around 1 active breeding nest, the greater the odds that a predator would find an empty nest and leave the area before discovering the breeding nest. Third, as a cover or site for survival, dummy nests are used to shelter new nestlings. Court, confuse, cover, these three C’s, perfectly illustrate how I have silently survived mothering and work during this pandemic of a lifetime.
As a mom to three children under the age of 8, I did my best to become friends with the complexities of homeschooling. A desirable harmony with homeschooling was the goal when school began in the Fall. The Spring version of homeschooling at the start of the pandemic was a disaster. I wanted joy in the Fall. So, we began for example with a family newsletter to chronicle our daily experiences through homeschooling. We took pictures, shared little stories, even encouraged ourselves to love school now effectively at home. It lasted for six weeks. Homeschooling was at times harsh, was at times vigorous, at times rattling and at times weary and I did my best to court it fully even with joy in mind.
As if that wasn’t enough, the pandemic ushered in a new age of confusion alongside the madness of reality. In fact, we’re were all mad. We learnt to smile with our eyes and laugh with our mouths all invisible due to mask wearing. We learnt to accept and cringe with school at home and home at school. Even with assignments from homeschooling that required our children to imagine animals were mask, a bee for example wearing a mask. Like, I said, madness became a new normal. That and hiding. We learnt to hide in bathrooms for work, hide in closets for sleep, hide in cars to free ourselves from the chaos of running, energetic children during the day and night, in the morning or in the evening. They were everywhere hence the age of confusion for mothers like myself. All that work life balance we said we had, with home helping to strike the balance became a lie. In fact, as a global health researcher, there was no balance not with work or with my life as a mother to three children and a new infant, born at the height of the pandemic.
Yet through it all, the pandemic became the cover I never knew I needed for my survival. Not only did it awaken my eyes to the multiple dimensions of my life, it also helped me realize how much for example, I love to ask questions too. Questions that keep me alert to my potential. Questions that continue to awaken a desire for more. The sense of unfinished questions, unfinished goals, unfinished ideas, became a cover during the pandemic and it kept me motivated. I also taught my children the significance of their own questions, and how it can usher a confidence about yourself or what you are grateful for as with the drawings from my daughter below.
In the past few months, I not only courted the pandemic, but I watched as it ushered an age of confusion with my role as an academic scholar and a mother. Ultimately, the pandemic became a cover or a shelter for survival and self-discovery. One that provided the time necessary to discover what I am called to do in this world. That I long to make explicit our stories, long to shed light on the unthinkable, long to disassemble every myth, and long to recognize the brilliance of Black women who mother and work moves me enormously.
The time also has come to turn light on all the unexpected corners we court in life, all the spaces that confuse, and all the things that act as covers so we soar. My world as a Black woman scholar with four your children is vastly different from how other people see me. I know this fully well. And by courting the pandemic, allowing its confusion to wet my soul, while also basking in its cover, I know my way forward. Keep marsh wrens and their 3 c’s in mind and court, confuse, cover your life story.
There were days of silence. Not because I had no words, but because they won’t do. There were days of screaming. Not because I had no control, but because my mind needed to hear myself say Ahhhhhhhhh from the depths of my soul. There were days of tears. Not because I still had no control, but because what is control anymore. So I cried. I screamed a lot. I cried some more. I broke down and when I could, I pulled myself back up. I gave myself permission to accept not being okay. On those days, I hugged myself more, laid in bed and looked at old photos and videos with my children. Something about recollecting a pre-phase, helped. Especially for days where I gave myself permission to run. 12 miles a week, my highest on record. I gave myself stillness, a silent one, to just look and stare at the clouds or trees. Trees with their mysterious ways, especially icy trees, became my friend. That and nests. I gave myself permission to learn about nests, why birds build them, how they secure them, even how they discard them when done. I learnt a lot about nests. Hummingbirds for example build their nests with silk. Imagine that. I gave myself permission to ask questions. Beautiful ones too especially with my children. I told them to do the same and they have been non stop. I gave myself permission to radiate kindness or dream big, all words across my son’s shirt. That and happiness. That there could be happiness in moments like this was an anomaly. But with my children, I gave myself the permission to choose joy.
I also gave myself permission to listen to poetry. Pinke Gordon Lane for example dedicated to a woman poet or my dear friend Ritamae Hyde’s a mother’s love. My daughter did most of the reading and I simply listened so the words could reach the depth of my soul where screaming, and tears remained. I gave myself permission to imagine. Our imagination took us to the dinosaur park, the looking up statue, and everything Forest Park had to offer. The park itself was a constant ray of hope through all the struggles. Finally, I gave myself permission to read. Also sorts of books became my friend. All Toni Morrison books and Bell Hooks, and Audre Lorde and Patricia Bell Scott. There were also all the books by Chinua Achebe, Ifi Amadiume, Chinelo Oparanta who became my friend though on social media, and Ben Okri. Toni Cade Bambara’s Black Woman made me feel seen. Also Ta-Nehisi Coates Beautiful Struggle. He helped me give myself the permission to struggle beautifully all while keeping what matters. Between the world and me was a constant reminder that I mattered.
Ultimately I gave myself the grace to accept this experience. The grace to see it like a famished road, a crawling baby, an invisible ink, even a deer, my post on the mere sighting of a deer being a favorite for me. This was a pandemic of a lifetime. We were living through unprecedented times. That word was everywhere, though it never fully meant much to many people. So I accepted that people are never going to understand. I accepted that that those who cared, well, cared. In their own ways, they reached out and saw me and touched the silence, heard the screams and the tears, and did their part to fill the gaps that remained with love. Those that did, helped on those days when the burden was unbearable. Those that demanded, well I know their place in my life. For them, I gave myself permission to be like small axes.
But through it all, I fully know why my keep list matters. It has been like a space for therapy through this pandemic. A space for self-discovery. Like an eagle flying in the sky, it has become as space where I soar on my own unique terms. Like a root buried deep in the soil, it has become a space where I unearth the hidden, invisible parts of my life as a mother, including telling the stories of my children, one on spectrum that I never ever intended to tell. That I have been dealing with his beautiful struggles the past 6 years was supposed to be for me and my family. But the pandemic made me uncover it so others may understand why some mothers are screaming. I screamed too. I also cried. I was silent. And I survived. And such is the ramifications of the COVID19 pandemic one year later. To which I say keep all mothers and all caregivers in mind.
I have got three bright sons, one barely 7 months old, the other 4 years of age, and my first, 6 years old. Like most mothers raising black boys in America, I fear always, like I am raising targets. No amount of my education, my gender or even class, can protect my sons from the harsh realities of a racial society that first sees the color of their skin. My situation is made more complex and complicated with my first son who is on the autism spectrum. To know him, is to know love. Fierce, unbounded love, that glows as bright as the moon on good days. On those days, days with no meltdowns or obsessive, compulsive behaviors, our son is pure delight, sweet, tender, and moist, like the red on velvet cakes. But on days were tears are all he knows, all he understands, all that makes sense to his brilliant brain, our son can easily become a target, with his behaviors misconstrued as though he was a neurotypical child. It’s for this reason that homeschooling still makes sense, even when schools are slowly reopening and his own siblings even returning back to school.
Now imagine homeschooling a special needs child, all while working at the same time in academia. On some days I am the worst of mothers, and the guilt of abandoning work, and homeschooling, probably makes me the worst of colleagues and parent. Nothing gets done. Not math, language, reading or even music for him, or my numerous emails or Zooms for yet another meeting in the middle of homeschooling. On other days, especially days where we break all the rules, make our own rules even, days where we confront our fear, face our insecurities, our brains many electric stimulations is pure delight.
Take this week and weekend. Not only did we play with snow, we also painted, made jewelry, had a movie night, all with a brand new kitchen, now in ruins, thanks to a busted frozen water pipes. The first trade off, I abandoned work and allowed my soul to play. We needed it. The second is that they are my boys and I will do anything to protect them. The third is that even in the middle of chaos, even when his brain or my own is overwhelmed during a pandemic that isn’t abating, I will still work to see our brilliance. And we are brilliant, just as we are.
I will do my part to listen to the tears streaming down our beautiful black faces on days when we have our own meltdowns. I will do my part to hug our shoulders a little longer, even in the middle of yet another cold, snowy, sleepy night. I will pray. Yes indeed, I will cast all my cares on to God and thank him as we return to church, where all our other-mothers, Sister Cheryl in particular, can continue that loving, and teaching only she knows how too. Our grandmama is now vaccinated and so the fears of the virus, fears of its strong grip, are slowly disappearing, though with new variants, spreading rampart and wide, homeschooling remains. But above all, I will show them love. A fierce maternal love. If the goal is to nurture them, help them preserve, with their feet soaked fully in their culture, then maternal love is critical. Maternal love is a necessary foundation upon which my sons can continue to thrive and become resilient to to face and subvert the racist world they live in. Maternal love is also a serious matter especially where black boys are concerned, especially when the odds against them are high. The multitude and forms of the tolls this pandemic takes is persistent, but we will persist. With our heads unbowed, and our hearts unbroken, even with this pandemic, for my black sons, our mothering love, will persist. Keep persisting.
In one of my daughter’s journal entry for school, she was asked ‘what makes her family special?’ She wrote: My family is special because we are always fun.’ I chuckled. But the next sentence made me alert. She wrote: ‘They also understand whenever I make mistakes.’ As a family, we are keenly aware that mistakes are necessary. Almost expected from everyone, including our children. That I fail with work comes as no surprise to my children. They know when my grants for example are not successful. A lot of them are never successful. And they understand what to do to cheer me up. Red velvet cake makes me happy.
Mistakes, failures, are inevitable conditions necessary for living. There are two choices, one can make when they encounter these challenges. One, you can ignore them, or two, you can learn a lesson from your mistakes or failures. Whichever choice you make, know that understanding is a key antidote. One that we do not take for granted in my household. That my daughter, wrote this in her journal is compelling. Understanding is also doing, one that I will keep staying alert to. Mistakes are inevitable with children. Keep understanding even when them make them.
We finally made it to 100 days of school last week. I thought when this day arrived this school year, I would be elated. Elated because my children are resilient. Elated because they kept persevering despite school now at home and home at school. Elated because they made it work. Elated because, though I am tired and would give anything to end homeschooling and the pandemic, my children are still alert, still steady, still determined, still clear about homeschooling requirements and still ready to keep being in school every single day. With them, with school this year at home, I keep knowing myself.
Take yesterday for example, my second son had his parent teacher conference and for the first time, no one had a problem with his intellect. Granted he still struggles with being independent and the teachers mentioned working with him to achieve goals that would reduce his dependence on us. But intellectually, he is above his grade level. I almost cried. If you know what we have been through with him, if you fully understand what it means to raise a special needs child, to ensure his educational experience perseveres continues even when he couldn’t speak for awhile, when he was kicked out of his very first school after attending for 2 days, even now in the middle of a pandemic, then you would cry to. I have no idea how we do it him. These days he seems so eager to go to school, even waiting by his laptop patiently for his teachers until they arrive. It may seem like a small feat, but watching his growth the past 100 days leaves me speechless at times. I myself have so much work work to do and work is around me all the time and yet, we still find the time to ensure that his school does not falter and it shows.
One of the teacher mentioned how she saw us, appreciated our consistency, our presence in his life at this moment because it is truly hard to homeschool a child like him. For some reason, it never occurred to me just how hard it has been the past 100 days. I was stunned by her words that all I could say was thank you for your understanding. Thank you for your patience with us. Thank you also for all you do. That’s all I needed. She freely gave me permission to finally feel elated that we made it to 100 days of school. I am. We are still steady, still clear, still alert and still determined to make the most out of the remaining days of school. But for now, this is my way of keeping 100 days of school in mind.
One of my favorite pictures from homeschooling last year is of my daughter and her brother walking together. My daughter, the artist, describes it as walking their own way, like when we go for walks along Forest Park. I especially love the picture because I see myself in my children, walking my own path, even on this daily blog on parenting and academic productivity. It isn’t ‘or’ for me, but ‘and’. My productivity in academia is very much tied to my role as a mother. And following my path with asking and listening to good questions, make the connection sterling.
In the past 15 years I have known my mentor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa, he has always shared the importance of not only asking good questions but actually questioning the questions asked. To him, we all need to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable especially when asking tough questions. I started grant writing and studying the sustainability of evidence based research, because, like a true mentee, I wanted to become comfortable asking uncomfortable good questions. Like, why, after decades of spending millions on research in resource limited settings, after decades of collecting data, even decades of collaboration with key stakeholders, do most evidence-based interventions, particularly does deemed effective never, ever last? We the researchers collect our data, publish our findings in the most prestigious journals, present our findings in top conferences, maybe even return to present it to key stakeholders and then we move on to the next problem, the next grant even, maybe on the same topic, but with another group of unsuspecting community eager for our expertise without understanding the cost.
Personally, and if there is anything that I have learnt from the pandemic, the time has come for such research to end. Of course we may never be able to solve every problem, of course we may not have the courage to ask the uncomfortable but good questions necessary, of course when we even ask them, we may fail, but I am committed to following my own path to ask them anyway. I am interested in implementing sustainable evidence based research because they are rare, because the communities I work with deserve them, the participants themselves desperately need them and because it is time we actually plan from the beginning for them. Planing for sustainable research is necessary if lasting is going to be more than just technical, more than another data collection exercise. Do I have the answer on how to implement them? The truth is, that is the beauty of following your path. When you look at the possibilities or even the opportunities we have squandered when we don’t think about sustainability, when we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of those we serve, then it should not come as a surprise why we are still in the middle of this pandemic.
I understand the work ahead. I am prepared to try and even fail on this journey. And it’s my path. Every researcher, every research, every good question asked in the service of people, especially in settings constrained with resources, should have an obligation to last. And when you know that she who ask these questions, however difficult or even different they maybe, however uncomfortable they may be perceived, never misses their way, then why not ask them. Keep following your path.
We stopped by our old house to clean up. The past couple of days since we moved have been emotional. This was the first home we bought and literally built from the ground up when we first moved to Saint Louis. It will forever hold a special place in my heart especially given the pandemic. It was here after-all that we encountered our beautiful struggle with homeschooling. When we got to my daughters room where all her homeschooling occurred, I couldn’t help but feel emotional. This room got us through some tough times and the hand drawn pictures on the wall were my favorite.
I recall choosing joy when homeschooling in the room started in the fall. As we cleaned the house up, my daughter and I, one room after the other, our emotions were joyful. Joy for every corner swept. Joy for every room cleaned. Joy for every box filled, every trash picked. Joy for this home, our first. When we stopped cleaning for the day, and packed our belongings to head to the new home, our joy remained. Though the days in this old house are numbered, we still choose and keep joy, for it will always be the first home we bought.