"Overcoming All Odds"

Although we knew our South American-born son would face challenges growing up in a predominantly white middle class suburb, we were totally unprepared for what was to come when he encountered racism at school.

A heart on graph paper

My 15-year-old son, Anthony, came home from school one day to find me in tears. Concerned, he asked what was wrong. “Alexander made the honor roll,” I sobbed. “No, Mom,” he said. “It must be something bad.”

Anthony, a high school freshman, is the picture of the all-American boy. My husband and I adopted him as a newborn, bringing him home directly from the hospital. He was loved immediately from birth, and has been surrounded by friends and family ever since.

My son, Alexander, on the other hand, was two-and-a-half when we adopted him. We had been told that he had been living on the streets in Colombia with his birth father and was in constant danger. Yet Alexander quickly adapted to his new life, warming easily to us, our extended family, and especially to his brother. Sister Rebecca (also Colombian-born, but adopted as a newborn) arrived four months later.

One thing we learned right from the start about Alexander was that he was  passionate—about everything. He became excited about new discoveries, laughed easily, was as affectionate as a puppy. He had compassion for everyone, including animals.

During the next several years, Anthony and Alexander built friendships in the neighborhood and in preschool. My husband and I settled into a comfortable routine. We had careers we enjoyed, our children were healthy and happy, and we looked forward to enjoying life as a family.

Then came school.

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First Warning Signs

Anthony and Alexander, while both in kindergarten, were in different classes. Alexander came home one day very upset. He had been called a name, he told us. He didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded bad. He asked us,”What’s a nigger?” I cried that day, too.

I contacted his teacher and the principal, and both were supportive. I explained to my son that some people are afraid of what they don’t know, and when they are afraid, they can turn mean. Since he loves animals, he understood how a frightened animal can lash out. We told him that this behavior is learned at home and that we believed the parents needed help with their attitudes toward those who were different.

Alexander’s teacher believed in structure and order. Dealing with an exuberant child like Alex challenged her. She began requesting assistance and special placement for him. She felt he took up too much of her time, and was unwilling to try any ideas we suggested. After that, we opted to place Alex in a developmental first grade, which meant two years of first-grade work, individually paced, with the same teacher.

We couldn’t have made a better choice for Alex. His new teacher, Patsy Newman, not only recognized Alex’s passion, she celebrated it. She praised him, encouraged him, and, most importantly, expected a lot of him. He thrived under her, and was lucky to have her as his second- and third-grade teacher as well. Fortunately, the years he spent with her prepared him for what was to come next.

Alex was an active child. He called out in class and spoke out of turn, often frustrating teachers. He thrived in interactive situations and became fidgety in lecture-type settings. Teachers repeatedly questioned why he wasn’t on Ritalin, and one asked, in front of the class, “Why doesn’t your mother have you on medication?”

Not surprisingly, in fourth grade, the school recommended that we have Alex tested. We opted for an independent evaluation, and he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. We mistakenly shared the results with the school. Alex was immediately classified and an individual education plan was developed. We thought this would help him achieve his potential, but little did we know it only set a very low level of expectation for him.

[Beyond School: How Parents Can Help]

Alex was pulled out of class for remedial programs, which had two negative effects: he missed what was covered in class, and he was labeled a “retard” by the bullies. When we mentioned that his assignments seemed unchallenging, we were told that they were all he needed. After two years of frustration, we had Alex declassified. To school officials, this was an act akin to treason. They accused us of not providing our son with the tools he needed to succeed. They predicted failure and a host of problems.

A Fresh Start?

We saw Alex’s move into seventh grade as a fresh start. He would be in middle school now, declassified, and we could set expectations where we knew they belonged, at the top of the scale.

Thus began the year of hell. Seventh graders are cruel to each other as a matter of course, and our son was subjected to more prejudice than ever. In home room, students routinely mocked him, called him names, and shouted racial slurs. The teacher just told Alex to ignore the comments.

Fortunately, Alex, with his strong sense of self-esteem, was able to maintain his sense of worth. He has always had an incredible inner strength. He sees humor in everything, which helps him remain positive and upbeat. He is viewed as a leader and clown among his friends, and receives a lot of support from them. He’s also very athletic, and has developed confidence in his physical abilities and achievements in sports.

We began to get calls from the principal and vice principal about Alex’s behavior. They said he was acting up and needed to be disciplined. In several meetings, we were told he couldn’t keep still, he needed medication, and he could never achieve what was needed in the classroom.

One day, when some of Alex’s classmates were at our house, a boy asked me if I was going to do anything about the racist teacher. He told me that all the kids know “she picks on Alex because he’s brown.” He said she permits the same “bad” behavior from other kids, but she yells at Alex. After months of fighting, we demanded a change of classrooms.

[Bringing Up Adoption at School]

The Ultimate Challenge

Alex entered eighth grade with a goal: make the honor roll. He missed for the first and second marking periods by one grade. In the third, one subject was still borderline. Alex kept at his work, believing that he’d make it this time.

His report card didn’t arrive when  expected, so I call Alex’s counselor. “Alex made it!” he yelled. “And he’s telling everyone!” That’s when I began to cry.
It was something bad, I think. But right now, it’s very, very good.


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