Schuyler and I had a hard conversation tonight. It was an important one, and I'm not sure I got it wrong, exactly. But it was difficult for certain.
The day began with a parent/teacher conference, with Schuyler's history teacher. She'd shown a big grade point drop on her last report card that concerned us enough to meet with him and talk strategies and such. The meeting went really well, but an interesting and disheartening fact came up during our discussion. In talking about how she uses her iPad in class, he revealed that not only did she never use her AAC apps in class, but he wasn't even aware that they existed.
Schuyler's social anxieties about using assistive technology to communicate are as present as ever. They might just be reaching a critical point, which is so frustrating because she started off so strong and so enthusiastic about using it. Once she got to middle school, she became increasingly self-conscious about using it, and it has been a struggle to get her to do so ever since.
Schuyler doesn't truly believe that others can't understand her verbal speech. Those of us who live with her and love her manage to understand her pretty well, and perhaps it's been a mistake to coast on that comfort level. If her mother and father and godparents and family friends can understand her without her device, then the rest of the world should be able to as well.
But they don't, and as she has used her AAC less and less, her speech has become harder to understand. And the more difficulty the people around her have in understanding her, the more frustrated she gets, until she shuts down. It's a negative cycle that feeds on itself. And it's a cycle that we desperately need to break.
Her history teacher said he would ask her to show him the two apps she alternates between in class, and later I received an email from him. He reported that she seemed happy and excited to show the apps, but also said he wasn't sure if they had sound capabilities. "She wasn't sure, either," he said, which is absolutely untrue. She was pretending not to know, not to understand how these apps work. Apps that she probably comprehends better than I do.
I was frustrated. When she got home from school, I had her immediately sit down and take out her iPad.
"I want to you tell me something on your iPad. I don't care what. Just tell me something."
She typed for a few moments and then had it speak. "Sam Houston is a hero at the San Jacinto."
"That was great," I said. "So why did you act like you don't know how that app works with your teacher?"
Called out, Schuyler made a face that I know all too well. Sadness, mixed with petulance. She hemmed and hawed a little, but I kept pushing her. I could feel that we were both becoming deeply frustrated, but you know how it is when a situation reaches a critical point. Sometimes you're just going to have that conversation.
Finally she said, "I don't want to talk like this." She held up her iPad.
"Schuyler, how else are you going to talk so that people know what you're saying?"
She pointed at her throat angrily. "I want to talk with my voice like everyone else!"
"Well, you can't!"
There it was. I just said it.
"I'm sorry, Schuyler. But you just can't. And you know that."
Looking back on it, I don't know if I was blunt or cruel. I felt horrible, even though I don't know if I was actually wrong to say it. Her expression was one of hurt, and for a minute or two I thought she was going to cry. But she didn't. She sat back on the couch with an expression like that of a boxer who just can't fight another round.
"I know, Daddy," she said quietly.
To Schuyler there's always hope that one day, she'll wake up with a clear voice and a strong, unfogged mind, and all of this will be a bad memory. Schuyler will wake up just like all the girls in her classes, girls who are pretty like she is but so alien in their constant chatter and their ever-fluid interactions. Even the kids who are nice to her leave her behind to a certain degree. They don't tease her. Her teachers say that she is mostly beloved by her classmates. But she's tired of being a cherished pet. She doesn't want her difference to be accepted. She wants it to go the fuck away, forever.
Hope is sometimes all we have. Emily Dickinson describes it as the thing with feathers, perched in the soul and singing a wordless tune without fail. That may be true. It may also be the problem. Hope has given Schuyler a perfect dream, but in the absence of that dream's unlikely transformation to reality, she's left with an expectation that will probably never be met, and she's blind to the alternatives. Schuyler can't talk, not well enough to navigate the world, but she has tools at her disposal to find another path. Her hope might just be spoiling her chance to find her way out of the dark, into a light that is very different from the one that shines on the rest of us, but a light nonetheless.
I felt like kind of a horrible father tonight, like I was smothering hope. But I'm not sure that hope didn't have it coming, maybe just a little. In the further conversations we had later, Schuyler talked about her AAC apps and how they were her way to talk as best as she could. She hadn't arrived, and she may very well push it all away again tomorrow. But it's clear that whether or not she's ready to accept some hard truths, she is at the very least processing them.
Schuyler doesn't let go of her hopes very easily, and that is an almost entirely wonderful thing. Against all my instincts and all my own unreasonable hopes and dreams, however, I need her to find her way out of this particular hole that her hope has dug for her.
The last thing we did before Schuyler went to bed tonight was to try on her clothes for her band concert tomorrow evening. Crisp white shirt, pretty black twirly skirt, the works. Tomorrow she'll position herself beside a bass drum, and she'll communicate exactly what she wants to the world. The weird, wonderful little girl with the big drum and the fierce hope.
It's a moment where she won't need words. I only wish there were more of them in her world, and in her future.