A Birthday Tale

You’ll excuse me if I’m a little farklempt today. It’s Wizard’s 14th birthday, and it’s the first one we have not celebrated together. (Perhaps, when I finish this birthday tale, you’ll understand a little better why I haven’t had the strength or desire to blog in months.)

Wizard left this morning on a 6:00 a.m. flight to Maine. He’s on a 4-week journey backpacking and canoeing with Outward Bound. WineGuy and I had no other choice but to send our firstborn away for a while, lest Wizard totally decimate our family. Wizard is  participating in Outward Bound’s Intercept program for “struggling teens ages 12 to 17 … from all over the United States wanting to transition their lives in more meaningful and positive directions.” It is geared towards kids who have done poorly in school, who have anger management problems, who are defiant, and/or who have low motivation. WG and I were at our wits’ end this spring with Wizard’s egregious behavior. When we read the program’s description, it felt as if it were singularly designed for our eldest son.

As most of you know, Wizard is a brilliant kid. His IQ scores and standardized tests are quantitative proof. Somewhere along the way, the boy never learned how to study, never learned to be organized in any aspect of his life, never had to work hard, and when he was required to do so, he was unable to perform. Early on, we realized we needed to keep this child challenged in school, so we enrolled him in private school. Wizard attended a local country day school from Kindergarten through Grade 3. In all those years, he had one teacher who really pushed him to work hard and excel. Apparently, the rest of them were just letting Wizard float along on his natural gifts. 3/4 way through third grade, Wizard’s teacher realized she should be giving him harder work; at that point, I knew we had to get him out of that school.

Without consulting the child, WG and I moved Wizard to the Snooty School in 4th grade. In my crystal clear hindsight, I see that my son was never happy there and never really fit in. He hated leaving his friends at the country day school. He hated not being the smartest kid in class anymore. At the Snooty School, there were 5 kids just as smart as Wizard in every class. While Wizard’s 4th grade teachers put forth yeomen’s efforts to teach him organizational and study skills, there was no similar follow-through in 5th grade. The Snooty School’s Middle School provided Wizard with a strong safety net and support system. Several teachers had a positive impact on the boy, and it looked like things might be turning around. The summer and fall of 2007 were a turning point in all our lives:  I appeared on Jeopardy!, and then my father died one week before the show’s airdate. Life was an upside down mess in The Zone:  jubilation over fulfilling a lifetime dream and utter grief over the loss of a parent. One minute I was reading email, and in the next minute I ran out of my house and was gone for days to help my mother. Wizard got lost in all the shuffle. One month later, the Snooty School called us in for an emergency meeting to state that they wanted us to “withdraw” Wizard from school and send him elsewhere. Aside from Wizard’s refusal to do homework, he was mouthing off to the teachers and his peers and creating cartoons perceived as threats to school security.

Three days later, in the middle of the fall semester of 7th grade and the week before Thanksgiving — at no logical time or break in the term — Wizard found himself in the Zone Middle School. The system placed Wizard directly into the “gifted” program with an IEP. The kid seemed to be making friends, but we never saw a lick of homework and did not understand — or even like — the way public school works. Despite some great success on the school’s Scholar Bowl team and in lacrosse, Wizard became increasingly more unmanageable. There were constant fights and tantrums at home. There was cursing and refusal to do work. There was obsession with computer and video games. And, that was only the beginning. Our regular pediatrician was unable to help us, so I consulted with another doctor. The alternate pediatrician diagnosed Wizard with Inattentive Attention Deficit Disorder and placed the boy on ever-increasing doses of Concertta®. Wizard went to therapy for a few months, but he refused to open his mouth. A child psychiatrist evaluated Wizard and deemed him to have “oppositional-defiant disorder” but offered no therapeutic options other than behavior modification therapy, which Wizard ridiculed.

Wizard was supposed to be studying for  his Bar Mitzvah in the summer of 2009, but he gave the rabbi endless problems. As Wizard’s behavior worsened at home and in synagogue, WG and I decided that there would be no Bar Mitzvah celebration:  no family other than grandparents, no party, no fuss, no nothing. All of WG’s and my siblings were really angry with us, but they all (excluding one) acknowledged our dilemma that we were not going to reward bad behavior with a party. In the end, Wizard did an amazing job leading the service, reading the Torah, and giving a speech. It was a terrible shame that only his grandparents got to witness such a great accomplishment.

That  — and Wizard’s report card which arrived today — brings us to his last year of middle school. My brilliant son brought home a scant 2.0 cumulative GPA for the year. Other than an A in art, his grades were abominable. He completely tanked his high-school level math course; he will have to repeat that next year. Wizard blew off his Spanish class, in which he could have earned an easy “A” just by doing his homework., Wizard did little homework for any class all year. What he did do was turned in very late. Most of those efforts were mediocre at best. Months after school started, when I noticed that I had not refilled the Concertta prescription in a long time, Wizard admitted he quit taking the medicine because it made him depressed and “slow”. He lied to us for months about taking those pills. Wizard’s behavior and attitude consequently plummeted over the course of the year. We got him a cell phone for Chanukah, but he complains endlessly that it’s not good enough. The sole consolation was that Wizard was happy at Zone Middle School. He made lots of friends — as evidenced by incessant texting. That’s worth something, right?

Over the course of the last few years, as he hit puberty with a vengeance, Wizard has become ungovernable:  violent, aggressive, arrogant, lazy, moody, angry, selfish, and unpredictable. He routinely bullies his younger brothers. Wild Thing’s grades dropped in the middle of the year and Moose was acting up in class and exhibiting other physical symptoms of stress because of Wizard’s bullying them. Wizard has physically hurt me on more than one occasion, and he nearly ended WG’s medical career in a knock-down, drag-out fight four months ago. (WG still goes to hand therapy, and the hand is not 100%.) When we tell Wizard to do something he does not want to do, his response is, “You can’t make me.” It’s true:  at 6’2″ and 212 pounds, Wizard is much taller and stronger than I am. He is nearly as tall as his father and is just as strong. Wizard is twice the size of Wild Thing and Moose and delights in manhandling them mercilessly. Things got so bad after that fight that WG and I enrolled him in the Sheriff’s Youth-At-Risk program, which was supposed to be in-school counseling and a day-long program of rehabilitation. The YAR program turned out to be  a joke. The supervising deputy was a dumb ox, and there was no rehab program. Several officers tried to get through to Wizard, but the only one who had any success was a Jewish guy who could relate to Wizard on an intellectual and spiritual level. When the Jewish deputy asked about Wizard’s summer plans, we had nothing in mind. The deputy suggested we find some sort of Jewish adventure camp for the boy, but it was Lena, at a regular meeting of the Breakfast Club, who suggested Outward Bound and found the Intercept program for us.

We called to enroll Wizard, rushed in an application, faxed multiple forms all over the country, and secured a spot for Wizard at this program in Maine. Wizard was none too thrilled, but we didn’t give him a choice. Outward Bound wanted Wizard to attend their program in Northern Minnesota in July, but it conflicted with the start of high school in August. We are far poorer, yet thankful, that Wizard is now in Maine. The course director called us this evening to tell us that Wizard arrived on schedule, was friendly to the greeters in Maine, and seemed to get along with his group. That call made me a little farklempt, too. I was worried something happened to Wizard.

I love Wizard fiercely, and I’ll miss him this next month. I pray that this will be the life-changing experience that so many friends assure me it can be. I hope that Wizard will find his heart in the heart of the Maine wilderness.

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6 thoughts on “A Birthday Tale

  1. I can remember scouring the Outward Bound website on your behalf a few years ago, trying to find a program that would fit. It was too soon then, but it sounds like now is the time. I will be thinking good thoughts for Wizard and hoping it uncovers your brilliant, resourceful son under all those defiant layers.

  2. Wow–I feel such mixed emotions reading this: a deep and painful sorrow for all you’ve had to endure, and a zen-like peace with your determination to take control for yourself by returning to all the habits (writing, walking) you know are so good for you. I’m so proud to know such a strong and important woman. I will hold my breath for four weeks, waiting for the good news I believe will come out of Maine. Welcome back, alto2…! 🙂

  3. I hope being at Outward Bound will make all the difference for Wizard, for you, and for your family. I have a good idea of how hard your decision must have been to send him.

    I will keep Wizard (and you!) in my thoughts and meditations with hopes of a great outcome.

  4. He can fool us in person. I only hope he doesn’t fool them for long and that they reach inside and find the Wizard we all know is in there. Meanwhile take a deep breath and let the household relax for the next month!

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