Monday, March 28, 2011

toxic information: warning, may not be extractable from brain

Some days, it's just not worth it. You can do everything right - get an allergist to work with you, talk to your kid's school about a 504 plan, have them talk to your kid's doctors, and even buy a cute backpack for your kid to take to school.

Oh, and offer to pick up treats for a school party, because hey, your child might have allergies, but kids should get to celebrate, right? And when you can set it up so that everyone celebrates together, with allergy-friendly yumminess, well. You rock, mama.

It's just too bad that someone forgot to explain this to the other parents.

While I'm torn between an urge to march on down there and start lecturing - and an urge to screech - the truth is that I get it. Let's start with transparency: for the people outside of a process, especially a bureaucratic one, it's really really easy for the process to seem biased, sloppy or just plain wrong. Is the child really that allergic? I wasn't there in the 504 meeting, but a doctor was involved. Was the child correctly diagnosed? Not being an allergist, I'm really in no position to say. Are all of these measures necessary? Oh, goodness knows, but again: not an allergist. Still, in our experience, a small portion of the measures taken to protect our children come from anxiety, or a need for certainty and an extra margin of safeguards. A large percentage comes from medical need, as described to the parents. And there, folks, lies the grey area. Doctors hate questions like, 'is this safe?' because the wrong answer can leave them open to lawsuits. Parents hate undue risk because the wrong choice can mean any number of scary things. So. Schools take on liability, parents have taken on a whopping dose of fear - which means that the doctor's role here should be all the more reassuring, as s/he can provide perspective.

Nonetheless, in this poll, 71% of respondents were certain: the school was wrong. And trying to spring the unfairness on the parents. Why are we being kept in the DARK? read one protester's sign.

It makes me crazy to think about how tiny the opportunity is for lighting that darkness. Once folks apply sharpie to oaktag, the opportunity for reasonableness, or even for education is essentially over. When the school's spokeswoman talked about the 504 plan, the legal requirements and process that the school must undertake to accommodate a child, I don't think people were listening. "Rights" ring more purely than legislation. No wonder that Wrightslaw has such an intense section on advocacy, and how to do it. I've read it, practiced it - and still, my success as an advocate has always depended on who is listening. People who are open to information, flexible and willing to be partners? Love you all. People who have already decided what is true and what is needed? A trainwreck, aimed right at the kid.

"You can't take peanut butter and jelly, or any other right away from my child," a parent screeched. And her message echoes through the school hallways. In a less controversial class, classmates are protesting the limits set for a second peanut allergic child.  "They say, put me in another class," said the little boy. "So that they can eat peanut butter."

His face is bewildered, his mother nearly incoherent. Facing them are passionate, appalled parents, explaining that they don't want to be unfair - but that a child so allergic as to require accommodations affecting the class? Should just stay home.

It's unutterably sad. When did rights mean get out of my way, I want to live my life the way I want? When did this narrow indignation usurp generosity of spirit, or a sense of flexibility, possibility - or heck, kindness? If we could only back up the tape in Florida, I'd sit down with those parents, and say, hey. Let's try this: take a kid who has been shut up at home. A kid who has been inexpressibly lonely, and who would love to leave their bubble - but is probably scared. And let's say this to that kid:

And that's it. Instead of no, you say yes.  You say, we can instead of mine, or I won't. Maybe, wisely, the school says it first, and helps you figure out how. And then? Together, you take the kid who was shut out, whose school told him to go away, and then you open the door. Come on in, you say. Because it really is that easy.*  And then, you show him that you get it.

Maybe you are in preschool, and all you know about allergies is that they make you sick (see the rash?) and that sometimes bees are involved. Oh, and thermometers. That's plenty for a little kid, who doesn't really need the science - they just need the general concept, plus help in being a good friend.

Welcome to lunch, the little kids said, in their own, pre-literate ways. Please don't be that sad, sick kid. Be this kid, instead! 
(for a four year old, that's one seriously happy face. Plus kipa, fyi) Be this kid! Be laughing! Or, says another child, be this kid!
Hair, curling everywhere, arms as wide as the world, and a smile so wide that it's taking over the face - and needs an extra set of eyes to twinkle alongside it.

Welcome to lunch. We're so glad that you are here! they said, and the Toddles sat, proudly, at his special, decorated table. His table was pulled up against the other kids' table, and he sat so carefully. Shining with pleasure. Learning how to be a child - how to be That OMG Allergic child - living in a world without bubbles.

And laughing.
You can read the school's puzzled response in HuffPo (hint: ADA? not so familiar), an opinion piece (also, not so much with the ADA), this pithy response or this one. Or you could cut to the chase, and go straight to this call for everybody to just stop, and take a deep breath.

But I would rather that you thought about this: when people aren't educated about food allergies, this is one thing that can happen.  Death threats were made, and the child's parents chose not to keep her in the school. That's one outcome. And this, sadly, is another. An educated peer - an aware adult - someone could have asked the question, is this safe for you? And we'd have one teenager, sans coma.

* and if you are having trouble, there are wonderful resources out there, like this one:
**but you can laugh about it. Like in this cartoon.


Rachel said...

Thanks for this post. It made me want to cry. That poor little girl. Interesting that the school did not choose to go nut-free (our synagogue which also houses a day-school is). And all that extra handwashing during flu season, not really a bad thing. D's school also has a rule that there no food is to be brought in for celebrations, period. And the school could have so easily turned this into a lesson. And despite everything, even when she was in school, she still had to eat by herself! This is going to bother me for quite some time.

Anonymous said...

I'm angry & heartbroken at the same time.

To summarize: "Stupid people suck."

And to cheer up people: one of my favorite restaurants, Four Burgers in Central Square, is completely nut-free. The owner, realizing that his baked good swere the only things that had nuts, decided, 'hey, why not leave them out?' He's also great about taking care of customers with other allergies. Not that the Imperfects could enjoy the cheeseburgers, but they have veggie burgers & excellent french fries & milk shakes!

Miryam said...

To quote the Toddles' teacher, "I don't understand! Don't they know how easy it is?"

Answer: no.

But then again, this teacher also understood why I needed a quiet moment alone - with the preschool's welcome sign.

Miryam said...

Rachel - alone? Oh, I'm so sorry.

Anon. - oooh. Milkshakes. Have I mentioned my slightly alarming fondness for a malted vanilla shake? Maybe not at Four Burgers, but hey, kudos to a smart, thoughtful restaurant owner! tell him that we're applauding over here...

Anonymous said...

Sweet potato fries & a milk shake sound like a perfectly healthy lunch to me right about now!