Today, driving home from camp, my daughter looked at me, smiling. She said, matter-of-factly, “A year ago, this time, I was a total mess.” We’d just looked at pictures of a trip we had taken last summer — her face was bare, eyebrows and lashes missing, and she looked pained. I replied, “You weren’t a mess, you were having a really hard time.” We all were. We were scared and overwhelmed, her ADHD diagnosis was brand new, her anxiety was spiking, and she had developed trichotillomania (a need to pull out one’s hair). But that was then.
“Tasukete kudasai” translates to “Please help me.” It was one of the first things my daughter learned to say when we enrolled her in a Japanese dual immersion program for kindergarten. When she was five years old, she begged us to sign her up. I was nervous about it. Neither my husband nor I are Japanese nor do we speak a word of the language, and this school seemed like a tall order for any child, let alone such a young one.
“Please,” she pleaded. We relented and so began our journey. After reading stories about how children absorb language at a young age, it seemed worth a shot. I convinced myself it was a gift.
A Great Start
Her first year was filled with wonder. We loved spending time in Little Tokyo on the weekends. Celebrating the cherry blossoms’ arrival became an annual event, and shrimp chips and mochi ice cream became staples in our home. By third grade, we offered to house a teaching assistant who had come from Japan to help at the school. When he moved in, my children were buzzing with excitement, eager to hang out with the cool guy who played indoor soccer, created origami dinosaurs in seconds, and wouldn’t kill a fly.
In fourth grade, things took a sharp left turn. My daughter’s interest in the language shifted, and her passion had been replaced with resentment. Her new Japanese teacher was stern and regimented. Days were filled with punishments and humiliations, according to my daughter, who had become painfully sensitive. She stopped sleeping and struggled to stay afloat. Within a month of starting the new school year, we had her assessed for ADHD, after her Japanese teacher complained that she was “too disorganized and too chatty.”
I was nervous about the prospect. When the results came back, they were a mixed bag. Her verbal skills were through the roof, but her visual processing was compromised. The doctor who managed her assessment explained that the Japanese course of study might not be the best fit.
My daughter felt that her ability to speak Japanese was something that made her special. And it did. But it had become her Achilles heel, and as the days passed, her resentment grew. Her anxiety had ballooned into full-blown panic attacks: hysterics before school and serious fighting and arguing at homework time. She started pulling her hair out and became a shell of who she was. Most painful of all, she no longer had an insatiable appetite to learn.
I met with her teachers to talk about how to move forward. With a 504 Plan in place, we made the necessary adjustments. Her English teacher went the extra mile to accommodate and fully support her.
With her Japanese teacher, the story played out a little differently. “She should drop out,” she told me. While I agreed, it wasn’t her choice to make, and it wasn’t mine, either. And so began months of weekly meetings and the harrowing choice between letting her go down in flames and moving on, or pushing her to succeed at something she had grown to hate. I did the only thing that made sense: I took my hands off the wheel and I exhaled deeply. It felt like the first breath I’d taken in months.
I finally asked my daughter what she wanted, what she really wanted. She was, at this point, spending every afternoon in the nurse’s office, with mysterious ailments, in an effort to get out of class. I asked the school to let her sit there if she needed to. She was frightened of being a failure. She was frightened of what her friends would think. It took time, but we shifted the focus. It was no longer about trying to fit in, but more about starting over, taking a new path. We started down our new road with hope.
A New Day
A year later, life is a lot different. Our daughter now attends a progressive school, where she is inspired. She has written reports on ancient Egyptian philosophers, joined an all-girl flag football team, plays the guitar, and has her own YouTube channel. She’s blossomed. Her ADHD isn’t her defining characteristic; it doesn’t even register. She’s a kid, just like everyone else in a school filled with students of various shapes and sizes.
And me? I’ve grown used to the shifting tide. A year ago, her diagnosis was new, big, and overwhelming. I tiptoed around, afraid I might break her, not sure what to make of it. Now, the diagnosis is only a small part of her, not the undertow that I believed, at one point, was pulling us under.
Oh, and one more thing, she’s happy — really happy.