let it go…
When I was working as a Vision Therapist in San Diego, our office had a young lady named Monica as a patient, who at that time was around 11 or 12 years old and in middle school. Monica was as “middle of the road” as kids come – nice family, sweet disposition, and great affection for life. Like many children before her, and definitely those I’ve met since, she was struggling with her academics and labeled lazy. Tutoring wasn’t helping, punishment wasn’t helping and bribery wasn’t helping. She simply wasn’t getting it, and found Vision Therapy. In 14 years as a Vision Therapist and having now worked in 4 different major U.S. cities, to say that my memory of all my patients is weak would be a vast understatement. I’m always the one in the office saying “remember the little boy….who came here last year….his mom had blonde hair….and his dad always wore a hat….” – yes, I do that all the time. The patients who have achieved the most tend to stand out in my memory, as do the ones I struggled with, and the patients who taught me lessons about VT and life are in there too. Most of the rest of it is just a blur of joy. If not for one incredible day, Monica would have joined that blur; instead she will always serve as a reminder of something very important.
About two-thirds of the way through her Vision Therapy program, Monica and I had a stretch of sessions together. In that office, therapists would rotate patients, so it was somewhat uncommon to see the same patient several weeks in a row. On the third consecutive session of working visual thinking skills, Monica clearly was lost. I was trying to pull her along, encourage her to find a new path, develop a new scheme, take a risk, anything. She wouldn’t budge. After watching her sit quietly for a few minutes staring at the activity hoping she would take a shot at an answer, I politely said “Monica, it’s OK if you don’t know the answer”. She immediately started to cry, almost uncontrollably.
There are moments in Vision Therapy where I feel really smart, like I figured something out that was pretty complex and a patient is benefiting from that conclusion. And yes, I have the opposite type moments too, that are best described with only one word: DUH! My comment to Monica was both. I also was feeling like a jerk for ruining this little girl’s day. After pulling Monica’s mom into the room, the three of us sat and talked about how it was really OK that she was struggling, it was OK that she wasn’t keeping up, it was OK that she couldn’t always find the answers, and it is OK that she needs extra help. I don’t recall Monica’s exact words, but the sentiment was “really?”.
The lesson of that day for me was two fold. First, kids feel the pressure to succeed too, and sometimes will get so wrapped up in it that stepping outside their bubble to discover new ways becomes scarier and more intimidating that normal. Simply giving them permission to fail, or a no-harm no-foul type guess, releases that pressure and frees them up to think. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, when people have a scheme for problem solving that works for them, no matter how disorganized or discombobulated it may seem to the rest of the world, they are going to protect it because it’s all they have. Considering other’s ideas may be nice, but to a child’s perception there is no guarantee that the “new way” will work, so they protect and maintain the old way so they have a means to the end. This lesson of my session with Monica has been so incredibly valuable, and pays off time and time again.
Kari, a young lady in VT currently who is about the same age Monica was when we worked together, is struggling with math. Kari is very smart, but is not making the necessary mathematical connections to keep up with her classmates. We have started from the basics of 1:1 correspondence and worked our way up, currently working on number lines. Kari has developed many compensations though, in fact she has 14 rules (yes, I counted) for figuring out any addition problem where she “thinks” the answer will be less than 100. None of those rules include double digit addition with pencil and paper, by the way. Today, with frustrations building between Kari and her mother, I asked her why she refuses to try it “my way”. She had no answer. I demonstrated that simply writing it down and counting it out is so much easier than trying to remember 14 steps, in order, and on cue. She wouldn’t budge though. She was red in the face, fighting back tears and desperately trying to protect her way. It was, after all, the best she had.
Ok, I am a softy, and making little girls cry goes against everything I am, but I could tell it was coming and Kari needed to let it out. So reluctantly, I decided to push just a little further. I asked “Kari, what are you afraid of?”. Bring on Niagara Falls.
The end to Monica’s story is very simple; she soared from that day forward. She needed permission to take a risk, she needed someone to realize how much pressure she was putting on herself, and she needed someone to give permission to let it go. By complete mistake, I was that person. With that monkey off her back, she took off and never looked back.
Now that Kari has let it go, I am hopeful that she will soar as well.