Friday, August 31, 2018

#AutisticWhileBlack: Against The Miseducation of M. Cevik

“When told we could not be educated, we went out in the woods, we dug a pit, and when somebody learned to read, they’d sneak out at night, go down in that pit with a light, and teach [others] how to read, because it was that important.” Today, for black home educators, “it’s still that ‘each one, reach one’” mentality, she explained. “It looks different, but it harkens back to who we are, who we have been in our educational history.”

Cheryl Fields-Smith
Associate Professor of Educational Studies
University of Georgia 
I watched social media bloom with the photos of other people's disabled children ready for their first day of school. From the parents of twice-exceptional autistic offspring to those who have what they feel is a great school or outstanding teaching team for their nonspeaking children, the parade of photos with running commentary from proud parents was a conundrum for me. I was happy for all of those families but I understood they had no grasp of how that display of pride, that lack of understanding of privilege would feel to parents who didn't have the advocacy or means or demographics to send their disabled students off without trepidation. Children and young adults were photographed and ushered off, everyone secure in their right to be safe and educated. I sometimes wonder what that sense of entitlement must feel like.

I am the Black home educator of my high support needs autistic son. This path to educating him was neither planned nor expected to succeed. I have my son to thank that so far, it has.

Electric Light and Switch built by Mustafa Cevik,  Image of a
snap circuit DIY project to build a light and switch completed
in the foreground. In the background, an instruction book with a
diagram of the project and written instructions can be seen.
Our enormous push against the miseducation of Mu is the latest episode in the history of how the Black and Brown branches of our family tree struggled to gain literacy and numeracy. As I am typing this, countless other people fight for the right to be literate in America, while countless others give no thought at all to having that right, because for their loved ones it is never denied.

Education is something our elders risked their lives for. I carried that weight when I joined the first generation of African American children to attend public schools after Brown v Board of Education of Topeka.

I was a girl brought back to her stepfather's hometown and forced into the nearest school in a neighborhood where we were the only African American family.  My older sister, younger brother and I integrated a rural, all-white school mostly filled with the offspring of farmers.
 One of the many moments in that history, during my early teen years,  happened when I sat watching the tiny black and white portable television my stepfather had built for us to watch in our rooms. The news showed mobs of white adults from Boston throwing bricks and whatever else they could find at buses full of students like me.

It was a sobering moment. All those people who might feel justified in lynching us for the skin we were in, feeling they were losing something by our gaining the same constitutional right to a public education they enjoyed.

Our first homeschool field trip was to beautiful Art Deco
Greenbelt. Mu is in a yellow winter coat, his college student
big sister is wearing a green AmVets jacket. They are facing
Greenbelt's mother and child statue. Image by Kerima Cevik
Then there was the moment my grandmother sat me down to have a serious talk about my honor roll winning grades. My grandmother told me she was proud of me, but I was to settle for lower grades. She emphasized to me that my life depended on not being significantly better than the white students. It was devastating to be told to pretend to be less intelligent than my white peers so as not to put myself at risk of bodily harm.

Public school for me and my peers was unjust and sometimes dangerous. Forty years later, the reality for many Black and Brown disabled students like my son seems to be equally unjust and at least as dangerous.

Our family learned the hard way that the reality of a Free Appropriate  Public Education (FAPE) equal to nondisabled peers, like the reality of an equal, and nonsegregated education, didn't live up to the promise of either the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Brown v Board of Ed.

 We had to argue for our son's right to FAPE. We fought to ensure his safety while he was trapped in school placements where IEP teams strove to gaslight us into believing that our son could not be educated, therefore services and supports for him weren't worth the school budget.

An image of a page from Mu's 3D textbook,
The Human Body by Miller and Pelham
displaying a 3D popup image cross-section
of the human heart. 
I have been homeschooling my nonspeaking high support needs autistic son since a series of abuses in school escalated to a point where his school principal called to say that while she was off campus at a scheduled meeting the staff had "lost" him. That day we nearly lost our son for good. The reality of public educational life for my son despite the protections that IDEA was meant to provide him left us horrified. We realized they had no real intention of educating him and his life would remain in jeopardy as long as we stayed in that county's school district.

We knew our son's degree of disability. We presumed our son was competent. We believed all children could be taught. We wanted him to be educated.

 We have been home educating for nine years. He's a teenager now.

This is the hardest thing I have ever attempted in my life.

In his first year of homeschooling, our daughter helped me find a certified Montessori special education teacher who recommended a special education curriculum and resources for building him a Montessori environment at home.   My husband began to buy equipment, school supplies, hardware, and software and acted as Mu's physical ed aide and Mu's sister became his homeschool paraprofessional while continuing her college education.

 We dove into his education passionately, perhaps against their miseducation of Mu and the harm done him by people who were supposed to protect and educate him.

Tyrannosaurus Rex's head bursts out of Mu's textbook
on Dinosaurs. These beautiful books combine stunning visuals
with information that is appropriate for all ages.
I was incredibly fortunate. Mu's big sister decided to get her masters in special education and make her specialization multiple and high support need disabilities. She and I now build curriculum and instruction to fit his individual needs as he grows up and she follows through to see how he is progressing. This kind of individualized education planning and life skills consulting would be unaffordable otherwise. Both my daughter and my husband have introduced all manner of tools and texts to enrich his learning environment. This has helped Mu relax and overcome a great deal of his hesitation for learning.

  I learned that home educating was different from any classroom teaching I'd done. It takes an extreme degree of dedication and patience from both teacher and pupil. You must adapt and accommodate for your pupil's disabilities.

You give up your rights to just being a parent several hours a day, seven days a week. You have to measure progress and sometimes begin again. You cannot give up. Your child is depending on you. What that means some days is both of you taking things one breath at a time. This is our narrative. No advice, no judgments, just knowing that we must synchronize the ebb and flow of facilitating and absorbing learning without preconditions or forcible compliance. We reached this moment one breath at a time.

 Some parents are great at getting their children what they need within this broken system. Others are great at supplementing where the system fails. For Black and Brown parents choices may seem limited, but in the age of technology, enrichment exists if we know where to look for it. I have had a very singular life, and part of it gave me an odd collection of skills that helped me help my son. Most importantly, Mu wants to communicate. He wants to learn. So he puts forth the effort and I don't push him to some point of frustration.

Homeschool Adaptive P.E.,: Musti with his Dad in the pool,
 learning to float Image of a Brown young man with curly
brown hair floating in a swimming pool supported by his father,
a  white male with dark hair whose back is to the camera.
@ Kerima Cevik
There are activists out there fighting to preserve our children's right to FAPE in safer, nonsegregated public school settings. We believe in the work of those activists but found ourselves making the choice an increasing number of parents of Black and Brown children are making when public school districts fail their children. We were pushed to dig an educational pit, light a candle, go into that pit with our child, and teach our son what we know. What we have gained from being at home is understanding our son without barriers. We wake up knowing our son is safe; a happy and stubborn scholar who has regained his curiosity and zest for exploring and learning again.

Mu has taught me how to interact with him, and how to understand how he communicates. I have learned to help facilitate his learning rather than make his learning a series of demands with rewards for compliance and deprivation for shows of frustration and errors. When we see how this process empowers him, my fatigue dissolves, my regrets fade, I focus on my son, and I press on. Regardless of what the future holds, these years with my youngest child have been precious, no first day of school photoshoots or bragging rights required.

Time to light my candle and get back in that pit. Peace.

Further Reading:
Resisting the Status Quo: The Narratives of Black Homeschoolers in Metro-Atlanta and Metro-DC
Surviving Inclusion: At The Intersection of Minority, Disability, and Resegregation

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