That overwhelmed feeling...
I was asked to go to Amber’s home to complete an evaluation. She is almost two and lives with her mom, grandparents, three aunts, and one uncle. "Her Dad lives with his parents," the mother told me, nonchalantly. She told me as if it was almost the norm.
Their small apartment was in a very poor neighborhood. The walls were streaked with a greasy residue. It was distributed at adult level, and not just on doorframes. I wondered how many years of dirt were accumulated on those walls. Flypaper strips hung obscenely from the doorways, dotted with the remains of insects that couldn't seem to escape the traps.
Amber was a beautiful child, by any measure. She was slight, and her hair curled in casual twists and turns outlining her perfectly symmetrical face and deep brown eyes. She had a microphone buried halfway into her mouth, making humming noises that were distorting terribly over a toy karaoke machine. "She doesn't talk yet," the mother reported, "but she loves playing with that microphone. The mom took it from her so we could begin the evaluation. I winced as I saw exposed wires come out of her mouth with the remnants of foam glued around the edges of the microphone that once made the toy safe. Thankfully, the toy is run on batteries so I doubted it would do too much harm if it short-circuited.
The mom was very concerned that Amber might have some developmental delays. "I had seizures when I was younger; do you think she might have them too?" I listened carefully as she spoke to me, but I focused in on the mom's mouth. Her gums were overgrown and her teeth were misaligned. Her face was very coarse and she had a speech impairment. I wondered if she was beautiful as a child also, and I considered that this might be what her seizure medication did to her. "Oh, I would hope she doesn't have seizures," I said in an honest and positive and hopeful voice. That satisfied the mom, who didn't seem to notice that I didn't answer the question.
I completed the evaluation and as I expected Amber qualified for early intervention services. As I explained this to the mom, I wondered what would be the best way to help. My mind raced through asking permission to adopt the child myself, or recommending parenting classes, or perhaps recommending a center-based program to expose Amber to a different environment... In early intervention it is the parent's choice on how to best meet the needs of the child. I wondered what the mother would choose.
During this last part of the assessment Amber occupied herself with books. As she became bored with a Winnie the Pooh book she reached under the table and grabbed for an old high school social studies textbook. I looked toward the mother, asking if it was ok, and the mom answered, "She can look at those books; I don't mind."
As the mom and I talked I watched Amber flip pages. The book belonged to mom at some point. There was writing on the inside of the cover about pop singers and the mom's name was written all over the book. As we continued to talk, Amber turned to a section of the book that had two facing pages of flags from around the world. Written across the top of the page in red marker was "Contries that I no about." The United States flag was circled boldly, as was the Canadian flag. That kind of made sense, since we were in the US and you could practically see Canada from the location of the mom's apartment. No other flags on the page were circled. As we talked, I thought about the apartment, the flies on the flypaper, and how small this family’s world must be.
As we talked and as I mused, I heard a loud ripping sound that re-oriented me to Amber. She tore out the left facing page that had the two circled flags on it. The mom didn't seem to mind too much as she balled up the page in her hands and said to Amber, "Now you know that books are not for ripping."
My eyes focused on that torn and crumpled page in the mom's hand, and all I could think was that Amber's world had just gotten a little smaller.