There’s Nothing Wrong With Me!
Lily was exquisite. A fifth grade girl at the most difficult girls’ prep school in the country, she was popular, with a rope of long dark hair behind her back, a high forehead, aquiline nose, and a bearing that always reminded me of Degas’s, The Little Dancer. But today, on our first meeting, she had dark circles under her eyes. Holding an enormous York Peppermint Patty in one hand, and a tissue the other, she went on the attack.
“I am a great student. I don’t need help. I don’t want to go to see a therapist. What do you do, anyway?” she demanded, her voice muffled by one of her many colds.
“I’m an educational therapist. We are not going to talk about feelings. WE are going to work on making inferences, writing, and reading together for school. That’s what our goal will be,” I said. The school had referred her to me for three times a week remediation. They were afraid she would suffer shame if her grades didn’t improve in their very competitive environment. The parents had been told that Lily would have a year to a year and a half to improve her ability to do the work at the school before they decided whether she could stay in the school, and that her work with me would extend over the summer.
Lily wanted very much to stay at the school at which her mother and grandmother had gone, at which she had friends, and which was in the middle of the world she knew. And so she agreed to work with me.
Many days were a battle. Her imperious chin would lift and she would ask me what I knew about the subject we were working on anyway. She wanted me to be perfect, a perfect font of knowledge and just to tell her the answers. She would have rejected any answer I gave her, but I never would take the bait.
“Lily, my job is to help you learn how to do it all for yourself. And you can.”
“I am an excellent student,” she sniffed. Well, Lily was an average kid, but one with a powerful will and a great need for control. If she couldn’t fight me, she’d just as often get ill and want to leave the session early. Or her mother would call her in sick. As I charge for missed appointments, that behavior soon stopped.
The school told me that Lily’s absences were very worrying to them. It would be very hard for her to catch up on the work she had missed. The class might leave her behind. But I was also told not to let her leave sessions early if I could help it, and to take care of myself with the client, who could withhold payment as punishment for perceived incompetence.
This was an anxious family with a strong need to be right. The mother and father were divorcing, and they were bitter enemies. However, they were very good at sharing responsibility for the children, and at shielding them as much as they could from their anger with each other. A time of stress for every member of the family, including the grandparents, these parents tried to make sure that the children didn’t pick sides in the divorce, and were adamant about the children visiting their father for regular sleep overs while the decisions of the divorce were being made.
Lily let me see her anxiety full force in the form of belittling remarks, anger, or complaints of illness. Truly, she was ill a great deal: headaches would blind her, colds would make her nose run and her eyes tear, she’d get strep throat. All of this was real illness, and a blessing to Lily, who didn’t know how to express her upset any other way, and who could not speak about what she felt. She needed to be “fine,” and I encouraged her belief in herself. At the school’s behest, I brought up what she might achieve with a therapist.
“Lily, the good relationship you and I have? It could be like that, but instead of school work, it could be about your feelings.”
“I don’t need it. I won’t. I’m not sick. I’m going through a divorce.” And in her voice, I heard no anxiety on that score. She was determined to keep her privacy.
Over time, I stopped asking. She’d apologize when she said something angry or sarcastic, and I would say, “Lily, we have such a good relationship that it can stand a little anger now and then.” And we’d hug. She took to hugging me every time she arrived and every time she left.
The remediation had everything to do with finding clue words in text that would supply her with the trail to the deeper meaning of a story, and though that work took a year and a half, it happened. Her school instruction in language skills was impeccable and the work she brought to us from school was always interesting and challenging.
Lily had great reserves of strength. Though she was uncomfortable to be living in a hotel until her new home was ready, she maintained a steady schedule of living with each parent in turn, and they were interested in her every bit of news about school. They were open to moving her if the remediation didn’t work, and they encouraged Lily to see herself as a success.
Lily continues to see herself as a strong learner, to be proud of her B and B- grades, sprinkled with an occasional A or C (“Oh, well, I’ll see the teacher and I’ll do it better next time,” she would tell me). Over two years of reading and writing, she displayed unflagging devotion to getting her work done, to rewriting, retaking tests, and to working on the meltdowns that would have her raging at teachers, who wanted her writing to “go deeper,” or her mother when she couldn’t find her homework (organization of materials was difficult during the brunt of the breakup).
This year, Lily sang me a little song about how much she loved her parents. Her high clear voice rang out over the office so that the other therapists in the suite came to their doors to listen.
“She’s adorable,” one suitemate said.
I told Lily the nice things people around me said about her. Near the end of our time together she told me, “If I have myself, I have everything.”
Though she can still be withering in her disapproval, I know that when Lily does this she is at her most anxious. I ask what is bothering her most about the assignment, and she says, “I am afraid that you don’t know enough to help me.”
“Lily, you are in a good position now to learn from everyone. When I can’t help with math or science, then it will be time to get a tutor. And you can get one now, if you wish. Why not bring it up with Mom and Dad?” I say. Her parents are now almost cordial with each other. The worst is over and they have each done everything asked of them to keep Lily safe from their deep anger with each other. Lily keeps a picture of her parents at a happier time displayed on her desk. A reminder that love was once strong, and that though it has changed composition, her broad family is still connected.
It’s almost time to see her fly away. When she leaves it will be because she is ready to take more responsibility for herself as a student, as she always knew she could, down deep. I’d like to stay with her until writing is easier, but it isn’t important. She is learning from her teachers, and she is nearly ready to go. She is so excited to contemplate not having to do this work any more, to play soccer, have a subject tutor like all her friends, and to check in with her mother and teachers when she needs help. She does this regularly, and though her mother says she can melt down angrily when she doesn’t understand the material, what 7th grader doesn’t? As she likes to tell me, she is normal. She’ll always be struggling to keep up at her school, but this is where her friends and her family go. This is her world. She’ll be fine.