The single most important factor influencing the kids' academic (and overall) success has been the fact that it was expected. Of course, their efforts and willingness to be successful were absolutely critical to the process, but without my expectations, things would have turned out very differently. Prior to me, they lived up to the expectations of those around them as well. The difference is, however, that the expectations of them prior to me were extremely low. In fact, when I adopted them, Malcolm was reading and writing four grade levels behind, and Mychael was earning mostly C's and D's. It's worth mentioning that the trend in his grades suggested that the C's and D's were moving toward D's and F's, and we all know what happens after that. They had the potential all along. Not to mention, they had the motivation; it just needed to be harvested.

I believe firmly that everyone is capable of being successful. Obviously, success is a subjective term, so it's important to define it based on the individual person or circumstance. For example, someone with Downs (like my Mom's brother) shouldn't be compared to someone not born with that extra Y chromosome. Regardless, if someone is not achieving success, there is always a reason. Clearly, in some cases, that reason may be due to a biological circumstance (which is way over diagnosed in foster care, if you ask me), but more often than not, lack of success is related to social factors.

A child being tossed from foster home to foster home is going to have a lot more difficulty than a child living in a permanent home. The child in transition might have several factors preventing academic success. First, they might not be able to keep up with the material due to early years of not being afforded a reasonable opportunity to learn (thanks to transiency) the fundamentals. Other factors might be best explained by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

How can a child who is concerned about needs, such as housing and the well being of their parents, move up the pyramid to tackle issues like success in school and self actualization? Maslow suggests she/he can't. So why are we shocked when kids in foster care struggle in school? Why do we want to attach a label to it and chalk it up as learning disabilities or ODD? These kids don't have their lower level needs met, as temporarily meeting them doesn't count because the fear of losing them is still very real, not to mention very realistic. Until that child is given a permanent home in which she/he can feel safe, they will have a very difficult time being successful in school. And by the way, a child with learning "disabilities" shouldn't be expected to fail either. The fact that a great mind like Einstein was "learning disabled" should not be overlooked. And he's not the only one believed to have been LD, add Da Vinci, Abe Lincoln and many others to the list as well. And for the record, I too, am on that list.

Regardless, for the most part, going along with Maslow's theory, once a child is afforded a permanent placement where the parents have made an unwavering commitment to the child's long term well being, self actualization and success in school is a realistic expectation.

I didn't expect all A's from my kids, at least not right away. In fact, they taught me to expect more and more from them. At first, I just expected them to perform a little bit better than they had been while living in foster care. I knew it would take time for them to adjust, and I did my part by constantly reinforcing that I was in it for the long haul. I also let them know that while I understood why they weren't meeting their potential in the past, I looked forward to them doing so in the future. We did all homework assignments together, and I monitored their daily performance in the classroom...like any good type A parent.

For Mychael, the first report card was all C's. The second was C's and a couple B's. The third was mostly B's, a few C's and an A. The fourth was B's and a couple A's. The fifth was mostly A's and a few B's, and the sixth was all A's. He didn't take easy classes, either, as we put him in college level courses and expected him to succeed.

When I felt his geometry teacher was a little Nazi'ish, I asked his counselor to move him, and because she was as committed to Mychael's success as I was, she did so immediately. There wasn't room in the geometry class taught by the nurturing teacher he had for Algebra (Mr. Masi), but she asked him if he'd be willing to take Mychael anyway. Because he's the bomb, he agreed to do so. In fact, we made sure to keep him with Mr. Masi for all future math classes. It wasn't just Mr. Masi's nurturing personality that was so valuable, Mychael understood Mr. Masi's teaching style and was able to be successful in his classes. With this in mind, we did the same thing for science (Mrs. Robinson) and English (Ms. Robinson). Basically, every time Mychael had a teacher with whom he clicked, we made sure to put him in their classes.

When my help and classroom time wasn't enough, we hired a tutor (and fellow classmate) for a year to help him succeed in Alegebra II and Physics. He took summer classes every summer to keep him in the grove (he does so much better when operating within extreme structure), and in the end, he was accepted to Purdue University.

Yes, there were a lot of people working behind the scenes to make sure Mychael succeeded, but his acceptance to Purdue belonged solely to him. He owned that success and watching him react upon opening the admissions letter was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a Mother. He was so proud. And why shouldn't he be? He did all the work; all I did was make sure he had all the tools to do so successfully. At his graduation, Shawn was looking through Mychael's high school book and saw the envelope to the acceptance letter. It read: Congratulations, you have another Boilermaker in the family on the return address. Shawn said, "I think I'm going to cry," in his cheesy/try to be funny voice. Not surprisingly, I did.

Malcolm came with a different set of academic circumstances in that he was reading and writing four grade levels behind. During the most tumultuous and transient time of the kids' lives, Malcolm was in first and second grade. He literally missed out on the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of reading and writing. It's actually quite remarkable that he had done as well as he had considering that he never learned the difference between a short A and a long A, or how to put letters together to make words. As such, his language skills were extremely phonetic. Needless to say, we took a different path.

Malcolm spent his first six months at Sylvan. I logged a lot of stressful miles on my car during that six months, and thanks to my partner at work covering for me (and my ability to drive 95 on the 8 without getting arrested for reckless driving), I somehow managed to transport him (and Mychael) back and forth between school, Sylvan and practices without losing my job. Malcolm had a good attitude about Sylvan, which was expected, and managed to finish up six months sooner than was originally anticipated.

I worked with his teachers and counselors to find alternative means to meeting his academic needs until he was able to catch up. They put him in a few correspondence classes so that he would have more individual time to work on assignments. Additionally, when I felt (knew) his English teacher was a total *%#@, one of Malcolm's wonderful counselors moved him into an English class that he was teaching, despite the fact that the class was already full. I met periodically with his teachers and used email and the internet to keep track of his grades.

As with Mychael, Malcolm and I stayed up late nearly every night working on homework assignments. Basically, I knew what he was turning in to the teachers every day and was extremely familiar with what he was studying. Toward the middle of the second semester, during a meeting with his counselors and teachers, we determined that Malcolm still had some needs that were probably more extensive than Helix could address--in the manner that I wanted them to, that is. They cared a lot about Malcolm, but Helix is a huge school and there was only so much they could do.

As a result, I decided to sell our house in San Diego and utilize the proceeds to move to Indiana and send Malcolm to a private high school and Mychael to Purdue. Not to mention, there were scholarships available at Malcolm's high school that helped with tuition as well. Once I explained Malcolm's situation to St. Joe, they were willing to take him as a student.

To say that the transition was beneficial for Malcolm would be a gross understatement. Malcolm came alive at his new school. The combination of nurturing values and teachers, and high academic expectations allowed him to blossom and come into his own. He produced mostly B's along with a few A's and a few C's. Additionally, like Mychael, he played football and lacrosse and earned his share of other achievements. In the end, he, too, was accepted to Purdue, and I, again, shed tears as a result.

So, despite what the social workers (and society for that matter) tried to tell me, my kids were capable of the same successes as their peers. They might have taken alternative paths to get there, but they got there nonetheless. What I found along the way is that there will always be plenty of naysayers. However, more importantly, there are a lot of people who will help you if you just ask. You might have to ask a hundred times, and you might have to do a lot of begging and persuading in the process, but if you keep at it, you'll get what you're asking for.

I always expected the same output from myself that I expected from my kids. It would have been unfair for me to expect them to work harder than I did. There's no "I" in team, after all, and I am the one who signed up to be their parent. I must note that anyone who's served as a parent, especially a Mother (no offense to the dudes), knows that there is no job more important than raising children. There is also no job more all-consuming, demanding, exhausting and thankless. If anything, the thanks we get can be found inside that envelope that reads "You have a new Boilermaker in the family" on the return address. And remarkably, that's plenty.


Adios Labels

It's a good thing I was never in foster care or I wouldn't have made it. And I'm not talking about the obvious either (that whole lack of stability, structure and anything reliable in your life thing). I'm talking about the labels associated with foster care--those are enough to sabotage even the most "normal" kid. Everything a child in foster care does is given some label. Kids need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. They need to be allowed to be in really cruddy moods sometimes, or even most of the time (especially if they're teenagers). They need to be allowed to feel what they're feeling--good or bad--without us trying to diagnose it. I can attest to having been quite challenging as a young person, and yet, I somehow turned out okay.

When I was about 12, my Mom gave me a shirt that read: "Challenging Children Become Amazing Adults". Yet, despite the fact that I was a "Challenging Child", my Mom never made me feel bad about it. If anything, she embraced my tendency toward the unconventional. I was a good student and didn't create trouble at school (for the most part). Yet, because I was stubborn and very independent, my Mom had to find atypical methods to successfully parent me. "You're not selling out, you're buying in," was her favorite way of saying, "Just do it, damn it".

Had I been in foster care, I have no doubt that I would have been labeled ODD, among other things. But, had I been labeled ODD versus being referred to as Independent, I probably wouldn't have gone on to graduate Salutatorian. This seems especially true if you consider that incident from my freshman year in which I and others were suspended from school for a week. Had my Mother not viewed my decision to egg a teacher's house as uncharacteristic, I can only imagine the different path my life would have taken. I'm pretty confident I wouldn't have ended up with a biochem/dietetics degree from Purdue.

Having high expectations of me and holding me accountable to them was critical to my success. Treating my undesirable behavior and poor decisions as being either normal (if, for example, I was just having a bad day and acting like a jerk) or not reflective of my character (if, for example, I told the principal to "piss off" after he asked me what I had to say about the egging incident) allowed me to always believe that at my core, I was not abnormal. Most importantly, fundamentally I was good.

My sons came with all the typical labels attached. If I can remember correctly, they were ODD, depressed, angry, OCD, below average, low functioning, etc. Upon adoption, I received an evaluation from the therapist who had previously been treating the kids. The evaluation suggested that my kids were basically rotten and thanks to their being so screwed up, they could look forward to a pretty miserable life.

They're angry
. Why shouldn't they be? They've been bumped around from house to house for five years, had no stability and didn't have a single person in whom they felt they could trust.

They lied. Hmm, how many times had they been told things would be okay when they didn't end up being so? How many people had told them that they would (insert promise) and then failed to do so? So, let me get this straight, it's okay to teach them (via actions and words) that everyone from the social worker to their Mother lies. However, if they do it, they're bad people?

They are below average. They spent their early years being shuffled from foster home, to group home, back to Mom, back to group home, another foster home, back to group home, back to Mom, etc., and because, throughout these transitions, they weren't able to keep up with all the material being taught in school, they're below average? Seven schools in one year and they're below average?

ODD. This one drives me insane. They've had no control over the chaos in their lives, and have been living out of a black trash bag for the last several years. What about the number of people they've called "Mom"? They can't even make plans for next week because they don't know if they'll be living in the same place. Are we really faulting these kids for wanting to assert power over the few things in life that they're actually able to control? Are you, Mr. Therapist, the same person who will judge them later when they make a decision and refuse to take responsibility for it? Yet, today, you'll teach them that taking control of their lives is a bad thing? Even I'm confused.

Can I open the refrigerator? Can I use the bathroom? Where is the bathroom? What time do we eat? Should I wait for you to start eating, or should I just go ahead? Should I make my bed? Where should I store my socks? Will I be here long enough to unpack my things, or should I just keep them in the trash bag? Do you know what happened to my other eight siblings? Is my Mom okay? Do I have the same social worker? Where's my new school? Am I allowed to call my sister? Do you know how long I'll be staying here?

I can't imagine why a child in these circumstances would crave the opportunity to exercise some control of her/his life.

Children who live or have lived in foster care are some, if not the most resilient people you'll ever meet. These little soldiers are accustomed to disappointment and learn instinctively how to recover and move forward. They are used to fitting in and making themselves invisible. They are better at reading people than most therapists will ever be because they didn't train in the classroom, they learned these skills to survive.

So, on that first day when the kids came home, we said adios to the old labels and hello to the new ones: soldier, survivor, insightful, independent, resilient, brave, courageous, capable, hard working, admirable, amazing, strong and beautiful. We spent hours in front of the mirror telling the faces staring back that they're amazing, wonderful and lovable. And miraculously, over time, they started to see what was there all along, but had been hidden beneath all those labels.


Skills from the school yard...

While Mychael says, "That's the handshake for 09," don't let him fool you. That handshake will be modified many times before year end. It seems like every time I see them they have a new bro-hug to perform.

This related commercial is hilarious.

And I just had to throw this in to show how similar the kids' version is to that of the little red head and her butler (a comparison that they will, no doubt, really appreciate).


2009 Lucky Dime Recipient--Skippy T.

Every year for New Year's, we make Greek bread. This is a tradition in Alysia's family. Alysia always goes way overboard with the amount of bread that is made, which usually results in the experience becoming rather chaotic and perhaps, borderline nuts (just like we like it). To say the least, bread production requires a lot of hard workers, and we never back down from a challenge.

Alysia hands out bread "rings" to neighbors and friends, but makes sure to keep one for Team Thompson. Each ring contains one dime (deemed the "lucky" dime). On New Year's Day, the ring is cut into same size pieces equaling the total number of people in the family (there's been debate in the past about including the cats, but thus far, cats have not been accommodated). After the bread has been cut, wedges are distributed in clockwise order, with the oldest person receiving the twelve o'clock slice.

And yes, this process is monitored to assure that no cheating occurs in the event that the cutter/distributor spots the dime and is tempted to intervene on fate. And one more thing, I must note that no one has ever been suspected of cheating for themselves, but rather, there have been allegations in the past that certain people have purposely given the lucky dime to the person who seemed to need it the most. Evidence has never been able to substantiate these allegations, and at this point, the issue is moot considering that a monitoring system has been put into place. Here at Team Thompson, we don't want any charity!

Regardless, whoever finds the dime in their piece is supposed to have good luck for the year. Mychael won the dime two years ago and had a very plentiful and fortunate year! I won the dime last year, but ended up having it stolen when my car was broken into. I wondered if the good luck would get passed onto the new "owner" or stay with me even though I was no longer in possession of it. Alysia thought the good fortune of the dime would turn into bad luck once in the hands of the unlawful owner. Regardless, we never found out the answer since there wasn't an "unusual circumstances" clause outlined in the Greek bread family tradition.

This year, we had to do the Greek bread thing from a distance since Team Thompson.Menlo Park was under construction. Thus, for the first time since 2000, we weren't able to spend New Year's together. Regardless, on New Year's Day, Alysia skyped us to report that once again, Mychael was the recipient of the lucky dime. She emailed a photo of the dime and asked Mychael to take a picture of him holding her photo while slapping the ground. Mychael opted to do a video response instead. Here it is!

By the way, the Team Thompson band became fans of the song playing in the background "Nine in the Afternoon" after repeatedly rockin' it on Rock Band 2.