“Your daughter says your family has more conflict than average.”

It’s wasn’t my first IEP meeting*. I knew the drill. But it was the first IEP meeting for this child who at the time was a 13-year old going into 8th grade.And it was the first one I’d handled alone. I usually had my husband sitting next to me in a business suit with a red tie.

I was indignant first because I wondered how they conveyed the benchmark of average to her. One family argument a month, a week, a day? What had someone in the IEP testing world decided was an average amount of conflict for a family? Based on what research?

Then I was annoyed that they treated her response as fact. “Your daughter says your family has more conflict than average,” thus, it must be so. But it was what she thought so, in that sense, it had truth. But what about what I thought?

In that moment, the round wooden table, where we all sat, all the experts, the social worker who was speaking, the teachers who had done the academic testing, her classroom teacher, seemed small like a table from a kindergarten classroom. I felt the chair under me shrink until I was looking up at the experts, trying to find the moral high ground, the statements that would show me to be understanding of an adopted girl’s unhappiness with her family.

Maybe we did have more conflict than the average family.

I don’t know, I thought. What’s average? I’d spend a lifetime being average – average looking, average intelligence, average income. Was I now above average in the amount of conflict in my family?

But there was no time to ponder that while they all turned to me waiting for a response. What did I have to say for myself, I asked myself.

“Oh. Well, it can be challenging with three adopted kids,” I finally said. They all nodded as if they understood, a couple of them making notes on their copies of the test results. My answer was going to live forever in a file somewhere. The discussion went on, a long back and forth between the experts, evidence reinforcing what they said was true until I became a prop in the play.

Sitting there, I remembered our older son’s first IEP meeting. A different social worker read her description of his family life. He was young when they asked them questions, maybe seven or eight, and so it was several years before but I remembered what the social worker read: “He says that he likes his family and that his parents love him very much.”

In that moment, I wanted to run home and hug him for describing us as average. For telling the people sitting at the round table that he loved us. It made everything that would come next easy for us, an honor, a devotion. He loved us so we would go to countless meetings, stay up late helping with homework, go anywhere, do anything. Believe in him. Believe in the ability of our family to carry him successfully to adulthood.

But I knew it would be harder this time, the table too small and the unhappiness so central. Tougher, a test of our commitment as parents, a long race that we would probably have to run without water, without drawing from the well of what we thought was right about our family. It made me feel like a miner heading for the elevator to go miles down into the coal shaft, knowing that my head lamp was too small to do my job right but having no choice but to keep going.

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IEP stands for Individual Education Plan. An initial IEP meeting is one where a student’s academic, intellectual, and social status and capabilities are reviewed in order to determine whether special education services are warranted and, specifically, what those services should be. Goals are also set which are then monitored in subsequent IEP meetings.