Positive reinforcement isn’t positive…

plus signI play a game called Redecor on my phone. It’s a fun and relaxing game. They post colourless rooms and you need to “colour them in” with various materials such as fabrics, tiles, and wood. Then everyone is organized into groups of ten, we all can vote for which room we like the best (two at a time), and finally the top three people win prizes and we move onto the next room. Simple right?

Not so simple. I was fine with decorating the rooms and love choosing the colours and the materials (I’m absolutely in love with the Caribbean upholstery and the Peacock sequin cushions). It’s great hanging out in the Facebook groups too. And a friend of mine (the one I sing karaoke with) plays it too so that’s great. No, it was the easy peasy room judging that left me doing my breathing exercises and reassuring myself and I couldn’t figure out why.

First I’ll quickly explain how the judging works. You click on the judging and are shunted into two options. The first has you judge five sets of one current room (10 rooms in all). You see two rooms, no identifying information, and then you choose. Once you choose you see the same rooms but with the people’s screen names, the level they’ve completed this season, and their current score (out of five). The second has you judge ten sets of ten “design duel” rooms (so 20 in all). Everything else is the same except you see their score by percentage. Also, after you vote you get a prize, kind of a “thank you for voting” thing. It’s usually $75 for for first option and $150 for the second but I find you can get quite a bit more between 8 and 9pm. That being said, there’s nothing overtly scary about the judging. No punishments, you can’t vote “wrong”, it’s just a game. And I like flipping through and seeing all the pictures, at least until my chest starts tightening and it gets hard to breathe.

I think I inadvertently loosened something recently. I’m in a Storytelling group run by a mental health organization and, while my story about explaining non binary to Colin was well liked, everyone else dealt with big issues that had big feelings. So I thought that maybe I could talk about my early school years. I don’t know why. I’ve blocked most of those memories away then deadbolted them shut. But I thought… maybe??? And I remembered myself standing on a stout pipe that stuck out of the school, watching all the other kids playing together and wondering how they decided to be friends. Then I picked out one girl who looked friendly and a bit like me and went over to ask her… in front of her friends… and I mentioned that I thought we looked alike. I just remember the stunned disbelief and the laughter. I don’t remember what was said but it was enough to send me slinking back to the pipe. Enough that the next time I made friends with someone at that school, it was a tree.

But that memory was enough. I was sitting at the kitchen table late this morning and flipped the game over to judging. Soon the panic began to build but, this time, I could hear myself instead of just staticky panic.

C’mon Kath, you need to pick right. You need to pick the right one or else they’re going to take your reward away.

And, as soon as the word “reward” hit, I knew exactly what was going on. The reward is why positive reinforcement is supposed to be so good. There’s no punishment, you’re simply rewarding for good behaviour. Really? You ask a child who was promised a chocolate bar if they washed the dishes then missed a dish and didn’t get the chocolate bar if that’s a reward or a punishment. The child knows about the reward, it’s not a magical surprise that happens later, so if they don’t get it they know that too.

I find myself trying to pick the right rooms so I’m voting with everyone else so I don’t get stuck voting the wrong way. There isn’t a right way or wrong way in the game. And I’m often stymied by the lack of rules. People say beige and one pattern is the way to go and then someone will make a room with three bright colours and just as many patterns and get a great score. Then I end up blindly guessing until I recollect myself and assure myself that it’s alright to pick the room I like, that’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

When I was a little girl I had undiagnosed autism, ADD, and dyscalculia. My coordination was horrible. I struggled to hold a pencil. I was also incredibly bright, talkative, and wrote well enough that the teachers were passing my stories around in the lunchroom because they were so cute and enjoyable. Basically I was a mixed bag and needed help. I also needed someone to realize I was trying and not dawdling around and daydreaming on purpose and my numbers didn’t drift because I was lazy. All kids want to do well and please the adults around them, if it’s not happening, we need to sort it out. I don’t know how, I just know that positive reinforcement isn’t the way.

The adults around me were trying to teach me but the way they were trying wasn’t working. I wasn’t getting it. That, to them, meant I wasn’t trying hard enough (note they never wondered about their own teaching skills). So, since I must know the subject since I’d been taught it enough, I was given assignments with positive reinforcements to encourage me. And what do you do when you know you have to answer like everyone else but have no idea what to do? When you have to answer no matter what? You guess of course. And I was left panicked because if I didn’t guess correctly I was going to lose my reward, through absolutely no fault of my own, even though I was trying to the best of my ability, because the adults around me couldn’t find a different way to teach me.

Forty-three years later and it’s still strong enough to trigger anxiety attacks. Don’t tell me positive reinforcement is positive.

Continuing education…

Colin was only six when he started in a special education class and it was a bad fit for him. Despite him not knowing his alphabet yet, his teacher decided to start in on spelling tests, telling me it would keep him with his peers and he’d pick up the alphabet on his own. Soon she was finding him inattentive and difficult, something that came as a complete surprise to me as his kindergarten teachers loved him. Although in hind sight, considering she wasn’t helping him catch up with his peers, I can understand. He must have been so bored and frustrated.

He moved from that class into a multiple exceptionality class in grade two and his teacher adored him. He worked hard and had all sorts of innovative ideas. He genuinely loved school and looked forward to attending.

And then came high school and that was an unmitigated disaster. His “innovative ideas” were seen as an attempt to control the class. In fact anything he did seemed to fall under that category. He couldn’t have a stress ball on his desk or a fidget toy because he was trying to control the class by distracting them. Note, he was squeezing them, not flinging them at classmates.

The teachers responded in bizarre ways. Colin loves math, always has, and asked for math class regularly. His grade school teacher loved his enthusiasm and rewarded it. His high school teachers went out of their way to avoid having math class when he was there. If Colin was sick or suspended they would have math class, something the other students would promptly inform him when he returned. One day Colin had felt sick but recovered then walked to school. The teacher watched him enter the class the immediately erased “math” off the day’s schedule.

When Colin came out as trans, he came out as non-binary first. He wasn’t sure what pronouns to use so I googled pronouns and came up with a chart. We sounded out each one then he decided to use the same pronouns as my then friend Lenny; zie and zir. I looked up the district’s policy on trans students and their pronouns and found this quote (bolding is mine):

“Suggestions to enhance the school learning environment for trans youth follow. This list is illustrative and not exhaustive. We encourage you to develop and share with your staff and the Durham District School Board other gender inclusive ideas and protocols you may develop.

Transsexual females—identified as male at birth To be addressed as ‘she’
Transsexual males—identified female at birth To be addressed as ‘he’
When you are in doubt of an individual’s gender Address an individual as ‘they’”

Colin’s teachers and the other team members insisted they could not use zie and zir because it was against school rules. They could only use she, he, and they as the diagram showed. I pointed out the “illustrative and not exhaustive” part and they insisted that meant again that they could only use the diagram. Sigh, that’s not what the sentence means.

I had to go over their heads and, thanks to PFLAG, found someone on the school board to explain the guidelines. Which worked well in paper but not so much in real life. In real life they continued to use he and him. In meetings they’d, oops forget, 9 times out of 10. You don’t forget pronouns that much unless you never use them in the first place. And, to make matters worse, the teachers were actively teasing Colin over his pronouns. Separating the class into boys and girls then telling Colin he’d never get to be first in line for a treat because he’d “chosen” not to be male or female (among other instances).

At the end of grade 12 both Colin and I were so done with his school. He could have continued in a “bridge to work” programme but we figured it would be more of the same. More of them refusing to allow him into mainstream classes, more refusals to have harder work, especially in math, and more antagonising behaviour.

Colin has loved computers and electronics as soon as he was aware of them and has wanted to work with them for as long as I can remember. It was in high school that his dream job focused on robotics. Now that he was out of high school, he set out to realize his dreams.

He couldn’t start at college, even with support, as he didn’t have nearly enough education. So he called continuing education, who also told him he didn’t have enough education. He only had one high school credit and needed more. Then he tried Durham Alternative Secondary Education and was told the same thing. Same with the Catholic School Board. Finally, in desperation, I suggested the John Howard Society and, bingo, we had a winner.

Soon Colin was in school from Monday to Thursday and loving it. He attended right though summer and only missed days for doctor’s appointments. Then one day recently, he came home and told me he was only going to school on Friday now and was going to be taking school at Durham College. Soon I found him working on a computer he set up on our kitchen table (so not the place I’d have chosen) with two monitors and a calculator so he could finish his work and get it emailed in.

Colin smiling on his balcony

One proud smile

And then came last Wednesday when Colin proudly informed me he’s now going to College Prep classes. He’s attending school from Monday through Thursday again but this time with an eye towards him entering college as a student, albeit one with special needs. Finally his chance of going to school for robotics is in sight.

Colin has always been a smart kid, he’s struggled due to learning disabilities and autism, but he’s smart. I am so glad to see that educators are finally seeing this and are giving him a chance not just to survive but thrive.

Way to go Colin! You’ve earned this!!!

A good day…

I woke this morning to three purring cats, all snuggled over and around me, and Jeremy laughing in his room. I’m not sure what he was watching but apparently it was good.

I then got a message from a friend of mine saying the website that doxxed me is gone (for now at least). Ironically, the owner of the site got doxxed and didn’t like it, to put it mildly.

To make it even funnier and more ironic, here’s a line from his goodbye speech:

I have thought hard about the cumulative value of the site and all the opportunities it presents me and us, as a community. We have done amazing things. But, the cumulative damage outweighs all of that. It is enormous.”

The opportunities it presented? Amazing things? This whole site consisted of nothing more than bashing people anonymously. Telling lies about people they have never, and never will, meet interspersed with sharing private information like home addresses and the real names of children. Today karma bit back. Tomorrow? Well they’re worms, I’m sure they’ll pop up through a new hole at some point. But for now they’re gone.

I start intensive group therapy on Monday. It’s going to be similar to attending school, except it’s one for feelings. We have our own time tables and classes in such things as psychotherapy, coping skills, self-esteem, and stress/symptom management. We even have a lunch period where we can go down to the cafeteria to eat. I bought myself a fancy turquoise binder complete with folders and a zipper yesterday. Luckily my work lunch bag is still good.

Jeremy is eager to go back to school. The good news is he has a lovely certificate showing he graduated from his Lifeskills program in high school. The bad news is it’s apparently worth less than the paper it’s printed on. He can’t go to the local alternative high school or to the nearby continuing education school to upgrade, he doesn’t have enough education for either. But we have options we’re looking into. One is a bridge to school program through local high schools and the other is an education program run through a nearby mental health hospital. Hopefully one of the two options will pan out.

As for today, I’m anxious enough to need an Ativan and rocking while I type. Even so, it’s a peaceful day. I’m going to force myself to go to the gym for a walk on the track with my favourite music because my health is worth it.

Here’s my current favourite exercise song. Enjoy 🙂

No more pencils… no more books…


“Hello? Mrs Green? This is [vice principal]. Jeremy’s on his way home from school now. He was arguing with the teacher over lessons. He wanted to copy files from the school computer to his little zip drive instead.”

I glanced over at the clock. Jeremy had left barely an hour earlier, cheerful and eager. Which was a welcome change although apparently short lived. This was on Friday the 19th and only three more days were left until the end of school. Speaking of which…

“I should let you know, Jeremy has an appointment on Monday so zie won’t be at school that day plus zie has counselling on Tuesday. Zie’ll be back on Wednesday though.”

I waited for the obligatory giggle and “oops, I meant zie” which has followed ever since I had a school administrator come in to discuss the board’s transgender policy last September. It didn’t come. I guess the principal figured she doesn’t need to bother anymore now that zie was almost done school. As if correctly gendering someone only matters when board policy forces it (and when another adult can hear).

“If he wants to come in for an hour on Wednesday to copy his files he can. Over lunchtime.”

Heaven forbid my child inconvenience them by trying to attend zir entire last day of school with the rest of zir classmates.

Then I called Jeremy and listened incredulously. I try my hardest to support zir teachers and strongly feel spelling is important. On the other hand, they know how much Jeremy dislikes the subject. Zie’d missed almost a week of school due to anxiety, which they knew because I called zir in sick with anxiety and panic attacks every day. Plus they only have spelling tests on Fridays so there wasn’t going to be another spelling test ever for zir. So what did the teacher choose to do first that day? Sit Jeremy down with a list of words to memorize. Something that gives zir anxiety on the best of days. Jeremy asked why zie needed to study for a test zie’d never take and was immediately told to go home.

“Other students get sent home for throwing chairs. I get sent home for asking a question.”

Jeremy flipped through mood swings all Tuesday to the point where I wondered if it was possible for zir to have PMS. Zie’d be laughing one minute then start yelling at me, only to burst into tears two minutes later. Then zie’d be laughing again. And zie waffled about school, deciding zie would go only to change zir mind a short while later. It wasn’t until I was crawling into bed that zie made zir final decision.

“I’m not going to school tomorrow,” zie announced in a voice thick with tears. “M already has my number so if he wants to call me he can. Except he doesn’t even know his own number…”

Jeremy’s best friend P moved last year and hasn’t contacted zir once since then. Jeremy can’t call him because his number changed with the move. M is the only local friend zie has currently and they have no contact outside school. Meanwhile zie’d already downloaded zir files from the school’s cloud, all that was left there was a plastic storage container. I can live without that.

“Okay,” I said reassuringly. “I’ll call the school and bus company on my way to work.”

Which I did, making the bus dispatcher laugh when I announced it was my last time calling in. I simply left a message in the school’s voice mail. And now zie’s done, leaving me feeling unsettled… unfinished.

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks…

Jeremy was so eager to start school… so eager to learn. And zie still is. Zie loves math, loves learning about electronics and computers. Zie’s fascinated with politics and current events. I spent Jeremy’s entire time at high school arguing for zir to take electronics, computers, politics, auto mechanics, a work-ed program to do with electronics or computers. I got shot down every single time. I fought for zir to have testing for learning disabilities and got told “next year” every single year. I asked repeatedly for zir to have a school laptop due to language difficulties and fine motor skill issues and got turned down. The only success I managed was getting them to use the right pronouns and that only happened on paper or when they were prompted. Zir entire high school career was remarkably similar to banging my head against a wall, except it was less fun. And now it’s over. Kind of.

Jeremy cried two nights ago that zie was an adult and had no education.

“No education yet,” I pointed out. “That doesn’t mean no education ever. You’re just starting.”

The principal didn’t ask about zir appointment on Monday. She was just glad zie wasn’t going to be at school. If she’d asked, she’d have found out zie’s getting psychometric testing. And once zir anxiety’s a bit more under control, zir real education will begin.

Straight through to the weekend

Jeremy called me from school on Friday afternoon, wanting to know if he could go to his friend’s house after school. He has one friend and they see each other outside of class maybe two or three times a year.

“Of course,” I replied. We’d need to have some pretty hard core plans made before I turned down a social opportunity for Jeremy. “Can I speak to your teacher for a minute hon? I’d like to talk to her about the Olympics.”

We said our goodbyes and he handed his cell phone to his teacher. As an aside, I’m finding school cell phone rules have a great deal of leniency when it comes to convenience.

His teacher immediately started to explain. She’s got two weeks of current events planned around the Olympics and, of course, they’ve discussed the human rights issues when it comes to gay people. But that’s not what their focus is, they’re focusing on the actual athletes and how they’re working hard for Canada. Surely I could understand that.

“I know the athletes have worked really hard but what’s happening with the LGBTQ community is horrific and Jeremy and I can’t ignore that. We’re doing a total boycott of the Winter Olympics.”

I’d closed my eyes while reciting the LGBTQ part, trying to remember all the letters. Last time, Jeremy “helpfully” informed me I’d forgotten the Q but he wasn’t here. Any more letters and I’m going to have to write it down on a piece of paper and carry it around with me. Thankfully the teacher couldn’t see me through the phone.

“He’ll need to have another current event to work on,” his teacher informed me then she sighed. “He could research the history of the Olympics but you won’t allow that.”

“We’re only boycotting this Olympics,” I reminded her. “Previous Olympics are fine. Or Jeremy could explain why he’s boycotting.”

I quietly fumed at the “but you won’t allow that” comment. I’m paraphrasing the conversation, that wasn’t the first time she’d said this.

“That sounds like a good idea,” she replied. “He can share his information with the class.”

I’d be tempted to suggest Jeremy give her a report on Occupy Paedophilia except for two things. One, I don’t think Jeremy or I could handle doing two weeks of research on the subject. And, two, he has to share this with his classmates, some of whom are very naive and sheltered. Still, between her un-Canadian comment to Jeremy and her jabs about what I won’t allow, as if Jeremy doesn’t have an opinion of his own, I decided to share a little of that information.

“I won’t let him bring up Occupy Paedophilia,” I assured her.

“What?” came her immediate baffled reply.

Bingo, I thought to myself. I went on to explain the group and describe some of the things they’ve done (with no repercussions), finishing with telling her those weren’t the worst things that happened. They weren’t even the worst things on the four minute video we’d seen. I also told her about how the police were reacting to LGBTQ citizens attempting to file reports on attacks. Then I told her Jeremy wouldn’t share anything that graphic.

“He can’t share videos like that in class,” she replied weakly.

“He won’t,” I assured her again. I grinned to myself. I’ve got enough friends on my Facebook, already sharing protest information, that I knew we could find all sorts of things he could talk about.

Jeremy called after school to see if he could sleep over at his friend’s house. Once again, that was fine by me.

“Jeremy? Your teacher said she’s discussing what’s happening with the LGBTQ community in Russia.”

“Good job Mom, you got the Q,” he so helpfully replied.

“What is your teacher telling the class about what happened?”

He sighed. “She’s telling the class that it isn’t that bad. That people are allowed to be gay and are allowed to say they’re gay, they’re just not allowed to protest.”

Which isn’t the case at all. “Did you say what’s happening?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

“Yes,” he replied. “She said I was wrong.”

“One of my friends found a video that teaches you how to say a helpful phrase in Russian. For part of your current event assignment, do you want to teach your classmates how to ask where to buy a rainbow flag in Russian? I mean, how much more educational can you get? Teaching another language just in time for the Olympics.”

Jeremy snorted. “That sounds great.”

We said our goodbyes then I settled down to write. The phone rang a short while later. I picked it up before realizing it was a long distance ring. I reminded myself that telemarketers are easy to get off the phone. It was Jeremy’s Dad.

I explained Jeremy wasn’t home, that he was at a sleepover.

“He’s having a sleepover with a boy, right?” his Dad asked.


“Good,” his Dad said, his voice heavy with relief.

I just shook my head. First of all, while Jeremy’s had female friends before, he’s never had sleepovers with any of them. It’s just something that’s never come up. Second of all… obviously Jeremy’s Dad doesn’t know him very well.

I relayed his Dad’s comments to Jeremy when he got home yesterday afternoon.

“Yeah, we were busy having gay sex,” he retorted with a snort.

I laughed. “I’m pretty sure your friend’s straight,” I replied.

My voice trailed off as I tried to figure out how to explain my bewilderment that his Dad would act like I’ve been allowing Jeremy to sleep over with all sorts of girls over the years. Meanwhile, his Dad had been all set to buy Jeremy condoms the first week he started dating his last girlfriend because he was going to need them.

Jeremy heard the silence and, unfortunately, jumped to the wrong conclusion.

“I’m straight too Mom,” he yelled. “I was wrong when I told you I liked boys. It was a mistake. I don’t know why I’m telling you this because you never listen to me.”

He turned and stormed down the hallway.

“I do listen to you,” I said quietly. I hadn’t expected him to hear me but he did and came back.

“Then why wouldn’t you believe me when I told you I’m straight,” he replied. He was still angry but thankfully a lot more quiet.

“I’m trying to believe you,” I assured him. “It’s just hard when you say things that conflict each other. You told me you’re bisexual.”

“I was wrong,” he interrupted.

“Okay, but what about when you were upset about the gay bar closing because you wanted to go there when you got older.”

“You told me they have a good drink there,” he protested while I stared at him in complete surprise.

“Umm… I’ve never been there, I don’t go to any bars, and I have no idea what drinks they served.” I thought for a moment. “The only thing I mentioned was they advertised rainbow pancakes.”

“That’s it,” he replied. “That’s why I wanted to go, for their pancakes.”

Because that’s why most teenage boys plan on going to a gay bar in three more years, for the pancakes. A treat I make regularly and one he’d already forgotten. I figured pointing that out would be akin to tossing gasoline soaked rags onto a bonfire.

“Jeremy, why did you ask your teacher to discuss “gay stuff” during sex education?” I asked instead, which probably wasn’t the best question to ask. It was similar to rubbernecking at a train wreck. I kind of wanted to hear the answer but I mostly figured it would be bad and didn’t want to know.

“I thought maybe one or two of the kids might be gay and would be too shy or scared to speak up for themselves so I spoke up for them.”

Okay, that was nice.

To be honest, I’d been expecting Jeremy to say he was straight this week. I’d noticed he was a lot more quiet last Sunday. His voice more subdued, his hands still. He talked about how great something was and I smiled and said, “so it was fabulous”. He didn’t smile back. He shook his head instead and told me it was “awesome”. He’s described everything as fabulous for months now. When he’s really excited, or he’s describing himself, the word breaks into three distinct parts. A quiet “awesome” was not what I expected.

“Are you still wanting to go to the group on Tuesday?” I asked.

He looked at me in surprise. “Of course,” he blurted. That was a relief.