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It was only two weeks into kindergarten when my son, Roman, brought home a coloring assignment, a cut-out owl, with a big letter F marked in red on the top of it. The owl was colored not brown, but green, adorned smartly in a graduation cap and gown, holding a diploma and donning wiry spectacles. Under the bitter mark was a lengthy and unsympathetic explanation of the grade: Owls are NOT green! With respect for the rules of writing, I use one exclamation point here, but Roman’s owl had not, one, but three of these dramatic punctuation marks, marks that typically need to be well earned when chosen over a simple period for ending a sentence.
I’m not undermining the importance of following directions and learning the motor skills and conventions of coloring in a kindergarten classroom, and if this had been a high school final exam, perhaps a math or a science or an English language test, my own instinct would have been to ask Roman why he didn’t try harder, why he didn’t get a better grade, explain that an F is not acceptable, as my overachieving parents would have done. However, my son seemed to be faced with a burned out teacher radiating indomitable meanness at this early stage in his education, a time when fostering success and enthusiasm about school is paramount. Even worse, I suspected something more significant.
I suspected that something was medically wrong with Roman.
As I held the crumpled owl in my palm that I had balled up in anger, a wooden knot rose up in my throat. I swallowed, slowly spread the owl out on my desk, and examined Roman’s beautiful work, that I had initially been critical of myself, his best effort. I put Roman’s folders back into his book bag, recalling the many times we’d played toddler games. I’d quizzed him like the proud mama I was. I’d held up flash cards and pictures for him to name. Animals. Shapes. Even letters.
In toddlerease, he proudly named chinchillas, ostriches, and bearded dragons, from his book entitled, “My First Animal Book.” He could tell the difference between a puffin and a penguin which, at his age, I’m sure I could not – all the more reason he seemed too smart not to know his colors correctly.
But I figured he’d catch on eventually, didn’t sweat it.
Then I thought even further back, to images from my own childhood.
I recalled my own mother throwing up her arms at my father’s mismatched outfits. My grandmother noting how he had to read the position of the traffic lights, instead of the colors, green, yellow, red. My dad was colorblind, and I was certain, now, that Roman was, too.
Then I thought of how I’d failed as a mother the time I’d yelled at Roman for not picking up his toys from the lawn, remembered the time clearly. There was a brown baseball in plain sight and I was pointing right at it where he left it, along with numerous other whiffle bats and balls, lying on the grass.
“I don’t see it.” He shrugged.
“It’s right there in front of you,” I yelled in frustration.
And then I thought of how my own frustration might hinder Roman’s determination to succeed in school, throughout the year, if I didn’t hold back my urge now, to march into the principal’s office and have the teacher reprimanded for her intolerance to his unconventional coloring that was, to me, at least, so obviously indicative of a visual disability.
Instead of reacting, I poured myself a glass of wine. I gave Roman a hug and told him I liked his green owl, flattened out the paper and blacked out the F, the unkind words, too, with black sharpie marker. I put a sticker on it and pinned it on my office corkboard next to his baby pictures and snapshots of our family vacations.
How could I have missed this?
What kind of mother was I?
What kind of doctor?
I gave myself a little slack on my professional vocation, since I’m an anesthesiologist by training, not a pediatrician, not an ophthalmologist. But as a mother, I truly felt I’d failed.
I was determined not to create a bigger problem for my son, yet I wanted to help him. I’m aware that there is no cure for color deficiency, so my determination focused on ways to help him succeed, despite a possible disability.
I held back, instead of reacting negatively like Roman’s teacher had done, undulating waves of her criticism in our direction that crashed on the deaf ears of a developing child who still, after receiving the grade, could not understand what he had done wrong. There was no way he could visualize the clear distinction between the green and brown. I held back and I learned everything I could about the condition of color deficiency, which I had been calling colorblindness, incorrectly. I learned that up to eight percent of boys are color deficient, not possessing the correct number of cones in the inner eye needed to see shades of red and green colors as well as the rest of us can. I quickly researched the diagnosis, reading up on possible treatments which sadly, are lacking. In Roman’s case, color chart testing performed by his pediatrician confirmed that he was a deuteranope, or red green color deficient.
When I left the office I wrapped my arms around my little boy, handled my glassed eyes with tissues, trying to wipe away the uncertainty. He seemed more vulnerable, imperfect, yet I loved him more for his flaw, and I felt the intensifying urge to nurture and protect him. I realized that he’d face certain tasks that made his life much more challenging. I still felt guilty for my flood of emotions when I thought of how much worse it could be, how it wasn’t the most physically limiting disability he could face, and yet I smiled.
I smiled because mostly, it didn’t seem to bother him at all.
Roman’s perspective of the world was colored, literally, different, yet his outlook was unfazed. And as I took a moment to process the implications of his disability, I was determined to affect change in a positive way, a kinder and gentler way, when I explained his condition to his teacher. I thought of the thirsty bird in the famous Aesop’s Fable, who slowly raised the water level in the vase with each tiny stone it dropped into the vase with its beak. By solving the problem effectively and not knocking over the whole vase in the process, the bird quenched its thirst. Explaining Roman’s condition calmly to his teacher seemed to be a better way to try to prevent this from happening again in the future, than ratting her out to the principal would. And I knew that Roman would need to solve problems on his own one day, by labeling colors or asking for help.
She didn’t apologize.
This was disappointing, to say the least, yet I hadn’t created any additional tension that could affect Roman’s grades for the remainder of the school year. What was more important was the way I wanted my son to see me, not in tan or pale hues, not in shades of blonde or brunette or redhead hair, and not for the point of noticing the colors of my clothes, but to see the person I am. I wanted him to know that I would do everything in my power as a mother and as a doctor to help him. Even before doing so, I wanted him to see me as someone who would fulfill the Hippocratic Oath I took in medical school, one that applies as much to mothering as it does to medicine. I remained determined for him to see that my promise to him above all, is to do no harm.