The Bella Chronicles, Part II: The Search for the Source

January 13, 2012

By Mark and Bella Dunning

My daughter, Bella, is thirteen years old and a good student. She has always loved going to school and was one of those kids that teachers described as a joy to have in class. She is even tempered and rarely gets upset.

So why was she crying every day before school?

In the first part of this series I wrote about Bella's history in detail and why it was such a surprise that she was suddenly having problems in school. In this post, I will write about our search for the source of her problems.

One more quick point: I worked on this post with Bella. I wanted to make sure she was comfortable with the content, and, in truth, it gave me a chance to check in with her. I wanted to make sure we hadn't missed anything, but also Bella's answers and her reaction were telling. She liked the idea of having input on the article, so you'll see her name in the byline. I wrote it but she read it and contributed, too.

So what was the problem?

Our first thought was bullying.

This is Bella's first year in middle school. Girls are tall and gangly. Boys are getting their first whiff of testosterone. Everyone is self-conscious and some try to point out the faults of others to distract from their own.

Bella would seem an easy target. She is different. Though she is blond and beautiful, she has Usher syndrome. She wears cochlear implants and glasses. She can be clumsy and has problems seeing in low light. The school has made accommodations for her, which is good but which sometimes make her stand out. She doesn't have to attend gym. She has an FM system in class. There is a hand mike that the kids pass around when they ask questions.

Bella's middle school is a regional school. Six elementary schools come together there. The grade school kids in Bella's old school have grown up with Bella. They have been passing the hand mike since before they can remember. There was always a kid in class with cochlear implants. To them it was normal. But to the kids from other schools it had to be different. Were they picking on Bella?

When I asked Bella, she made a face that said the very idea was foreign to her. "The kids treat me like all the other kids," she said, as if that were expected.

But were they embracing her?

That was the next idea. Was Bella simply lonely? The other kids were not picking on her, but perhaps they were isolating her. She is thirteen and thirteen-year-olds swirl with hormones. All the kids want to be the same and Bella is different. What if she was feeling left out?

Having Usher syndrome can be very hard socially. The hearing loss is the hardest part. Kids miss out on pieces of conversations. They hear the other kids laugh but they missed the joke and it's awkward to ask to have it repeated. Often they tire of straining to hear the conversation, so they don't bother any longer. They just laugh when others laugh and agree when others agree all the while slowly glazing over. Everyone gets up to go somewhere they all agreed to go, but the kids with hearing loss stays, not sure of the destination or the invite.

Some kids with hearing loss take the opposite approach. They hijack the conversation. If they are always the one talking then they always know what is being said. But that, too, can be socially isolating. Kids tire of the one man show and make plans that don't include the kid that talks too much.

In middle school there is no recess. Socializing occurs in the cafeteria. The cafeteria is constructed like a hangar, with high ceilings, tiled floors, metal appliances and folding tables. It's built for cleaning up after four hundred sloppy students, not for acoustics. Bella couldn't hear a thing. So the school allowed Bella to have lunch in a conference room next the nurse's office. They thought Bella could invite a friend or two to lunch so she could be involved in the conversations.

Bella brought nine kids with her the first day. Social isolation was not her problem.

"The nurse's office is good," she says, "I can hear everybody. I can see everybody better because in the cafeteria it's darker. And my friends don't mind going to the nurse's office for me. They think it is fun."

In the background of all of this, the Penn State and Syracuse abuse scandals were playing out. So another possibility was more sinister.

Was Bella being abused?

Let me take a moment to say Bella is NOT being abused and we have no reason to suspect she is. But when Bella was behaving in a way that is completely out of character, we had to consider all sources, no matter how unlikely, especially knowing what we know now about places like the Catholic Church (we're Catholic) and Penn State. Being deafblind, beautiful, and innocent might make Bella an inviting target.

So we tried to think of places where Bella was alone with adults or older kids. There weren't many. The only place where she was alone for any significant time was the farm where she rides horses and that didn't fit the profile at all. Bella wanted to go the farm. It had been Bella's oasis during her tough time at school. It was the one place she wanted to go more than anywhere else. This was not a kid afraid of abuse. On the contrary, this was her sanctuary.

When we hinted at the farm as a source of concern to Bella, she again thought we were crazy. "Everybody over there knows me and they are all good people," she said, "They take care of me. They would never hurt me." The farm remained above reproach in her mind and remains there in ours as well. We're lucky to have it.

When we further examined her schedule, we couldn't find any other time or place where even the most opportunistic abuser could have been alone with her.

No, Bella was not being abused.

Maybe it was the opposite. Maybe Bella was in love.

Was Bella having trouble with a boyfriend?

"Daddy!"

Uh, no. She was not. Bella does not have a boyfriend. She is open and honest, if a little shy, about her crushes.

"You're embarrassing me!" she said.

We asked if maybe there was a boy she liked who didn't like her back. Or maybe a boy who she thought liked her who later gave her the cold shoulder. We probed every angle of puppy love to see if we could find evidence of a broken heart. But Bella still likes horses more than boys, for the moment. ("Horses or boys?" I asked. "Horses. Not even close.") That will change at some point. It just hasn't yet.

A lot will change for Bella in the next few years. She is full on into puberty now. Her body is changing and the hormonal shifts are startling at times. I have been writing for years about my phobia of having a thirteen-year-old daughter. Well, the time has arrived and it is everything I dreaded and nothing like I imagined at the same time.

There was a point this summer where I feared for the life of my ten-year-old son. His mere scent was enough to ignite the normally placid Bella. And, of course, being a younger brother, he took every opportunity to set her off. She was his own personal firecracker and he lit the fuse every chance he got.

On the flip side, Bella has moments of maturity that are just as startling as the moments of fury. You can hold a thoughtful, adult conversation with her now as this post can attest. At a party on New Year's Eve, she didn't go downstairs with the kids right away. She sat at the table with the adults until the topics became too boring (which was pretty quick).

So maybe it was just the hormones and puberty themselves that were the cause of Bella's problems.

Bella has had her highs and lows with her entry into adolescence, but that's why we ultimately dismissed it as the cause. Puberty is peaks and valleys, yet her problems with school were a constant. She got upset every morning. Hormones may have been contributing, but they were not the cause. The problem was too consistent.

There was one other possibility that we examined and quickly dismissed. Maybe Bella was just faking it. Maybe she had decided that she preferred to be home and had learned that if she made enough of a scene, she could eventually get sent home.

Was Bella purposely crying her way out of school?

As I wrote in the last post, she was clearly feigning illness to get out of class, but that's not what I mean by purposely crying her way out of school. I don't mean she was so scared or upset that she didn't want to go. I mean what if she was NOT really scared or upset but instead had decided she preferred being home and was pretending to be scared and upset so she could stay home and play video games or watch TV or do something else. What if she just wanted to play hooky?

This feels almost crazy to write if you know Bella. It's completely out of character for her. Indeed, nothing brought a more vigorous denial from Bella than the suggestion she was faking it. She got upset to a degree rarely seen.

"You always make me feel like I'm faking it and I'm NOT," Bella said, "I like school. I want to learn stuff. I'm not like Jack."

Jack is her little brother and he agreed with a twinkle in his eye as he played his video game that he would fake it. All kids are different. Bella is a kid with a real problem at school and the suggestion that she didn't have one sent her to an extreme level of frustration. No, Bella was not faking it just to get out of school.

So what was the problem?

Well, it's complex but it comes down to two things. Bella does not have a relationship with her teachers this year. It's not a bad relationship or a good relationship. It's no relationship. Because she has no connection with her teachers, Bella is uncomfortable advocating for herself. As a result, she has gotten increasingly frustrated at school. Finally it reached the boiling point and spilled over in tears.

Having Usher doesn't help. She assumes she is missing information. She assumes she is having a harder time than the other kids. These points are probably fair. She does miss information and have a harder time. But she also assumes that means she is doing worse in class than the other kids. She is not. In fact, she's a solid 'B' student which in this school really is above average. Given her situation, that's quite remarkable. I'll go in to the advocacy problem more in a future post.

But here's the second issue. Bella puts a lot of pressure on herself. That is in part because she is very empathetic and wants to please others. It also has its roots back in San Diego at the Classy Awards and right here in the blog. Not many kids have numerous blog posts dedicated to them or are recognized as they walk the streets of a city on the other side of the country. Bella knows that a lot of people look up to her and she doesn't want to let them down.

"I feel like everyone is disappointed in me," Bella said, her eyes glistening.

That's my fault and it will be the subject of the next post.

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