MA, Math Education, '91
You received a master of arts in Math Education from NYU in 1991. What drew you to this field and to NYU?
I have always loved mathematics. I resisted the urge to become a teacher for a while, but after tutoring many friends realized that it was my destiny. My parents both went to NYU for graduate studies; my father [Ralph Linder, Graduate School of Arts and Science, 1963] received a PhD in Clinical Psychology and my mother has a Master's degree [Beverly Linder, NYU School of Education, 1957] in School Psychology.
I enjoy the variety of the day as a teacher. No two classes (or students) are the same. I like looking for new ways to explore topics, and integrating math into other areas, such as art and science.
In your recent book, Beyond Words, you write about the everyday challenges of navigating the educational system for parents of children with special educational needs. As a mother, what was your motivation for sharing your story with the world?
I felt that as a teacher with a successful career behind me, I should have had an easy time finding the right blend of therapists and teachers for my son. Instead, the first few years of navigating the system were the most difficult of my life. Still I had a huge advantage over other parents. I felt comfortable speaking with the evaluators, administrators and teachers. Other parents, in contrast, did not have this comfort level. Children with disabilities do not always test or perform at their optimal levels, and as a teacher I was able to recognize when my son was being grossly underestimated. I was able to begin to teach him to read and write and although he was not able to perform at school, I could see that he had the ability. Once we got him into a setting where he could grow, I felt a responsibility to find a way to tell the story so others could get the benefit of my perspective.
What were the biggest challenges you faced personally as you tried to advocate for your son?
I was used to easy success and clear pathways. I was not used to confronting situations which were so undefined. At the same time, the realization that my son had serious developmental delays was at first difficult to accept. On top of it, a child with communication delays is a very frustrated one. So I had a toddler melting down often, and many conflicting suggestions coming at me from all directions.
Once I got my balance, the challenges were sorting out the options, being willing to change course, and learning to listen to my son, who was the best guide as far as his needs went. Then I had to take risks, and I am not a person who likes risk. I had to learn to leave an "okay" therapist to find one who was great. I had to leave a town I was comfortable in to try a school system I dreamed would work.
As a parent, what advice would you offer teachers who have children with special needs in their classroom?
I teach in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Queens College, so I offer advice all the time to teachers. I tell them to be open, not to judge, just to search for ways to reach the child. I tell them to start where the child is, and to go from there. Above all, I urge them to accept the child, and to refrain from immediately trying to move kids in and out of placements. I suggest that children with disabilities cannot always communicate effectively, but that does not mean they are not learning.
You credit your intuition with helping to improve the situation for your family. What advice would you give to other parents who have children with special needs?
I also found great support from old friends and new ones. I would advise parents to reach out and find supports, in the schools, in the family, in their circle of friends. Also, they have to believe in their child and find ways to "hear" what they have to say. If they really do not like a therapist, listen and be prepared to move on. A child needs to be engaged and happy in therapy. Even when my son was still largely non-verbal, he was the one who, through pretend play, let me know the chaos that was terrifying to him in his kindergarten classroom. Once I heard about it, we had his class changed, and he functioned better.
As a long-time clarinetist, music has been a huge part of your life. How has music helped you to cope with the "journey to inclusion" you had to take with your son? When did you recognize music as tool to help you get through everyday challenges?
As a new mother, and then a mother of a child with special needs, I lost touch with myself for a while. I did not even notice this for a while. I gave up a full time job I loved and took a part time one. I stopped playing clarinet for about a year. My son also loves music and once I put him in a chorus at a music school, I found my way back to my clarinet. His love of music prompted me to play again, and then I saw that I had reawakened a part of myself. Music has always been to me like mathematics, a sort of universal truth, and it gives me great peace to play.
When I decided to write this book, I had never done anything like it and did not know where to begin. One of the first chapters I wrote was "Spring Fugue" which comes in the middle [of the book]. It was an attempt to understand the options available to me as I worked through the options for kindergarten. Music gave me a structure to write with. I write often with Dvorak or Schumann in the background. Music enabled me to write with beauty even when the actual subject matter was very dark.
In Beyond Words, you describe experiencing "profound shifts in perspective, found not in the halls of academia, but on crowded New York City buses..." How has the shift from book smarts to street smarts created new perspectives for you? What are they?
I realize the importance of community and the impact we all have on each other. I was always I good person, but I was a little closed off outside of my world of friends and colleagues. I never thought about the impact I could have on a stranger's life. Now I am more open. I say hello to more people, I am ready to listen to someone who needs to talk on a bus, and I am ready to accept help from strangers who care. In short I have become less of a snob. I see intelligence and sensitivity is not related to level of education.
If readers take one thing away from your book, what do you hope it will be?
I will quote my son on this one. For Martin Luther King Day, they each had to write an ending to the sentence "I have a dream too... (and then Benny writes)....I hope that one day everyone will be nice."
Inclusion rests on this simple idea, and I hope that one day every person can feel as included as my son feels in his second grade classroom.
Do you have plans to write another book?
I would love to write a book that delves more into the essence of how an inclusive school works, what are the challenges everyone faces and how can they be addressed. I would like to interview other families to get a range of situations included.
What resources and tools (books, organizations, websites, etc.) would you refer other parents to as they work to find the best educational setting for their child?
In NYC, I received a lot of advice from PIE - Parents for Inclusive Education, and also Advocates for Children. There are so many books around about raising a child with special needs, and so many issues are different. The internet is also full of advice, but you have to be careful. I would find a few trusted people to use for support and guidance. This is a difficult question, and I partly wrote the book because I felt that there were no easy answers out there. So maybe a parent should begin with this book!
What is your favorite part about being a mother?
I love seeing my boys develop their own sense of self, watching their talents and strengths play out and seeing them develop friendships. Then of course I love snuggling with them on cold mornings.