Maybe it’s because it was just Halloween, but, for some reason, zombies seem to have surrounded me recently.
My fourteen year-old daughter Katie wanted to go see Zombieland weekend before last. I voted for Amelia, thinking that would provide her with a more positive role model — “She just got into a plane and decided to fly it!” But a need for good humor, Katie’s desire for sleep, and her brother’s educational crisis won out over both choices.
As I was deplaning from my Chicago flight, I received a phone call from one of my son’s teachers. Much to our surprise, my ex-husband and I discovered that our sixteen year-old son, Nick, was in danger of not passing one of his Honors courses. The teacher encouraged us to drop him back to a non-Honors section, for fear that a failure would remain on his permanent record. This teacher also got us access to an online grading system that many public high schools use—Edline. Edline allows parents and students to monitor tests, homework assignments, and review materials throughout the grading period. On Edline we discovered that Nick was not doing well in several other classes, had neglected to complete about half of all of his homework assignments, but had earned an "A" in Movie Analysis—a fact for which I commended him. (My Phd is in Cinema Studies).
Some angst and family discussions ensued as we tried to decipher what it meant that our son’s grades fluctuated between A’s (test scores) and F’s (no homework completed). We thought that Nick had been doing his homework, and he claims that he thought he was completing it as well, but he admitted to not writing anything down in his planner and spending too much time on Facebook at home.
Was our son just another teenage zombie loaded with hormones? Or was something else going on?
Besides Facebook overuse, Nick admitted to having some concentration issues in his classes, which seem to go beyond simple hormonal exhaustion. I understand concentration issues more intimately now after my own traumatic brain injury (TBI) a few years ago, but Nick’s revelation means that his Dad and I are now working with him to improve his focus, find a learning behavior specialist, and develop better time management skills. We are also banning Facebook indefinitely (but not the heavy metal band Nick plays in), and avoiding the pharmaceutical industry for as long as we can. We recognize that Ritalin may have certain curative effects, but Nick, his Dad and I are trying other strategies first. We worry about the possibility of labeling Nick with a learning disability, since we understand that disabilities cover a wide spectrum of issues and no one diagnosis covers everything.
Crises like this make me really miss not working in the same city as my kids. At least crises bring our family together emotionally, if not geographically…
My daughter seems to have mastered the art of writing her assignments down and turning them in on time, and is waging a (largely) successful battle with her own hormonal spurts. Katie mastered flying a single engine plane with her grandfather at age thirteen. I thought that seeing Amelia would be a natural for her, but, unfortunately, Amelia Earhart seems to fall into that category of ‘that’s good for me’, instead of ‘that’s fun!’ Zombies, werewolves and vampires are, by far, the preferred character studies for teens.
And also for college students, it seems. I took great pleasure in reading about the ‘invasion’ of the University of Florida by student zombies after an employee with a sense of humor posted a “zombie response” on the university’s disaster preparedness site. A student theatre group took the message seriously, donned zombie makeup and costumes, and really simulated the disaster. The university site recommends  that one should not describe zombies as “undead” since "'undead’ clearly connotes deficiency; specifically the absence of both life and death. Hence, we suggest here the term ‘life impaired' to recognize the difficulties imposed on a former person by zombie behavior spectrum disorder (ZBSD) but without suggesting the former person is somehow 'deficient' as a result of the infection."
With my own TBI, I have been forced to acknowledge some mental limitations that I now have — spatial directions and concentration are at the top of my list — and I deal with them every day. In just this past week, Nick has managed to buckle down, study hard and pull his grades up. (And he OK’d this column before publication.) He even wants to stay in his Honors courses. We will keep working hard with Nick to develop better learning and concentration strategies that he can take with him to college and beyond.
Particularly since Nick may be interested in attending a Florida university, we don’t want to send our son to college feeling like the stars of our favorite Halloween film did. As one character mournfully suggested: “We’re all orphans in Zombieland.”