The Island of Misfit Parents

School starts in one more sleep. Puck is excited, for the first time ever.

I am apprehensive.

His new school seems to sense the apprehension parents will feel. It offered a ‘Parent Orientation Night’ a week before school starts, to help ease our fears.

Daisy is almost 14, and Puck is 11. I’m a seasoned veteran of Parent Nights.

For the past six years, I’ve attended the Parent Information Night at Daisy and Puck’s liberal arts private school. They’re social events, held in the cafeteria of the newish, bright and cheerful, purpose-built school. Parents are served wine and beer, cheese and snacks. I usually rush to Parent Nights after work, so the wine and cheese does double duty as social anesthesia and my supper. Perfect.

The parents mingle – some, who socialize with each other regularly, mingle readily. Some Socially Awkward Penguins (like me) fiddle with our wine glasses and hope the actual information part of the meeting begins quickly.

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The past couple of years, as Puck’s behaviour deteriorated, have been increasingly awkward. His classmates’ parents give me wan smiles and drift on past. I am marked as That Mother. The one with the ‘Bad Kid’ who always gets sent home from school. The one their own kids tell them about breathlessly across the supper table.

The school Puck will go to this year isn’t bright and new. It’s a repurposed 1960s-era neighbourhood school, patched up and old-school in every sense. Cloakrooms. Blackboards. Dim, long corridors. On Parent Night, parents shuffled quietly into a gym that smelled of decades’ worth of rubber-soled shoes and floor polish. There were no refreshments, no socializing. I found a seat in the middle of the room, and looked at the families around me.

My discomfort was immediate. Some parents had brought a child with them — perhaps unable to get child care, or perhaps hoping to make the child more comfortable in the new school surroundings. These children were not like the children at Puck’s old school. They looked…different. They were 12-year olds who hid their heads in a parent’s shoulder. They were eight-year olds rocking in their chairs. They were high school students, biting their nails and tapping their feet to diffuse anxiety and energy, oblivious to the room around them.

They made me nervous.

I was hit with the memory of something my 81-year old father said to me, when I first explained to him that Puck is going to a new school. He called it ‘Special Ed’. ‘Special Ed’ was something we had back in the 1980s, when I was in high school. Special Ed was classes for kids who didn’t fit in — who, in the horrible vernacular of the day, were ‘retarded’, or odd, or considered too dumb to amount to much. Special Ed was where you sent kids who the other kids (and other parents) didn’t want to see.

I’d corrected my dad, insisting that Puck’s new school is NOT Special Ed. But now, sitting in the gym, I wondered. And I felt uncomfortable. Was this how the parents at Puck’s old school felt, when they saw me at Parent Night? There, I had the kid that made others uncomfortable. And now I was in a room — a whole school — of those same kids. Was I sending Puck to a place where he wouldn’t be seen? Was I about to warehouse him away, giving him an education ‘good enough’ for someone who couldn’t be expected to amount to much?

In the span of a few minutes,  I sped through all the stages of grief. I mourned the ‘typical’ child I’d thought I’d had when he started Primary seven years ago. I was angry that his school had pushed him along and not recognized the depth of the problem until he was in a very bad state. I felt guilt that I hadn’t recognized the depth of the problem (along with the usual, “Was it something I did?” guilt). I denied that he really belonged in a school like this. Minutes later, reticent again, I slumped slightly in my chair and accepted that this was the new normal.

I felt sick.

I pushed down the growing despair in my stomach, and tried focusing on the other parents, instead. These parents did not look like the parents at Puck’s old school. It wasn’t just their lack of plastic wine cups and a paper plate of cheese and crackers. It was the weariness. It was a difference based on the weariness, the utter exhaustion, that every parent in this gym clutched around them like a dark, itchy cloak.

I realized then: every parent in this gym has been through the same thing I have.  They understand the weariness, the daily desperation, of supporting a child with learning disabilities and mental illness. No one in this room was going to look at me, raise an eyebrow, and drift away. No, they might even cry with me, and (I hope) laugh with me.

.images     This was my tribe. I’d found the Island of Misfit Parents .

The Head Teacher began sharing the curriculum. She described the school’s focus on building social skills – anger management, positive self-talk, mindfulness, and learning to advocate for oneself. When she described the ‘chill out room’ – a space where students can go for support when they are frustrated or overwhelmed — I had to bite my lip to keep from crying. How many times had Puck been sent home from school, or punished, for being overwhelmed? He’d missed entire months of school. And here, they would work with him to find ways through it.

The Student Support teacher explained that we will not get the phone calls telling us what our kids did wrong. We will not get the phone calls telling us to come get our child because the school can’t control them. The first month or two will be spent on helping students work on behaviours and to feel comfortable. Our job, at home, will be to not talk about what happened at school that day. What happens at school stays at school. Home is for relaxation, some homework, and family time.

She told us she knew that most kids who walked through the school’s doors had little self-esteem. Repairing the damage that had been done would be their first task. They would focus on it, almost exclusively, for the first months.

Silence. And then, hands shot up in the air.

Questions: But isn’t there punishment? Do you really spend so much time building self-esteem? Aren’t you going to force them to at least sit through math lessons? How can this possibly work? The teachers answered patiently, assuring us all that it will work. It does work.

And then, the sharing started. The rushed, breathless accounts of why it is so important – why we are all so desperate –  that this works.

Parent after parent shared stories of lives on-hold because of a child who was constantly sent home by a school that found no other way to ‘deal’ with them. Around the gym, heads nodded in acknowledgment of tales of home life wrecked by the tension caused by school. Parents near me described marriages that had ended because the child’s needs were all-consuming. A woman behind me described  sitting all night in the Emergency Department with a ten-year old child who was threatening to kill herself because she couldn’t bear to go back to school. Stories poured out, punctuated by murmurs of agreement and support. I saw more than one person wiping tears away.

Teachers and parents whose kids have attended the school before reassured us about the difference they’ve seen. Children who spent much of their first six months at the school in the ‘chill out room’ learned to self-regulate, successfully mastered their course work, and went off to public high school two years later. Students who graduated from the school had been accepted at good universities, and had the support to thrive. It is possible.

It’s not a warehouse. It’s not second best.

We were survivors. As much as our kids have found a new home, so have we. I’ve found my tribe. We are an exhausted, wan bunch, but we have found a safe place. And we hope our kids will too.

(Wine would have been good to serve after this Parent Night).

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