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.

images-2

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.Read More »

Put on your rubber boots, we’re wading through bureaucratic crap.

Puck starts a new school in September, because administrators at the school he’s attended since Primary have stated they can’t support him to the level he needs. He’ll be attending one of a handful of schools in this province that focuses exclusively on teaching kids with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. In the old days, when I was in school, I suppose we called this “special ed”. It’s taken a while for his dad and I to get our heads around that.

The new school is technically part of the public school system, but it’s a private school — meaning, you must apply, be accepted, and pay a sizeable tuition. Because it’s part of the public school system, however, tuition support is available from the Department of Education, if you meet certain requirements:

  • accepted to school (check)
  • diagnosis of learning disability and/or ADHD (check)
  • supporting psycho-educational assessment and IPP  (check)
  • previous attendance at a public school  (umm…..)

And that’s where the rubber boots and bureaucracy come in. Although Puck meets all the requirements and demonstrates a real need to attend a special education school, we’re not eligible for tuition support, because Puck has never attended public school.

Puck struggled socially and academically even at age three. He became anxious and overwhelmed in groups, and showed signs of language-based learning disabilities. Based on his preschool teacher’s concerns, we had a screening with an early interventionist when Puck was four. She found no obvious developmental delays, but there were indications of learning challenges that she felt would likely become more evident in the school system. She suggested to us that Puck might benefit from a private school, where there would be a lower student-teacher ratio and more individualized attention. Our older child, Daisy, was just about to start Primary at our neighbourhood school. After talking with educators, psychologists, and other parents, and giving much thought to what would be best for Puck, we decided to enrol both he and Daisy in a liberal-arts private school.

Daisy thrived at the school. Puck did not. The school environment was nurturing and the teachers well-trained and thoughtful, but from the beginning, Puck was lost. He was unable to identify letters, to read, or to follow directions. He became frustrated and angry, yelling at teachers and hitting himself. His first psycho-educational assessment revealed language-based learning disabilities and slow visual processing speed. The most recent assessment found that his learning challenges are much more severe than previously believed, and are compounded by clinical anxiety and ADHD. Additionally, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome in 2014.

After both psycho-educational assessments, the school worked with a psychologist and a learning resource teacher to put in place accommodations. By this January, however, it was clear that the accommodations weren’t working. He was doing so little work that it was impossible to assess whether he was meeting any provincial learning outcomes (although it was evident to all that he was not meeting them). His teachers told us they were unable to teach him — they feel they don’t have the insight into learning disabilities that he needs. He would not be allowed to continue there.

While the academic impact of Puck’s learning disabilities has been profound, the impact to his sense of self and psychological well-being has been devastating. We have watched him devolve from a happy, curious five year old to an eleven year old who calls himself stupid, hits himself in frustration, and feels he is ‘bad’

He feels he’s not worth helping, and that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. We’re desperate to prove him wrong.

We believe the new special education school can help. Going there means he’ll have access to teachers who understand his learning challenges and how best to teach him. He’ll be surrounded by other children who have the same lived experience — he won’t feel isolated, or like he’s the ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’ one. He won’t automatically be sent home every day due to emotional outbursts. He won’t feel left behind, or left out. He’ll have access to specialized programming and services that help him not only to catch up academically, but that focus on teaching him to live (and thrive) with learning disabilities, and to develop social skills. He’ll have the emotional support and understanding that he needs to develop self-confidence, and to be a happy young person.

Maybe – we hope – he will, for the first time in his six years of school, not feel physically ill at the idea of going to school.

But…there’s the issue of money.Read More »

Put on Your Oxygen Mask

In past years, working in an air-conditioned office while the kids were in summer camps and organized activities, I kept summer at arm’s-length. Summer was a thing that happened on weekends, or on a patio with a gin and tonic after 6 pm. It was scheduled into my tidy and organized days and didn’t infringe on my 9-5 world.

For the past few summers, I’ve worked from home. The heat and proximity to the garden or ocean throw a veil of innate laziness over even my busiest days. I bring my laptop outside and work in the sun. I have meetings on coffee shop patios. I go to the cottage and sit on the dock while I write. Time slows to a crawl. The kids roam around like feral animals, spending days in their pyjamas and emerging only to forage for snacks. All structure is gone. The world condenses into hazy thoughts, blooms of honeysuckle, and quiet bird song.

This lack of structure worked for me, in the past. This year, though, I’m struggling. I’ve spent the past week being, basically, a lump. I’ve tried and failed to muster the energy to make it though my growing to-do list. I start ten different things, but at the end of the day stare at a blank computer screen. I am horrified by the dirt in the corners of the bathrooms, but have no energy to do anything about it. I drink too much coffee. I spend a lot of time staring at honeybees and wondering how such small, fuzzy creatures get the energy to do bee stuff all day.

I have run out of oxygen.

Puck wants to be a pilot. He’s obsessed with airplanes. And one of the first things you hear on a plane is the warning that in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.

My plane has been in a nosedive all year, and I have not put my oxygen mask.

One thing I’ve learned in my 48 years on this planet is that there is always ‘stuff’. There are jobs to do, bills to pay, relationships to navigate, fix, or leave. To be an adult is to tread water in a sea of stuff. For me, though, this year’s stuff has been dragging me under. I’ve questioned my own life-choices, and dealt with job uncertainty. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about Puck, and whether he will ever be okay. I’ve stayed with him through months of missed school and rounds of testing and medical appointments. I’ve been stabbed by guilt from not being with my parents more often as my mother’s memory slips away and my dad struggles to cope.  I’ve worried that I’m not doing enough to live up to whatever notion of ‘success’ society tells me I should attain today.

I realize now that I’ve dealt with it all by just diving into that deep pool of stuff — holding my breath, and not wearing a lifejacket. It’s been months since I came up for air. Only now that the pace has slowed — no school, fewer appointments, less anxiety, less structure — can I feel the shortness of breath, the heaviness in my very bones.

I am going under.Read More »

Report Cards

It’s 10 am. I’m sitting on my deck in the early summer sunshine, dog on my feet, laptop on my knees, and coffee in my hand. For the first time in months, I can focus on my work without worrying that at some point, my work-groove will be broken by having to rescue Puck from a bad day at school.

School is DONE. It’s summer.

My kids are still upstairs, lolling in their beds in their pyjamas. They haven’t actually been out of their pyjamas for two days. They might have brushed their teeth recently, but that’s doubtful. And given the number of granola bar wrappers on their floors, they probably should be brushing. I should probably throw a vegetable their way. It’s only four days since school ended, and they’ve essentially gone feral.

I don’t mind that they’re embracing sloth. At times, I have Pinterest-induced guilt that I should make them DO things…Clean your room! Go for a bike ride! Practice basic hygiene!…but in reality, I’m happy to let them do nothing for a while. This year has been hard on all of us, and we need to decompress. For me, at least, that might take all summer. Read More »

Talking to Kids About Anxiety (or, how to destroy The Clam)

When Puck was diagnosed with anxiety a few years ago, he drew a dark but beautiful picture to show what it felt like. The picture shows a dark, stormy world, and little Puck off to the side, trying to get to the safety of his home. It looked scary, and I felt sad when I looked at.  One thing I’ve learned about mental illness, though, is that what looks sad sometimes isn’t. And what looks funny and entertaining is sometimes scarier than you can imagine.

Recently, I asked him if it still felt like that for him. He thought about it for a minute.

“No,” he said. “It feels like I’m The Clam.”

“The Clam?”

“Yeah. The Clam costume,” he explained. “I feel like I’m in it all the time. I hate it. But I have no choice because that’s part of being at school. I’m trapped inside something I hate, but it’s all anyone can see and they think it’s who I am. I can’t wait to get it off and never see it again, but I’m trapped.”

At Puck’s school, the kids put on elaborate plays each year — plays they create themselves. They write the scripts, make the props, and choreograph the musical numbers. It falls to the parents, alas, to create the costumes for the sometimes odd characters the students develop. One year, Puck’s role in the play was The Clam.fullsizeoutput_27f

The Clam costume was a triumph of my glue gun and some craft foam. I was so proud to have created something that actually resembled a clam. Puck, however, was not thrilled. Being in a play was anxiety-inducing enough. Having to wear a costume in which he felt ridiculous made it worse. He wore it because he had to, but he was miserable. To this day, he despises any reference to The Clam. So when he said he felt like he was trapped as The Clam, I knew he has been feeling very miserable, indeed.Read More »

Life Skills 101: Juggling Flaming Bags of Poo

Waaaay back when I was a young thing in a “Frankie Say Relax” t-shirt and neon jelly shoes, we had to take Home Ec in school. One semester we took sewing, and then cooking, and the last was something whose name escapes me: Family Arts? Domestic Bliss? I guess it’s telling that I can’t remember.

I strongly feel Home Ec should make a comeback. Someone in this house, other than me, needs to learn how to cook (Banker Boy made me a bagel once, when I’d returned from having our child surgically removed from my abdomen). And someone should be preparing us critical life skills, like budgeting, career planning, and how to juggle all the shit life throws your way when you’re a reluctant member of the Sandwich Generation.

Let me introduce you to my son. He knows I write about him, but to maintain some modicum of privacy, I’ll call him Puck. That’s a name that captures both his love of hockey, and his resemblance to a mischievous and funny character from my favourite Shakespeare play.

Puck is eleven. He’s always been a funny kid, curious about the world around him. He loves hockey, animals, and airplanes. He wants to be a pilot. He loves to make people laugh, and is very concerned about the well-being of others.

Puck’s problems in school started almost immediately, and got increasingly worse through Grade Two. He’d rip up his work. Knock over chairs. Yell at the teacher, and cry inconsolably. That was not the same kind, funny child we saw at home. We had no clue what to do. We’d get phone calls from the school to come get him, as he was disrupting the class and upsetting the other children. I overheard other parents talking about Puck as a problem who needed to be dealt with. It broke my heart.Read More »