It was the end of the school week. We were at the school for a serious parent/teacher meeting, a meeting we had requested. We had hoisted the red flag a couple of weeks ago – our guy’s behaviours at home have been escalating. We were getting worried. If we are honest, it’s been a challenging couple of weeks (though still nowhere near as hard as it was previously). He’s been talking about getting bullied. We were prepared for a difficult discussion.
We were ready. We had print-outs of information about FASD all neatly organized in a binder to leave at the school. We had a notepad with a list of topics we absolutely wanted to cover. For the first time since he started attending this new specialist school, school refusal had reared its head that morning (if tentatively). We were there to help nip things in the bud, to explain our guy’s side. Tired. Defensive. Pensive. Rushed.
I guess we grow used to being parent warriors. We grow used to having to push, to being overly forceful, cajoling, persuading (I have been known to beg at times) just to make sure those around him are giving our son a chance. We were on edge. There are few options out there if things don’t go well at this new school. We were feeling desperate, concerned.
We are not in daily contact with this school, as we have been with other schools. This one is a taxi ride away and we don’t see his teachers very often. We don’t know them as well. We do have some phone calls, emails, but we didn’t know what to expect in this meeting. How would they respond to the bat signal we sent out a few weeks ago when we started to see some things deteriorate?
We sat around a table with his teacher and his learning coordinator. Friday afternoons are never the easiest for our guy, but he was awesome. He participated in part of the discussion and they praised him for providing the details they needed. I was impressed – both with him and how grown up he seemed, and with the way they gently reinforced him during the discussion. After a while, we let him go into the hallway, where he amused himself while we spoke one-on-one with the teachers.
And then, magic. It took me a little while to grasp what was going on. I was off balance. I was having trouble wrapping my head around what these two educators were saying.
I literally put down the pen, closed my notebook, and just absorbed it. In all these years of formal education, never once had someone spoken like this about our son.
I felt this veil lifting.
They could see him. I could see that they could see him.
I was floored. Humbled. Enthusiastic? Overwhelmed. On sadly unfamiliar ground, but ready to do a jig.
They talked about a kid who is helping others to learn, building friendships. They were talking about a kid who is well-liked. They were describing someone whose talents are recognised and celebrated by the whole school. They talked with smiles on their faces about a kid who literally is dancing in the corridors. They were talking about a kid who is exceptional in many ways.
They were talking about our son.
Most amazingly, they described a child who is so comfortable in himself that he is helping change a dynamic among his peers. Through his example, he is opening up conversations about each person being unique, not fitting in boxes.
They see him!
They addressed the issues we were there to discuss. Professionally, competently. Compassionately. In fact, we dealt with all those points on my sheet of paper without my having to tick them off one by one. These educators – the whole school in fact – “gets it”. I cannot explain what a mind-blowing change of reality that is. We still haven’t fully absorbed the difference of being in a special needs educational setting.
Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Even if they have not had great experience with FASD, they were interested to learn. They welcomed the fact he is taking on board his diagnosis and told us with a chuckle about the time he cursed at the deputy head, and then apologized, saying he was “dysregulated”. (We had the distinct impression they are not used to 12-year olds saying that.) They welcomed our binder-full of FASD flyers, printouts, tips for educators. They said they would share it with colleagues.
We could see the “aha” moments as we filled in some gaps about things that might be different about our guy from some of their other students. We explained things like confabulation. We showed sheets comparing the differences between FASD and other diagnoses. We talked about how kids with FASD may seem like other kids – for example, those with autism – but still may have some key differences in how their brains work and why they work that way.
It’s not like it used to be – when he tried so hard to conform to other’s standards, barely keeping his head (just) above water despite swimming as hard as he could.
Now he is in a place that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Here, just by being the amazing, unique, lovable, complex individual that he is, THAT is enough. THAT is actually more than enough – in fact THAT is inspiring others.
In his old school we were worried he was getting lost among a thousand others, overwhelmed. His spark was going out because he was under too much pressure all the time. We had hoped that in a smaller setting he might be able to shine. We never imagined once he started to sparkle again that he could help others do so too.
As we listened we heard the whispers of an emerging leader, a child comfortable in his own skin. Oh my days! (As our son would say…) What a wonderful, wonderful, encouraging and uplifting thought.
All our kids deserve to be seen. They all deserve to have a chance to shine. We hear time and again of kids being shoved to the back of the room and left unsupported, their needs ignored or side-lined by those whose who are tasked with helping them access education. We have always had supportive mainstream schools, which is sadly too often not the case for many, but even still our guy had felt the weight of that world on his shoulders, and it nearly crushed him. Inclusion was and is something we believe in fundamentally. But inclusion is more than simply sitting in a room trying to do what all the other kids are doing.
The difference in this meeting at this school was that rather than sitting worrying about how to fit our son into a box that he cannot fit into, here at this school there is no such box. He is being lifted up and guided by people who have the training needed to understand him. Even though there are problems which are quite challenging – I don’t mean to sugarcoat this – here his own strengths are being seen for what they are: gifts to those around him.
As parents, there is nothing more we could ask – there is nothing more important than those around him recognising what we have known all along: Our family/the school/the community/the world is indeed a better place because our child is in it.
That tension inside released a little, and all I could think was … “FINALLY!”