“Squad up!” was a phrase heard frequently during a recent school field trip. It was music to my ears.
Last week, I accompanied my son along with 10 of his fellow fourth-grade students and their parents on an overnight trip to St. Augustine. I had fun, yes, but the greatest takeaway for me was watching my son interact with his pals. It was a lovely sight to behold.
I’ve written in the past about challenges our son has faced with respect to school, academics and social interaction. That was actually why I started this blog so many years ago—to share these very real struggles and hopefully encourage someone who is walking an uncertain path as they navigate the world through spectrum-colored lenses. But it’s been awhile since I’ve shared much in this respect.
Last year at this time, I had so much I wanted to share. I desperately needed to vent, but anger and fear rendered me mum. Last school year—third grade—was an absolutely horrific year in every respect. It all started with the term’s first Standards Based Mid-Marking Period Elementary Progress Report issued at the end of September (2017). The report indicated J-man was failing school to the point of retention. School had been in session for less than six weeks when the report was compiled, and he was FAILING. To add insult to injury, the teacher didn’t even check the box requesting a conference. She simply sent the report home in my son’s backpack. And let me set the record straight; I’m a squeaky wheel. I am the parent who is in touch with my son’s teacher before the first school bell even rings. I want them to know who he is, who we are, and most importantly that I am here to help in any and every way. We are a team. Whatever a teacher needs from me, they get. All they need to do is ask. But I digress. Initially, I panicked. Then, I was livid. How reckless and cavalier this teacher proved herself to be. Sadly, this instance wasn’t an exception; this turned out to be her modus operandi for the entire school year. I wish I could tell you things got better, but they didn’t. The wheels fell completely off the wagon. Our son continued to quite literally and quite rapidly fall through the proverbial cracks. He received zero support from that teacher both inside and outside the classroom while I received zero support from the school administration and district. Our son began to be bullied on the playground and nobody even noticed. I firmly believe the children in my son’s class began to perceive him as inadequate based on the teacher’s treatment of and response to my son within the classroom. Every request for reassessment, reclassification and addition of services was met with rote dialog about bureaucratic policies and procedures and cautionary tales about kids obtaining services when they didn’t really need them. Blah. Blah. Blah. The last thing I’ll tell you about last year is this; I finally secured the revised IEP for my son that he so desperately needed—IN MAY. Yes, it took seven and a half months for the School District of Palm Beach County to do what should have been done months prior. So much for “No Child Left Behind.” At the conclusion of the school year, my son said to me, “Mom, I’m so glad the year is over. I don’t want to go back there. I felt like I was invisible.” He was nine! No one should feel invisible, but especially not a child.
Last year, at this very time, I was a physical wreck. The school year was drawing to a close and I carried the weight of our son’s world on my shoulders. I ate, slept and breathed my concern for him and how best to educate and protect him in the then-upcoming year. I shed many, many tears and routinely beat myself up because I felt like I was failing as a parent. I wondered if I was capable of home schooling my son, but the idea was quickly shot down by my husband. The only other option was private school, which would require huge financial sacrifice on our part.
I made application to a school that touted “a fantastic Exceptional Student Education (“ESE”) Program,” only to be told, “I’m afraid your son wouldn’t be a good fit.” I applied to a charter school that serves children with autism exclusively. After a lengthy conversation with the school’s principal, we collectively determined the school’s restrictive environment would not be appropriate for our highly functioning son. Then, after two brick walls, just like Goldilocks, I contacted a school that turned out to be just right for our son. I will eternally be grateful to the Director of Admissions and Development who met with me, then eventually with our son, and said those magic words that changed our lives, “Let’s give it a try. I think we’ll be okay.” I could cry just remembering that day.
That decision was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Did I have reservations about the school? Absolutely. I worried a small, private school might not be equipped to teach to a child that requires a little extra help and a teacher who possesses a whole lot of patience. Blessedly, my concerns were unfounded from day one. This small, loving, nurturing environment is precisely what our son needed to thrive. We had a lot of making up to do, both academically and socially. J-man entered fourth grade far behind his classmates academically. Additionally, his confidence had been completely eroded. His teacher invested so much of herself in rebuilding and bolstering his self-esteem in those first few months of the school year. She worked very hard to help him find his place in the classroom and with his classmates. And just as his teacher exhibited patience and kindness, so too did the students. After all, you are the company you keep.
Here we are, eleven months later, and our son now has a squad—his squad. And every time I hear them call his name or see them pull him into the fold, I fight back tears. This year though, they’re tears of joy.
P.S. For all you moms and dads out there who may stumble upon this post, DO NOT GIVE UP and DO NOT GIVE IN. Your child needs you. Fight for them in any and every capacity possible. They need you. And believe me when I tell you, no one–NO ONE–can or will advocate for your child like you can. x