When Elementary School Crushes A Child

Elementary school has fallen and shattered over our ten-year-old's mind. It has suffocated his love for learning, piled over his kindness and trust, and eroded his childhood. Today, five years after he started kindergarten, my son, my husband and I crawl about, attempting to gather and paste the pieces of school together. We want to salvage fourth grade, to lift our boy's depression, to find him an appropriate education. Somewhere.

"We just don't think we can serve his needs," I recall the voice of my son's recent school head from a few weeks ago. She'd sounded silly and garbled like the nightmare I'd had often. As I listened, I wondered why I'd (even for a second) believed that his social and learning challenges would finally be addressed effectively? I sat breathless listening to familiar words that would crush my child. "We just don't have the support he needs." My son's impulsivity, hyperactivity, inability to read social cues, inability to attend to tasks, inability to make sense of auditory cues, had already worn out this special education staff. I knew the story.

After all, this was the seventh school. In September, I'd written an article about my dread of another harrowing year. I'd snapped my boy's back-to-school photo, wincing at the apprehension painted on his face. It was like a thick shell of plaster, each layer holding memories of school, years of pain sticking and clinging to his little bones.

First was the preschool in Mill Valley, CA that kicked him out, at age 3, after the first day. "We just can't handle him." Then came the public school district where he was denied services. "He's very bright," they said. Then there was the private Montessori preschool that could only manage him for two hours, two days a week, with an aide we paid for. They scooted him out daily before lunchtime.

After preschool we trekked back to our public school district applying for another IEP. "Do you really think your child is more special than the next? Be grateful he's smart," they said, denying him services. Again.

Next we trudged to the Catholic school that welcomed him. But after a week, they requested a shortened two-hour day and a private aide. No recess was allowed (too stimulating.) Eventually that plan wore him into a very unhappy, lonely child, so we quit "school."

Subsequently, we created a homeschool plan with private special education teachers who came to our home. But our boy needed to socialize. The homeschool community in our area was small, scattered and not particularly kind to a child with social challenges.

Feeling isolated, we applied to a local special needs school. When we described his sensory challenges the admissions director said, "We don't take kids like that." I responded with a letter to the director expressing my dismay. She agreed to try him out. After the first week, the teachers reported that he was so academically gifted that they did not understand why he was attending the school. He did not fit.

We returned him to a homeschool plan adding a 30-minute drive twice a week to a specialist who taught a basic curriculum to small group of unique kids. There he was FINALLY welcomed for a full day of class, making his first friends.

The next year we followed my husband's job to Connecticut where we looked at every school we could find within a forty-mile radius of where we were living. We found a private school with a nurturing director who embraced many types of learners. But after a couple of semesters, it was apparent that our boy wasn't getting enough structure and support. He had melted into a ball of uneducated mush, roaming the halls unable to engage in schoolwork.

This past June, we went back to public school to apply for the third IEP for our son. The district delayed scheduling the initial meeting due to summer vacation. They advised us to start him in September in a class of 22 kids, unsupported, while we waited to start the 60 day IEP process in a timeframe convenient to school staff. Knowing he couldn't handle another blow because of inappropriate services, we enrolled him in a private special needs school. They said that they could serve his needs with their 1:8 student teacher ratio.

Which brings me to when I stood on the lawn of his new school this past September. It will be all right. I thought, waving goodbye, as he shuffled in to another institution. I tried to talk myself into believing that the seventh one would work.

But it didn't work, and my now 10-year-old son is at home, again. He's got tutors, but he's afraid of the world, afraid to try anymore. We've put away the backpack and tossed out the shiny blue (almost empty) planner. He wanders our home imagining where he will go next while we wade through paperwork, flap jaws with experts, leap through public school hoops, cry in between, and then motor off, throughout our region, in search of the next school.

"Don't worry sweetie, we'll figure this out," I say, trying to be strong like Wonder Woman. Her image replays often on my special needs parents' Facebook page where other moms suffer more than I. I picture my cuffs beating off loneliness, my lasso capturing pain and whipping it to the crows. If I were magic, I'd help my boy listen, unravel complicated demands, remain calm, sit still, read without a headache, and make friends without confusion. He'd have good friends. He'd love his beautiful life.

Today as I pickup pieces of my boy's school, you might wonder how I've made time to write. You might even imagine that I'm very strong.

I am not. I'm weak, and I'm tired.

But thanks to God, my pen is strong, and it writes to anybody who's the leader in a school or who wants to be. Somebody who funds public or private schools, who sits on a school board-- anybody who's got energy. This pen is begging for CHANGE. Not change for my kid. Change for the child without a parent, a pen, the time or money to write and study and holler about this mess. If a kid isn't fitting, isn't learning, isn't making friends, isn't enjoying LIFE, can we all just stare in the mirror and wonder how have WE missed this child?

Once again, HOW HAVE WE MISSED THIS CHILD?

Maybe together, we can put elementary school back together -- one word, one mom, one teacher, one administrator, one community at a time.

(And stay tuned because this pen has lots more to say.)