This Boy Jack
It’s August now. The days are still long and hot and humid, but there is a tinge of autumn in the air, especially at night.
Most of you are starting to think about school again. You are reading over your supply list for seventh grade and wondering if your new teacher is nice or strict.
I wonder if you remember a boy named Jack from last year. He’s tall, and he wears glasses, and sometimes he jumps around a lot.
He bought his lunch from the cafeteria every single day.
For the annual science project he made an experiment with cotton candy to see if it would dissolve in water.
A lot of times he got mad.
He got mad about the computer, and about recess, and about the complicated tangle of friendships his spectrum brain could not unravel.
He screamed swear words. He threw books. He banged his head on the wall and flapped his hands around his ears.
Sometimes when he got mad, the teachers had to take all of you out of the classroom so he could try to calm down by himself.
Maybe this made you nervous. Maybe you exchanged looks with each other as you filed out into the hallway. Maybe you worried about him, or you were scared of him. Maybe you knew about his autism so you felt a little sad for him.
He hates himself for that. He hates himself for the room-clearing and the book-throwing and head-banging.
Have you ever hated yourself? Have you ever been so embarrassed and ashamed of the way you acted that you felt dark and empty and all alone inside?
This boy Jack, he feels that way a lot of the time.
In a few short weeks, you will go to the middle school that was built in 2007 and is attached to the high school and meet your new teachers. You will eat your lunch in the cafeteria and check books out of the library, and in this middle school, you will start to dream of your future, grown-up selves.
Maybe you will dream of becoming astronauts, or ballerinas, or teachers or gardeners or lawyers.
Or of moving to Florida, or flying a plane, or backpacking across Europe.
This boy Jack, well, he just dreams of being normal.
He dreams about being like each one of you, with your easy smiles and your calm, still bodies.
He dreams of shedding his autism the way a caterpillar sheds his cocoon and turns into a bright, incandescent butterfly.
Jack is not coming back to public school this year.
Over the summer, his mom and his dad spent a lot of time researching academic options and meeting with people for an out-of district-referral. This was very hard for them. They never imagined their son would not make it in public school.
Their son is not making it in public school.
And the mom, well, she has tried to avoid this solution for as long as she could. See, she has five kids and she always pictured them like five little ducklings walking a similar path.
Now she has to pluck one of her ducklings out of line, and send him off to a school ten miles in the other direction all by himself.
This school, it only has thirty-five kids. It is mostly boys with just a couple of girls.
There is no cafeteria.
There is no big bus.
On the first day of his school, this boy Jack will climb into a minivan that has a sign attached to the top of it. The sign says School Bus, but it isn’t really a bus.
This is what hurts the mom’s heart the most. It hurts her the most because she remembers when Jack started first grade and he insisted on riding the big bus like his older brother, Joey. He didn’t talk as well then but still, they knew what he meant.
Big bus like Joey. Ride big bus.
But it’s time. This mom, she knows this.
She knows that if she continues to clutch her dreams too tightly in her fingers, they will disintegrate like the luminous wings on her fragile butterfly. They will lose their color, and their softness, and turn to dust.
She has to let her dreams breathe, and move, and change.
It is time to accept what is before her and look at what’s ahead of her and be willing to consider a different boy and a different school and a different life.
See, when it comes to autism, there are no do-overs. There are no second chances. This mom has just one opportunity to be his mom and she has to make the very best right decision for him, even when the best right decision is so terribly hard that it makes her heart fold over on top of itself.
I will go. Like Joey.
She told him last Wednesday about his new school. They were driving home after the last day of his summer program, and he was talking on and on about his teacher for seventh grade and whether or not they should look for blue pencils.
She pulled the car into the garage and turned off the engine and turned to face him in the seat next to her.
Jack, buddy. Listen to me. You aren’t going back to public school.
They didn’t plan to tell him this way, the mom and the dad. They planned to sit him down at the long kitchen table and have a discussion so they could explain the reasons and outline the plan.
But if she had to hear him talk about seventh grade one more minute she was afraid she might go crazy. It felt too much like a big, ugly, snake-y lie.
Sitting in the cool, dark garage, it was as if everything around them—the dad’s old work boots and the broom on the hook and the soccer ball in the corner—took a collective breath together and waited.
This boy Jack, well, he simply dissolved. There is no other way to describe it.
She held him across the console of their red minivan and even though she could feel the hate and rage and shame radiate off of his body like the sun, he let her hold him. He doesn’t always let her hold him.
Just let me be normal please let me go I will be good please please please I have to go I need a new start I will do it right I will be good like Joey I have to go like Joey.
While he sobbed and screamed, she thought about all the things she wanted him to know.
She wanted him to know this is not because he was bad or because he did something wrong. She knows how hard everyone around him worked–his teachers and his aide and his case manager. She knows how hard he worked.
But at some point, autism made his corners sharper and more rigid, and it became harder and harder to wedge him into the round, smooth games at recess.
She wanted to tell him how many nights she and his dad spent talking in the darkness—each playing something called devil’s advocate and tossing around options and trying to figure out a way to keep their precious son marching in his duckling line.
What if we paid for—
The school said we can’t do that.
How about if we try one more year?
I don’t think I can take one more year, and neither can he.
He’s going to be devastated.
She held him while he cried big, wet tears. She stroked his soft hair and for a second he laid his head in her lap and she rested her head on top of his, and then all at once he lifted up and slammed into her chin and she bit her tongue very hard. Tears sprang into her eyes.
“Why! For you. Are CRYING.”
Oh, my Jack-a-boo, she thought in her head.
She wanted to tell him she was crying for all the things he wouldn’t have; a tuxedo for the prom and hot lunch in a noisy cafeteria and the chance to stand at the bus stop with his three brothers and one sister on the first day of school.
But she knows it is time—it is time to make his world small and cozy and warm. It’s time for him to relax in his cocoon, and just be the most perfect-est caterpillar ever. In his new school, he can blossom into a butterfly whenever he’s ready.
It’s August now. In just a few short weeks, you will make the climb up the hill to the middle school that was built in 2007.
As you sit in your new classrooms and listen to your new teachers, I only hope one thing.
Don’t forget him.
Please, don’t forget this boy who tried so hard and who will never give up and who wants to be just like you.
August 8, 2016 @ 10:45 am
Oh, this one got me. Tears are stinging my eyes. We are in elementary school. 5th grade. Big choices need to be made this year, as middle school starts in 6th grade. I completely understand this. All of it. I hope that the new school and Jack get along well and he flourishes.
April 30, 2018 @ 11:12 pm
Oh, I’m sitting here reading this and crying and thinking of the time when they referred us to out of district school. The news was devastating to my son Aryan who was 12 at the time. Like you said try to explain to a 12 year old that you are not changing the school because you did something bad. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t answer his question that why his twin sister still has to go to the same school and hang out with their friends. You are very brave.
I’m glad that I’m not alone in my pain. This hit home really hard. Thank you for sharing.
August 8, 2016 @ 11:32 am
Yes. Yes. Yes. That. This is your best post yet! It is about choosing a path for our children that will allow them to be happy and confident individuals who love who they are. All of us have dreams for our children. Unfortunately, we all tend to have dreams that reflect what would have made us happy at that age, rather than what our children need to be happy.
At the new school, they should be able to give Jack what he needs, including success experiences that will help him rebuild his self-esteem. He will see that he is not the only one who struggles, and when he struggles, he is going to learn that he is just still learning as opposed to thinking he is “bad” or somehow worth less because his brain is wired differently. It is worth a try. Without trying different options, one will never know.
As you so eloquently wrote in today’s post:
“She knows that if she continues to clutch her dreams too tightly in her fingers, they will disintegrate like the incandescent wings of her fragile butterfly.”
Some butterflies take longer to hatch. Different species of butterflies look very different. But if we give them time to develop in the environment that they need to grow at their own rate, they all will get a chance to fly. Please let Jack know that your readers can see that he is a wonderful child and that different children just need different learning environments to grow and develop their “wings”- just like butterflies. 🙂
P.S. I don’t see why Jack would not be able to have a prom at the new school. My 12-year-old daughter is in a very similar situation, and I will be lobbying for school dances and a junior prom when the time comes.
August 8, 2016 @ 11:44 am
My daughter thrives in her special school. She is making so much more progress there and she loves it and her therapists love her. Best decision we ever made.
August 8, 2016 @ 11:52 am
Wishing your beautiful boy much success and happiness in his new school! Hoping that his parents and siblings will also have an easier time this year and that next summer you’ll be beaming with relief that you made the right decision. My daughter is entering tenth grade and it’s astonishing how much growth and maturity she’s shown in three years. Deep breath and good luck!
August 8, 2016 @ 12:23 pm
You have once again put Jack’s best interest ahead of your own desires. I admire you so much for making this most difficult decision. I am a lifelong teacher, as well as the grandmother of two wonderful boys on the spectrum – one nonverbal and one high achieving. I understand the trauma your family will endure as you struggle to adjust to this new course, but I firmly believe you are doing the right thing. And…I predict – sometime down the road – you’ll get your sweet, lovable Jack-a-boo back.
August 8, 2016 @ 12:38 pm
Oh, Carrie. How brave of you to share such a raw wound with us. Your words hit home to so many of us who only wish we could not relate to them. I hope when it is time to make those hard decisions for my Jack, who is only now starting kindergarten, that I will not be alone in my pain, as you are not alone in yours. Certainly, I will remember your words.
August 8, 2016 @ 1:48 pm
I always look forward to your post on mondays but this one surely brings tears to my face. You are a brave woman and thank you for sharing some of your joy and sadness. My own little Jack is six and going to 1st grade in few weeks.
August 8, 2016 @ 4:08 pm
You write so well this post made me cry. Buy Jack lots of great school supplies and enjoy the fresh start. Good luck to your whole family
August 8, 2016 @ 4:50 pm
It’s hard to be different. Our son had a really hard year in 7th grade , and halfway through – we did the same thing of choosing a smaller , more protective school. And you know what ? It gave him the room he needed to slow down and just BE HIMSELF. He made friends , got invited over and had the opportunity to have a school year that all kids deserve. Tell Jack to be himself , and life will unfold as it should – he might find he likes it?
August 8, 2016 @ 7:55 pm
I’ve been reading this blog for a long time and without fail you always manage to hit the sweet spot of life with autism. Although sometimes, it is not so sweet but bitter. My son is also in middle school so I feel like I’ve been traveling on the same path as you. Your writing nearly always brings a tear to my eye as the emotions come bubbling up. I know there is someone (many actually) experiencing the same things as we are in the messed up world of autism. Sometimes it’s amazing when we can measure how far we’ve come. Other times it’s the constant reminder that no matter how far we’ve come, there is always another mountain to climb. Two steps forward, so many back. Regardless, you manage to hit the nail on the head 10 times out of 10.
Beth Brown Johnson
August 8, 2016 @ 7:58 pm
We made the same decision when our son was about to enter middle school. He’d been floundering and we just couldn’t imagine a larger school, with more kids (some who hadn’t known him since kindergarten), so many more teachers to get used to his habits and needs, the noises, the smells, the changing social scene, etc. We really wanted him to be in a comfortable place, where he wasn’t always being told he’s not doing it right. That was 4 years ago and I know we made the right choice. He still really avoids social situations (sigh). We’re working on it. He is doing well academically, and will tackle his homework with no argument or coercion (this is a complete 180 from public school). The very small classes and one-to-one help are exactly what he needs. He now knows how it feels to be successful.
August 8, 2016 @ 8:51 pm
Jack, I’m cheering for you! I hope this school year brings fun and friendship!
August 8, 2016 @ 10:03 pm
Dear Carrie – I don’t have my own children, but I’ve been “daytime mom” to thousands. I’ve held parents’ hands as we both wept over decisions just like this and I am celebrating your decision to let Jack unfold his butterfly wings in a smaller environment that is much better suited to him. I know your boy – I’ve substituted in his classes – and he’s such a GOOD kid. I truly believe you are helping Jack “put his moccasins on to the right path” with this choice. I wish you peace as you all begin this new adventure.
August 8, 2016 @ 10:44 pm
What a beautiful and touching post. I can’t imagine how difficult this decision must have been for you and your husband to make, but, as many others have commented, Jack will thrive in this small environment.
I hope he has a great year and soon gets over the fact he isn’t with his siblings in a familiar environment. I will be thinking of all of you as your school year begins and pray it is a great one for all of you.
August 9, 2016 @ 9:20 am
Thank you. It’s lonely. It’s hard and you captured it just so. My son utterly came apart in middle school. They did not care or try hard like his Elementary school and it was devestating. I think we all have PTSD. Now we have a program. A school where they care. Safety and warmth. Wishing for my Josh and your Jack a year filled with success.
August 9, 2016 @ 2:43 pm
Brave mama, and daddy. For Jack, you choose the road less travelled. All love to you all.
August 9, 2016 @ 8:08 pm
Carrie,I read your words every week knowing that somewhere in your narrative you will bring me to tears.Your strengh and wisdom are a must read every week.I am only the grandfather of five year non verbal beautiful grandaughter who owns my heart and soul.I try my best to see her as often as possible as she lives a one hundred fourty miles a way.Please keep carrying the torch for newcomers new to this mysterious malady. God Bless.
August 10, 2016 @ 1:12 pm
A friend shared your blog post. We made this same choice when our son was the same age. It was so hard but oh, how it changed all of our lives.
So, while I cried reading your post, it brought back so many memories, I really hope it brings forth the life changes for your family that it did for ours.
There were no more calls home. None. They helped him self regulate and they de-escalated situations before a call needed to be made.
He looked forward to going to school every single day and we never had another fight before getting on the bus. He took part in a talent show and played sports without fights. A whole new kid came out.
I wish you all the very best on this new journey.
August 10, 2016 @ 8:55 pm
I have twin boys one of whom is on the autism spectrum . He ended up going to a public integrated pre school seperate to his brother. They attended elementary school together for 2 years, when it was obvious my special love needed a smaller setting, and a chance to talk out his frustrations in a therapeutic environment. We transferred to an out of district placement straight after the Winter break. We were not sure how to tell him he would not be at the same school as his brother any more etc, worried he would be upset. We explained he needed a smaller setting with less children, more support and people to talk to etc. He was a bit surprised, but agreed he had not been happy in his current school, and it was worth trying something new. I was emotional but tried to be positive, and he embraced that attitude. He would miss friends but would make new ones etc. It has been great! We left the first special school after 2.5 years, for various reasons, but K came with me to visit 5 others so he could have an opinion on where he went next. It was a very positive experience, and he is very accepting of his situation. I hope Jack settles quickly and finds it a less frustrating situation do that he too can see it was a good choice for him.
August 14, 2016 @ 2:56 pm
I’m sobbing after reading this! Thank you so much for sharing your life with the world. I’m so thankful to have found you. We have 5 children, too, and our 4th, a 3.5 year-old, was just diagnosed. I googled autism and large family and found you. You are an answer to my prayers! I’m halfway through your book and looking forward to reading your blog and your second book. May God continue to bless you and your beautiful family!
August 15, 2016 @ 3:08 pm
I still remember the feeling as mine was dragged away by paras on the first day of the special ed preschool program. Then there was adjustment and calm, for both of us. Then the mainstreaming came next with all its struggles. We’re still there, for now.
Just saying, I understand the big feelings with this.
August 17, 2016 @ 7:28 am
This was an incredibly powerful post. Wow. You are such a great mom and you’re doing a wonderful job. Much love (and tears) from Boise.
MAUREEN L HIRT
August 31, 2016 @ 10:41 pm
I also have a Jack- he is 9. He is also autistic,has ADHD and DS, and is deaf and nonverbal. He does not attend school in the same district as his older sister and younger brother, he is in a 6:1:1 class for autistic kids, all boys. He doesn’t mind the new school, or the new aides or teachers, he likes the little bus. As I read this I wish my Jack were like this Jack. Then I think about it and I know I love my Jack just like I see the love for your Jack. I cry whenever I read these posts and stories. I do hope Jack likes his new school. He sounds like an incredible young man.
September 15, 2016 @ 2:10 pm
my boy is 6 and was diagnosed earlier this year. he is considered twice-exceptional and, boy, is he ever. but there are challenges and differences and, as he gets older, i know those differences will be magnified. and i worry. for all of his brilliance, he struggles in the mundane. he sobbed and screamed and refused to get dressed yesterday morning b/c he had a dream that i bought him an ant-man costume but i hadn’t and told him he would have to wait for saturday like we agreed. and my heart aches every time it is hard for him. and i worry. every time he melts down b/c the timer went off and minecraft had to be turned off. or b/c he has to take a bath…and then get out of the bath. he has beautiful blue eyes that sparkle like no other when he laughs but quickly cloud over when things get to be too much. and i worry. he just started first grade, his first year with a diagnosis and a “plan”. and, for now, he is doing okay but i worry.
thank you for sharing your jack. i feel as if i know him just a little.