It’s late August now. The days are still warm, but by early evening there is a hint of autumn in the air.
You are probably thinking about your first day of ninth grade—your very first year in the high school on the hill.
This is an important time for you. A lot will happen in the next four years. Maybe you’ll make the honor roll, or ask someone to the prom, or try out for a varsity team.
My son Jack is thinking about his first day of school, too. He’s also going into ninth grade. I mean, technically he’s in ninth grade, because he’s fourteen and this is his ninth year of school but to be honest, his school year looks a little different from yours.
Do you remember Jack? The boy with autism who ate hot lunch every day in sixth grade and called the teacher terrible names and threw books across the room?
He isn’t going with you to the high school on the hill. He isn’t coming back to public school this year. In fact, he may never come back.
See, your school is not made for kids like Jack. It is made for kids like you. And that is perfectly absolutely okay. It is made for what is called the majority and Jack, with his complicated autism brain, is more like the minority.
Basically, there are less kids like him and more kids like you. Again, perfectly, absolutely okay.
But he was not doing perfectly, absolutely okay in regular school. Two years ago he cried every afternoon and he had nightmares at night and he talked about knives and life and death and friendship. His feelings were very big. I did not know how to shrink them. Neither did he.
I would get the call and then I would drive to the school and it felt like everyone who saw me walk down the hall was whispering and I got to the classroom and he was shaking in the corner with tears in his eyes and I would hold onto him and he would hold onto me. Together we swayed, like sunflowers beneath a summer sky.
It’s been two years now—two years since his dad and I and a whole big team of people decided he should go to a smaller school in the town next to ours, so he could cocoon like a caterpillar and feel safe and warm. This school doesn’t have a cafeteria, or a varsity team, or a prom with tuxedos and music and long, sleek limousines.
What it does have is a big board where every morning Jack and the other students identify how they are feeling right when they walk in the door.
There are big bouncy balls in the classroom, and the lights are soft and dim.
My son, he needs these things. He needs to identify how he feels before he can figure out how to learn. He needs to be able to bounce on a ball when his body becomes what they call deregulated, and he works better without bright fluorescent bulbs glaring down on the paper.
I want to tell you something not everyone knows. It’s almost like a secret. We don’t choose our feelings. Can you believe it? We don’t choose to be happy or anxious or mad or sad. Our feelings come to us, and they are what you might call pre-verbal. This means they are faster than speech—in a race against our words, feelings take the first place trophy every single time.
And here’s another secret: in between the feeling and the behavior is a tiny pocket of air—almost like an iridescent bubble a child might blow from one of those plastic wands. This bubble is called choice. It is exactly one breath long.
When it comes to feelings and behavior, we can make a decision about how to act. Do we cry? Or scream? Or laugh right out loud? Maybe we hide underneath the covers, or clap our hands in delight.
In Jack’s brain, the choice bubble is so small, he has a hard time seeing it. He doesn’t always realize he can do anything but throw things and say bad words when he gets lightning-hot mad.
He’s doing pretty well these days, in his new school. He’s made a lot of progress. He talks a lot, and asks questions. He can write a paragraph all on his own about something he read in a book. He’s no longer perched on the edge of a branch, like a bird poised for flight or fight.
Most importantly, my son Jack is learning how to balance the bubble on the tip of his finger, instead of smashing it to the ground in a formless rage.
In addition to the stuff about feelings and the bubble, I also wanted to tell you about a woman I once knew. She worked at your school, but last year she retired, which means she left her job to do great things like travel and read books and visit her children.
I called the office to tell her goodbye, and they said she had already left. She’d cleaned out her desk, and taken her picture frames and her plants and packed them all up for good.
I was sad to hear this.
I was sad because, in the past two years, I never told her all the things I should have told her.
You see, I have known her since Jack was three years old and still in diapers and biting other kids and throwing great big angry tantrums. I would call her, and tell her about the biting and the screaming and she was quiet and just let me talk. My talking, well, it felt like hot air escaping from a balloon.
When he was twelve years old, I called her and I told her about the knives and the friendships and the fear, and she never once made me feel terrible. On the other end of the long phone she simply nodded. I couldn’t see her but I knew it. I felt the nodding. It felt like a hug.
And then one day at a big meeting with lots of people around the table she agreed your school was not right for Jack, so he got changed to the school with the board that talks about feelings.
He got the chance to be who he is, instead of who you are.
This is a very big, powerful thing, and she helped make it happen.
Maybe some days her job felt meaningless, like she was just shuffling paper around her desk and signing forms, but it wasn’t meaningless at all.
She changed his life.
She changed our life.
She gave him a chance.
This year, on the first day of school, when she sits at her kitchen table and drinks her coffee and thinks about all the kids who are making their way up the hill and through the high school doors, I hope she remembers a boy named Jack.
I hope you do, too.
Have a great year.
August 27, 2018 @ 11:18 am
Find her number and call her. It will mean the world to her!
August 27, 2018 @ 4:19 pm
“He got the chance to be who he is, instead of who you are.” How beautiful and profound. I feel the same about my teenage daughter who just started 9th grade. She started at her small therapeutic school 2 years ago, and in many ways, Jack’s experience seems to mirror hers. I am so happy that you were able to make it possible for him to find a place where he can learn and grow peacefully. And yes, please let the lady who suggested the change know what a difference she made! It may be important for her to hear that. I am sure the school would not mind helping you mail a thank you note to her. Sometimes, these things matter so much more than we think. Wishing you all the best and congratulations to Jack on starting high school!
August 27, 2018 @ 4:56 pm
Carrie, My son is about to begin sixth grade at the same school that Jack goes to. Following your blog has been so helpful for me and allows me to get a glimpse into what challenges might lie ahead as my son gets older. I appreciate your honesty and openness so much. Your posts make me laugh, cry and feel relief that someone else out there understands the craziness and challenges as well as the joy these kids bring to our lives. s
August 28, 2018 @ 10:29 am
Carrie because you made the difficult but necessary choice to send Jack to a place where he can be himself, he will thrive and reach the fullest potential of JACK. In public schools, so many of us try the very best we can to help create a safe space for kids like Jack; from teachers, assistants, counselors and yes even a handful of very compassionate students. Sometimes that space is just not enough. I have spent the past two years trying to help a young man through two very hard years of high school. As the situation spiraled more and more beyond our (and his) control it became terrifying- for the staff, students and for him. His family fought against the inevitable which only made the situation worse. In the end the situation was -to use the official terminology–“resolved” (much as your previous post “Three Days Gone” described). I wanted you to know finding your blog, reading your heartfelt struggles and insights on accepting Jack helped many of us get through those two years, which were for me the biggest challenge I have faced in 19 years working as a special ed assistant. Thank you. I look forward to hearing more of Jack’s adventures in being JACK .