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.