I have been writing this post in my mind for months. I just haven’t felt inspired to sit at the computer and put it out there. Today, as I drink my morning coffee, I feel that I have to get this out of my head so I can think clearly. Every year, around this time, this feeling of dread creeps its way into the pit of my stomach and a lump in my throat wells up without warning at the mere thought of the first day of school. I used to love the idea of the beginning of a new school year.
Note that I said the idea. Shopping for new supplies, new shoes, new clothes, and the promise of fall and all its Midwestern beauty and crispness. The smell of fresh paint and the shine of clean floors, with tanned, relaxed teachers quick feet moving about preparing and excited to engage their students. That idea is really nice. The trouble is, that idea and all that excitement only lasts for about three days for Wolfie and then reality sets in.
School is hard. Being social is hard. The reality is, kids entering third grade are also embarking on a mean phase. They aren’t trying to be mean so much as they are trying to find their place in the social hierarchy and the trouble with that is lots of people get trampled on the way up. Here is a story from when I was in second grade. Granted, I am a girl and girls do things differently than boys, but both my boys gravitate toward girls so the anecdote seems appropriate.
I had just started a new school in second grade and had only a few acquaintances from Brownies. I was struggling also academically and had the sneaking suspicion that I was just dumb. I couldn’t seem to “get” anything the teachers were trying to teach me. Then there were the other girls. They were horrible. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that I had it in my mind were the ones to make friends with were not nice. They approached me after a while saying that I could be one of them if I were to pass a series of tests. I took the tests, which involved taking things that belonged to other students, attempting to balance standing on two legs of a chair, delivering notes to boys and other things like that. It was horrible and somewhere in my head I had decided that I couldn’t completely become one of them, but I needed to fit in to be safe. The line of social acceptance and being nice to others is a very thin one and one that I sometimes crossed, but I tried and was mostly successful at navigating the shark-y social waters.
If I were a boy with Asperger’s I would have fallen on my face. There is no question. I would have been so confused and unable to keep up with all the nuances of the social games. I was in pain a lot of the time and I understood pretty much of what was going on. As stupid as it all was, I got it. Wolfie doesn’t get it at all. He is hurt and confused most of the time when he is around kids his same age. As I said, he enjoys playing mostly with girls and they are all turning on him. He doesn’t understand why. He says they are mean, and I know that isn’t the case. They are acting mean, but they aren’t mean kids. They are competing socially and are desperate to find their place. Unfortunately for Wolfie, that place isn’t next to him.
This is a reality that I am okay with. I love my nerdy little guy. He is smart, funny, and full of brilliant ideas. He does everything with gusto and is built like an overgrown puppy, all floppy with big hands and feet. One look at him and my heart gushes with love and the desire to protect him and all that makes him who he is. I see though, how he is fraying at the edges. There is a rawness there that is exposed and becoming sensitive and if it doesn’t heal, it will fester and become angry.
These social games that kids play, I fear, is the thing that will rub him completely raw. People have said to me, “He’ll find his way,” and “He just needs to connect with someone else like him.” I agree, I just don’t think the public school is the place where he will number 1, find his way, or number 2, make a connection with someone else like him. There is no one else like him and the few kids that share his quirky nature, the school has done a brilliant job of separating them so that there is little interaction. This is done, of course, because it is easier for the teacher.
I am in school to become a teacher and it is through my studies and watching both Wolfie and Hammy in school that I have come to the realization that schools are too big, too crowded, too bureaucratic and too rules oriented to reach the potential of my children. I would venture to say these schools can’t help reach any child’s potential, but that is a much bigger idea for this little post. I know my children, and this environment is not for them. There are many, many great things about the school they attend. The teachers are wonderful and have tried their best to know my kids and do right by them. But as I have experienced first hand and as I am learning now in school, the teachers hands are tied in many ways. They cannot control the size of their classrooms nor can they give full individual attention or instruction to each child as they might like. Also, teachers are beginning to have to teach the students just to pass the standardized tests, which in my mind couldn’t be more uninspired. Then on top of all the academic responsibilities, teachers have the job to help students become responsible social beings. Where is the time for that?
I have had more than enough time this summer to watch firsthand how Wolfie attempts to make friends and get involved with other kids. He is a very social person and seeks out people to play with and share things with. He is gregarious in his approach and is mostly very polite. The trouble is he is eight years old, he looks like he is 11 and he is very direct. He has no trouble walking up to a family, introducing himself which involves sharing his name and age and then asking the other child who, at that point has completely lost interest if they are his age, for his name. Most of the time, they don’t respond or if they do it is because they are forced to by their parents. Wolfie doesn’t see this quiet brush off for what it is and will continue to try new ways to engage the other child. Asking questions, acting silly, or just inserting himself into whatever activity the other child is doing until finally the other kid says something mean. This is when Wolfie goes into what I call adult mode. He will parrot those phrases that have been directed at him when he is not so nice by other adults. “You aren’t being very nice” or “That is unacceptable behavior” or “That was very unexpected, could you try that again.” It is funny after the fact, sort of. But in the moment, it is the saddest thing I have ever seen because these little outbursts seal Wolfie’s fate to never be friends with this child. He ends up confused and angry.
At some point, you reach a breaking point. There is a threshold we all have for rejection and for every person that threshold is different. One of the gifts of Asperger’s for Wolfie has been this sort of social aloofness that prevented him from realizing when people were rejecting him. There was a long period of time where he seemed insulated from the hurt of that rejection. That time has definitely ended. He is hurt, and he is raw.
So, we are considering homeschooling….again. The pieces are falling into place and it seems that this option is the one that has the greatest potential for Wolfie to thrive. I am not sure about Hammy. There are a lot of ideas rattling around my head. Maybe I finish my degree while homeschooling and we start a small school. Maybe we home school Wolfie this year and test a few things out and then bring Hammy into the mix when I have more confidence. Maybe we jump in feet first and see what we see. Maybe we explore some private school options again. I feel the weight of this decision, but at the same time I feel refreshed by the idea of choice. So often, the choices get stuffed out of sight by the expectation of the norm.
I remember when Wolfie was born and I had the hopefulness of a new mother, all excited and full of creative ideas about parenting. We talked about homeschooling then and how the idea of parents as teachers seemed like such a natural and viable approach. Somehow that idea was derailed. Hammy was born, I was overwhelmed by motherhood and by the energy of my children. I don’t know now if homeschooling is the right choice, but I get the feeling there will be regrets if we stick to the path we are on now.
I have always used the word cyclical when describing the behaviors, habits, and interests of my children. Their interests change as do their behaviors and habits, and then the cycle starts all over again. Here we are back at the beginning. I feel like a new mother, with new challenges and a fresh perspective. Even though it feels somewhat scary, it is exhilarating to be here again.