In the last installment of Ted’s 1st grade tale I briefly mentioned how one of the names he had been called by his peers was “sick boy.” I wanted to pull out that story and in a post of its own to tell some of the important details.
November 24, 1998
The teacher went to the bathroom. Left a classmate in charge of writing down the name of anyone who misbehaved. The student wrote Teddy’s name on the chalkboard. Teddy said he didn’t do anything wrong so he got up and erased his name.
She rewrote it and he erased it again. She then called him a “sick boy.” Some of the kids laughed. Teddy then started going to each child who laughed and hit them in the face.
The teacher came back.
School called me to come and get Teddy.
He told me he got to three of the eight he wanted to hit.
* * *
There have been many times in my life when I have felt alone. In fact, it might even be safe to say I have been alone most of my life. I don’t do groups. I don’t seem to understand groups and they must not understand me. When I did not get into a sorority in college a dear friend said to me, “You know Charlotte, I usually congratulate a girl when they get in, but you, I have to congratulate for not getting in.”
I appreciated this comment in that it was supportive, but on occasion, throughout my life, I have looked back on that moment and thought of that 19-year-old girl and wondered why and what it was about her that made it so obvious she didn’t belong.
I made it just fine in college without a sorority. I had wonderful friends. Since I was not in a greek organization I was called an independent. I guess I have been one my whole life.
But those early years of Teddy’s education were a different kind of alone. They were a lonely alone. An alone that comes from being scared for your child, on an almost daily basis, and reaching out to those near you and asking for the help they are supposed to provide, because it is their job, and yet feeling as if no one but you actually cared enough to do anything.
It was like a scream that goes unheard.
Or like being alone in a crowd.
There is a tremendously deep kind of lonely that comes when your child is in danger. Yes danger. Very real physical and emotional danger. And not only was his ‘today’ in danger, but I felt very strongly his future was also in danger as well
And I felt even lonelier because when I looked around I didn’t see other moms scared. No. I saw them together, in groups, talking while watching their kids play, who were also together.
We didn’t do that.
And for as long as I could remember we didn’t do that.
In fact, whenever I am asked if I thought Teddy’s autism came from immunizations I have always, confidently said no, because I knew there were signs of autism well before his first MMR.
The very first moment I remember wondering what was going on with my child was in September 1992. Teddy was 13 months old. My husband had just started graduate school and I had joined a playgroup for kids aged 12-18 months. I knew no one in our new town and thought it would be a great opportunity to meet other moms.
It also provided that first glimpse.
One morning, while the other eight or nine kids and their mothers congregated on the toddler playground, several hundred yards away Teddy and I were off on our own, on an explore, standing beside a building and I was watching how my son was completely absorbed by the pattern of the brick and mortar and how he was equally indifferent to the children and their activities.
I thought too, as we were standing by the brick building and Teddy’s little finger was tracing the mortar, just how separate I was from the mothers and not just physically. Little did I know the foreshadowing of that day.
Six years later he could no longer wander off, free to study what interested him, what captured his eye and fascinated his active imagination. No, he had to be part of a group which he knew he detested. And moreover, he had to be in a group with no one to look out for him, no one to help him through the minefield of trouble spots that made up a day of school.
And because he had so little support in the group, he was so uncomfortable and he stood out and every day was getting uglier and uglier and the problems bigger and bigger and he didn’t know how to stop it and when I went to the teachers and administrators who were being paid to help, they weren’t helping. They openly admitted they didn’t know what to do and that’s okay, but it was what happened next that wasn’t okay.
They didn’t find out what to do.
Dear God, there have been so many times I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t just stop. Well, momentarily sometimes I would stop. Sometimes I had to just to get off what felt like a rat wheel and catch my breath then jump back on again. But they didn’t. They didn’t fight. They didn’t read, they didn’t ask, they just bitched.
His classroom teacher complained that he made a lot of “sounds” and that it really bugged her. Poor her! When I talked to Teddy, because she didn’t, he told me because he had already completed his work, he was making drawings on the back of his paper and animating them.
Was it looked upon that way?
So instead, as I have said, he was without support although everyone knew he had serious problems. He had been struggling. He was unpredictable and did not get along with children.
Why would you leave him alone in a class?
I know the teacher had to go to the bathroom, of course, but still, why would you leave him alone, in an unsupervised, unstructured environment? How many times did he have to lose it during unstructured times for them to see what would happen? They are teachers, but they could not learn.
And because he stood out, he was a target. So of course the child wrote his name on the chalkboard. And she got exactly what she was looking for, a reaction, because Teddy always reacted, because he didn’t know what else to do.
We role played at home. Oh my gosh we role played. Good grief I should be an actress for all the role-playing I have done. But it wasn’t being done at school and don’t we all know that our kids don’t generalize. Doing something at home was NOT the same as doing it at school.
Moreover, doing role-playing at school, like I had asked them to do over and over again, would have two very important accomplishments…
- given him proper ways in which to behave, tools in his tool box,
- and maybe even more importantly, would have sent a message to Teddy that the adults at school cared and took the time to help him. It would have been positive time, and proactive time, rather than the negative, reactionary time and attention he usually received after something happened.
Then add to the situation that when Ted felt he was wrongly accused of anything his keen sense of justice was strongly disturbed and he would do whatever he could to fix whatever he perceived was a wrong.
He had done nothing wrong and so he was not going to tolerate his name being on the board.
And to add insult to injury, while he was righting this wrong, she called him a “sick boy.”
When the laughing began, which you know kids will do, he did the only thing he knew to do and that was to also right that wrong too and so, systematically, like the enforcer, he did.
And of course he got in trouble. But he didn’t get corrected. He didn’t get taught how to do it right the next time.
Would a child who didn’t know how to read get sent home for not reading right and then upon his return not be taught how to read?
Wouldn’t you think that the teachers would double down on correcting his deficit? And wouldn’t you think they would have this “aha moment”, like holy crap, we have GOT to teach this kid how to cope, how to survive. For his sake and the sake of the other kids.
But it didn’t happen. Instead he was sent home and out of their hair. Then when he returned after Thanksgiving break they crossed their fingers, or maybe said a prayer, hoping he wouldn’t do it again. There was no learning. Only hoping.
And it all unraveled. And I watched it do so. I called meetings. I made suggestions. I tried to call as much attention to the issues as I could and then I sat, alone, and in my darkest hours I thought about my child’s behavior and if it continued to track the way it was, I one day might have to face something far worse than him hitting three of his 1st grade classmates because he was called a “sick boy.”
It is lonely wondering if you are the only one having such thoughts and lonely knowing if your worse fears came true you would in fact be alone. I doubt there is much support for the perpetrator’s mother.
Why did I have to have these thoughts when I should be celebrating a child who could read, taught ME about subatomic particles and enjoyed bringing drawings made on the back of completed classwork to life in the most vivid of ways? Why?
And then five months later, Columbine happened. A systematic, enforcer-like killing of students and I cried. I cried for the kids that were killed and I cried for the parents of the kids that had been killed and more than anyone, I cried for the parents of the kids that did the killing because they were actually where I dreaded ever being. They were living out my nightmare.
Then when I stopped crying I took action. Fuck the teachers who weren’t going to help. I was going to continue to do absolutely everything in my power to make sure such a horrendous fate would not be Teddy’s. The reality that was Columbine began to erode my loneliness, and replace it with a growing strength. Strength that is conviction. Strength that is a mother’s love for her child. Strength that is knowing I had before me as important a job as I will ever have and that is saving my child.