I wrote this originally when Sam was in first grade, or second. Before third grade, when everything went downhill, and school became terrifying and impossible for my poor boy. Sam has started back at school, on a very limited schedule, and again, I have to thank the teachers, staff and administration who make it possible. When you have a child with an anxiety disorder, you can’t do it alone. Especially if your child’s only idea of safety is you – you need other people to support him, encourage him, and teach him that he’s okay without you there. I’m incredibly grateful to the staff at Gates Lane Elementary School, the Special Education department at Worcester Public Schools and grateful in advance to the teachers and staff at Forest Grove – because they make it possible for my son to do what he wants to do.
This post could also be titled – “How I Learned That Sometimes, It Really Does Take a Village.”
I was scared to send my second child off to school. I was nervous about sending off my oldest, but it was nervous tinged with excitement. School was fun, school was where she’d make friends and play games. Where she’d learn fascinating new things and develop new skills. School was field trips and lunch boxes and spelling words and running around at recess. And for her, that’s exactly what school is, and has been from the very beginning.
For my son, my second child, school was terrifying. He had extreme separation anxiety, and I was absolutely baffled by it. My older child was a little shy, a little cautious, but it was nothing compared to my son. He took shy to whole new heights. When we were at home, or in a familiar place, he played with kids his own age, was happy and relaxed. But if we’d go to a party, or to a new environment, he would shut down, beg to be taken home or hide his face in my arms. If we were there long enough, he’d relax and start to have fun. But sometimes it could take hours for him to feel comfortable enough to smile.
We had tried preschool, and it was awful. He cried all the time, more at drop off, all the way thru the day, and was miserable at home. He started pretending to be sick, every day, to get out of going. I talked to the pediatrician, and decided to pull him out. His baby sister had been born earlier that year, and my husband had just gotten laid off. I rationalized that the time at home, with his new sister and his dad, would be better for him. He’d have a chance to grow up a little, it would make kindergarten easier because he’d be older, better prepared. I was hoping that the old attachment parenting adage would work – meet the need and then the child would outgrow it naturally.
I was wrong.
Mrs. Gravel, at Flagg Street School, was my hero. She took my little boy, and made school okay for him. She called me in the middle of the day sometimes when he’d had a rough morning, to assure me that he was doing great. She made her classroom a place of security, and taught him that the world was safe. I couldn’t teach him that he’d be okay without me – I needed a teacher for that. I needed a teacher to show him that he was safe, and that he was valued and loved, and that he’d be okay. Because of her, Sam excels in school today. Because of her, he’s tearing around the first grade playground, completely confident and secure. Because of her – Sam is who he is today.
It’s not enough to say that she went far above and beyond the call of duty with my son. It’s not enough to say that she put up with screaming temper tantrums, and on more than one occasion, had to chase him down when he’d escape out the back door and try to run home. She did all of those things, but more than that, she made me feel like I could trust her to take care of my son, to teach him not about how to read or how to add and subtract (although she did those things as well), but she saw that what he needed was not just academic instruction, but also support to get to the point where he could learn.
The decision to hold him back in kindergarten was incredibly hard for me. I’m a writer, a reader, I like and value academics and intellectual pursuits. It never occurred to me that my child might not be ready to move to the next grade. When we had that conversation, the first time and every time after that, Mrs. Gravel somehow managed to allay all of my fears. She pointed out that an extra year, in her classroom, would give him the tools he’d need going forward. It would change him from being the youngest little boy to the one of the older kids, and give him the opportunity to be a leader in the classroom. She made me realize that it wasn’t about not being academically ready, it was more about recognizing that different kids had different needs. It wasn’t a sign that he couldn’t do the work, it was a sign that he had spent the first six months of kindergarten struggling with overwhelming anxiety and not learning. And she was right.
Because of that decision, because of the two years that my son had in her classroom, he happily bounces out the door for school every morning. Because of her, he’s above grade level in math, and exactly where he should be in reading. Because of her hard work and dedication, the only problem he’s had in first grade was a tendency to get too rambunctious at recess and to get too silly during classroom discussions. He’s a happy, content, and secure first grader, looking forward to second grade and excited about a new classroom. His transition to first grade was seamless, because Mrs. Gravel designed a program to introduce him to a new classroom, and to establish a relationship with his new teacher well in advance of the first day. The only tears on that day were mine, in the car, on the way home after drop off. Because he had come so very far, from that little boy who screamed and cried on the first day of kindergarten. Because he had grown so much, and was so much happier and secure and confident.
Susan Gravel did that for him. She showed my little boy that the world is a safe place, that there are people who aren’t related to you who will route for you, support you, teach you and help you to be best person you can. She taught me that even the best parent will need help, that sometimes the best thing you can do for your child is to let someone else be the one to hold him, to let him go.
I’m very fortunate that my children have all had exceptional teachers, who take the time to get to know them, to get to know us as a family and who teach them so much more than how to add and subtract. And while all of the teachers that all of my kids have had thus far have been wonderful, Susan Gravel will always be my favorite.