Rock Bottom

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rock cave

When we finally pulled Peanut out of public school at the end of Grade 2, I thought we’d reached rock bottom.

We had a 7-year-old with a basket of diagnoses and labels: anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing issues, tic disorder, fine motor lags and a 99.99th percentile IQ. (It would be another two years before a doctor rolled all these issues up into a single diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder). Every day that he was in school, part of me was waiting for a call from the principal, telling me that Peanut had run out of his classroom, or thrown something at his teacher, or disrupted a lesson. On many, many days, I didn’t have to wait long for the call.

The day we realized that there was no place for Peanut in the school system??not just this principal, not just this school, but anywhere??I couldn’t imagine anything worse. If Peanut couldn’t go to school, I wouldn’t be able to work, so I’d have to quit my job and find a new, more flexible way of earning a living. It wasn’t just rock bottom for him: it was rock bottom for me.

At least homeschooling promised a relief from our constant anxious waiting for the principal’s call: there’s no way to send a kid home from homeschool. I had no illusions that I would be able to homeschool Peanut myself: instead, I hired a tutor who would be able to challenge Peanut in math, computing and other subjects he was passionate about. I enrolled our little guy in outdoor education, art and parkour classes, so that he would see other kids and get some physical activity. Maybe homeschooling would actually be good for him.

For the first month, all my hopes were realized. Peanut was happy??far happier than he’d been in years. Our tutor was a bright engineering grad who helped Peanut rocket forward in his programming lessons. The outdoor education course was a bust (Peanut was horrified to discover it was actually outside), but Peanut loved parkour, and enjoyed his sculpture class whenever I could actually get him through the doors.

Five or six weeks into Project Homeschool, however, Peanut refused to go to any more sculpture classes. Next, he started resisting parkour: even if I got him into the car and over to the gym, he cried and cried when I tried to take him into class. Soon, he was refusing to leave the house at all. Our boy, who’d always been cheerful and social, became depressed and agoraphobic.

And then I got the news: our tutor was missing some of the credits he needed for his med school applications, so he’d be leaving us at the beginning of December in order to finish his coursework.

Welcome to our new rock bottom: a depressed, homeschooled child??with no one to teach him. But it was still October, so I had a few weeks to come up with a Plan B.

Plan B was obvious: private school. There was one??and only one??school in Vancouver that seemed like it could be a fit for Peanut. When we decided to pull Peanut out of public school in May, we’d met with a private school that focused on gifted children. At that time they had already enrolled several challenging kids for the fall, so they weren’t ready to take Peanut on, too. But perhaps they’d be able to work him into school in January, once the other kids had already settled in.

Once I discovered that our tutor would be leaving us, it seemed obvious that I should try again with the private school. We set up a visit for Peanut, and he immediately clicked with the principal, who spent forty-five minutes working through a series of math problems with him so he could see how Peanut’s mind worked. By the end of the hour, the principal was excited by what he’d seen in Peanut, and Peanut was enthusiastic about his math experience in a way I’d never seen before.

The principal arranged for Peanut to spend half a day with the Grade 3 class, and I spent the morning at the coffee shop around the corner, my heart in my throat. What if Peanut had a meltdown during his visit? What if he ran out of school? This was our best, last shot at school, and a bad morning could ruin it forever.

But I hadn’t factored in the value Peanut placed on his friendship with the one boy he knew in that class. Side-by-side with his buddy, he sailed through the morning. When I picked him up at noon, the primary school principal was beaming. She suggested we come back the next week for a full day.

When we arrived at school on the appointed day, we discovered Peanut’s buddy was home sick: uh-oh. But I pointed out some other friendly-looking kids, and he forded into the knot of children happily enough. I took up my position in the coffee shop, hopeful we’d have another great visit.

At 12:30, my phone rang. Peanut had gone to the park with the rest of class, but when they returned, he realized he’d left his book behind. He couldn’t go back to the park on his own, and there was no teacher available to take him. Now he was making for the door, and the principal had her hands full, trying to contain him.

By the time I’d raced around the corner Peanut had run down the block, with the primary school principal chasing after him. I caught up to them and led Peanut back to the car, then apologized to the principal for her trouble. From the look on her face, I knew this incident had convinced her that Peanut was more than they could handle.

I got back in the car and started driving, holding myself together as best I could. Once we were a few blocks away, I pulled the car over and put it in park. Then I rested my head on the steering wheel and began to weep.

“Why did you have to run away?” I asked my son??or more truly, the universe. “That was the only school we had left.”

He began to cry too.

“I should just kill myself,” he said. “I’m never going to go to school, I’m never going to be able to get a job, and I make everything so hard for our family. You would all be better off without me.”

That just made me cry harder.

“No, that would make things much, much worse. We all love you. That would break our hearts.”

We finally stopped weeping, and drove the few blocks home in silence. The next morning, I woke up, remembered our situation, and started weeping again. This, surely, was as bad as it could get. No tutor, no school, a child who wanted to die. The real rock bottom.

I got a call from the school principal later that day. He’d heard about our visit from the primary school principal, and he sounded as heartbroken as I was. “Don’t give up,” he told me. “I’ll see what I can do.”

A few days later he invited me into his office for a meeting.

“The primary school is closed to him now. There’s no way back from that visit,” he began. I felt the tears welling up.

“But I know that we are the only people in this city who can help your son. It’s our mission. And if our school isn’t serving him, what are we here for?”

Even though the primary school was closed to Peanut, there might be another way. The senior school began at Grade 4, so Peanut was only a little bit younger than the kids there. The senior school teachers would inevitably hear about Peanut’s escape from primary school, and they’d be leery of taking on another difficult student. But the principal personally taught a Grade 4 coding class in the upper school, and he could include Peanut in that class, as a way of getting his foot in the door.

It was only 45 minutes of instruction, four days a week, but it was a ray of hope. If Peanut could make a go of that one class, he could start going to other senior school classes, and maybe even become a full-time student. The doors were not yet quite closed.

The following Monday, I planned a quiet morning for Peanut. I wanted him to have all the energy he’d need to make it through a potentially challenging class. When it came time to take him to school, his agoraphobic impulses kicked in again, and he refused to get in the car. But I lured him out with a combination of distraction and bribery, and pretty soon, we were on our way.

With some more sweet talking I got him up the stairs and into the principal’s office: for the first class, they’d work one-on-one. I waited just outside, listening for signs of protest. I didn’t hear any raised voices, a good sign.

Peanut came out of his first lesson with a smile, and I thought we were over the hump. But the next day, when it came time to head to school, he once again refused to get in the car. I asked him what would change his mind, and he said he’d like to get a treat after class. I agreed, and we made it to school in time for him to join a small group of boys at their computers.

This continued for two weeks. Every day, Peanut resisted going to class. Every day, I pulled out all the stops, knowing that his continued attendance was the only way we’d have a school for him…and knowing that my alternative was to start the tutor search all over again, and face another term of an increasingly isolated, depressed and anxious son.

And almost every day, I succeeded: he got to class. He did his work. The principal said something encouraging. I took Peanut home. And then I lay down on the bed and cried for an hour, overwhelmed by relief that the day’s class was behind us, and overwhelmed by anxiety about doing it all over again the next day.

At the end of the second week, Peanut once again refused to leave for school.

“Fine,” I said, falling back on a classic parenting trope. “I’ll just leave without you.” I walked out the front door and closed it behind me. Then I stood quietly for a few minutes so he’d think I’d left and panic…at which point I’d throw open the door and find him eager to get to class, after all.

But that’s not how it worked out. When I opened the front door, Peanut was anything but panicked: he was sitting happily in the living room armchair, apparently contemplating the delightful possibilities of an hour alone at home. The sight of his perfect contentment threw me into an immediate rage.

I quickly marched through the house, sweeping up all the computers and devices he might use to entertain himself. Then I reached into the wooden box we keep by the front door, and grabbed my passport. With the computers under my arm, I walked out the door, this time locking it behind me.

I got in the car and called my husband.

“Your eight-year-old son is alone at home. Our tutor will be here in an hour. I’m driving to Seattle. I need to put an international border between me and this child.”

That’s what rock bottom really looked like.

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