I’m not sure which one of us was feeling more nervous.  There wasn’t a lot of conversation in the car on the drive to his new school on Monday morning.  I could feel the tension crackling in the car as the sounds of the radio filled the gap in our nonexistent conversation.

We’ve shared quite a few first days of school over the years, he and I.  That first day at day care when he was one year old and I returned to work.  He cried, I cried, but somehow we got through it – that first day.  He made a new friend there, loved his daycare ‘mom’, and eventually came to really enjoy going there, waving happily at me as I turned to leave him and walk out the door.

Then there was the Montessori pre-school.  He cried, I cried but somehow we got through it – that first day.  He made a lot of new friends there, thoroughly enjoyed his teachers, he excelled in many subjects, played the lead in one of the plays they performed for the parents.

Then came kindergarten.  He was so brave, so excited, that first day.  He grudgingly posed for a picture before I gave him a hug that he tried to shake off.  He was a ‘big boy now’. He turned to wave at me as I wiped a tear from my eye.  He loved that school, made so many good friends there – boys that are still a significant part of his social life.  It was at that school that we began to understand that he learns differently than many of his friends.  Through testing, his  ‘designation’ was determined, and learning ‘accomodations’ began.   Although standard testing had identified his ‘giftedness’, as well as his learning disability (I prefer the term learning differences) several of his teachers questioned that part of his GLD designation as he struggled to focus in their class, disrupting their teaching, handing in work that was incomplete, or blank test pages.

There were several times when he cried, I cried, as we struggled through the challenges of trying to get homework completed, teachers to understand him, playmates to forgive his emotional outbursts when the tension of being an ADHD student, and his emotional excitability spilled over into after-school play-dates.

Then there was the incident in grade seven when his teacher, the principal and the SEA (Student Education Assistant) sat down with my husband and I, suggesting that my son be given an ‘incomplete’ in math, and registered in the math essentials program upon entering high school.  We were told he just wasn’t capable of completing the grade seven math curriculum and that this was the most appropriate option for him.  My husband (my son’s step-father), who is a university professor, argued against this suggested course of action.   He was concerned that we would limit his future options by ‘giving up on him’ in this manner.  He suggested that we work more closely with him at home, and review the course material and the teacher agreed to re-test him on the concepts.  With diligent, one on one (my husband did most of it with him) at home review (not easily done – he cried, I cried – husband didn’t cry), he learned the curriculum, re-wrote tests, and achieved A’s on most of them.  It was hard work, but he was capable of it, just not capable of learning the material in the traditional classroom setting.  But he passed, and off he went to high school.

First day of high school:  I drove him down the street to the school, he hopped out of the car and off he went.  I don’t recall if he looked over his shoulder to thank me for the lift.  He probably did.  No tears, just high hopes for a successful passage through the high school years.

A year and a half into high school he was excelling socially, but sinking academically.  He had spoken to friends who had attended an alternative school in our community, and on the first day of school after the recent spring break, he told me he just couldn’t do this anymore, and asked if he could try the alternative school.

I was taken aback by the request, but made the necessary phone calls to check out this option.  Two weeks later, after many phone calls, a meeting with the district advisor and the principal of the alternative school – he was given the ‘green light’ to commence classes there.

My husband expressed concern about making this decision.  He questioned whether this school was going to address what he saw partially to be a work ethic challenge, and wondered whether we should just take more time to guide him into a more diligent homework routine:  to have him work harder, do more homework, put in more effort.  That discussion became quite heated as I found myself defending and explaining the challenges of being an ADHD learner.

My son’s father expressed concern about making this decision. He had heard about this alternative school’s student population and was concerned that we might be putting our son into a situation where he would be tempted to ‘go down the wrong path’.  It’s true, many of the students at this school have ‘ended up there’, rather than choosing this as an academic option.  They have been suspended or expelled from other schools for behavioural issues, often related to learning disabilities, sleep disorders that impact their ability to get to school on time, or other home-life issues.

My mother expressed concern about making this decision, handing me a newspaper clipping about how students in alternative schools often ‘fall through the cracks’.

My son’s friends expressed their concern about making this decision.  I believe my son told them that I was ‘forcing’ this change, not wanting to admit that he himself had decided to try another learning option.

My son himself expressed concerns.  He too had heard the ‘stories’ of some the ‘troubled’ students at this school, and was worried he might be bullied.

My sister, who also parents children with learning differences, was incredibly supportive.  So were my Facebook friends.  I’ve never had so many responses to a status update – seventeen supportive messages (thank you all).

There was a lot of pushback on this decision, but ultimately we (my son, step-dad, father and I), reviewed all the ins and outs of this option and decided to give it a try.  We all agreed that it’s worth it to try the smaller classes with 6:1 student/teacher ratio.   We agreed that having all the school supplies in each classroom would certainly address his organizational issues, and that the shorter classes would help his attention challenges.  The breakfast/lunch program was also appealing – no more hollering “eat your breakfast!”, as breakfast is served at the school, mid-morning, when most teens wake up enough to eat.  No more hollering “make a lunch/remember your lunch”, as a hot lunch is served to each student in their homeroom.

And so it came, another first day of school at a new school.   We pulled up in front of the school.  No hugs (someone might see), no tears.  He got out of the car (no backpack – school supplies and a day of nutritious meals are all in the school) and without looking back, walked into a new learning and social experience.

I tried not to linger.  I tried not to worry.

Basically, I’m hopeful.  Hopeful that socially he’ll choose to hang out with the students who are there to learn, not the ones who are slipping off down the trails to smoke cigarettes at lunchtime and breaks.  Hopeful that he’ll take full advantage of the learning environment and take pride in excelling academically.  Hopeful, that he’ll become a successful ambassador for this ‘alternative’ school.

Hopeful that one day, being a ‘learning differenced’ student won’t be considered ‘alternative’ and won’t in anyway be marginalized.

Hopeful that one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll be shedding some happy tears as he heads off to another first day of school – post-secondary.

the sky is the limit