A Breakup Letter to the School That Expelled My Special Needs Son

It wasn't me, it wasn't you: it was him.
Publish date:
December 23, 2014
parenting, mental illness, school

It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me, it was him. That’s what our breakup comes down to.

And I don’t blame you. There’s no way your teachers could be expected to deal with intermittent tantrums, the yelling, the kicking, the throwing things. Even if, in between, my son was delightful -- creative, engaged, determined. Thank you for using the word “delightful” that one time.

“He really is delightful,” you said, sounding puzzled, uncertain. Maybe not sure how to make sense of the contradiction, the him that is so winning, the him that then puts the destruction on. Or maybe not sure how to reach me, what slender thread of connection to offer, when we could both already see the heartache ahead.

“He can be,” I said in reply -- something provisional, a sort of shared warning. What we found out together, this first term of kindergarten, was that delight was not to be trusted, that we cannot expect my son to be the same thing for very long.

If he hadn’t been so winning, in fact, you might not have taken a chance on him. You are a private school, after all, and no matter how earnest and progressive your values, you have the right to admit and to reject any candidates you choose. A child with special needs is a tough sell.

This was before, of course, our team of experts started using the word “bipolar,” started talking primarily of mental illness, of an emotional disability. We didn’t mislead you: when we met, the concerns were mostly developmental, mostly Speech and OT and PT, the delays thankfully mild.

Whether it was something in your environment that caused the sudden exacerbation of his problems -- maybe the freedom, the open and highly interactive structure, the very things that so attracted my husband and I to you in the first place -- or whether it was just the course of illness itself strengthening, becoming more manifest: that I don’t know. But I do know that we didn’t lie to you, and that we didn’t know things would get so bad so quickly, and I do know that it wasn’t your fault.

There’s nothing more you could have done, short of letting him -- us -- go. Your teachers were professional and compassionate, pulling him off to the side, offering him a variety of tools -- a squeezy ball, a weighted vest -- to help him try to control his anger. With no counselors, no other support staff -- a small, grassroots school -- your principal spent whole periods trying to calm and to comfort him, encouraging him to draw his frustrations down on paper, to use writing, even in kindergarten pidgin form, to self-soothe.

If I seemed impatient when you called me, asking if I had “any other ideas,” please know that I was only despairing, hopeless. I’d tried all these things myself with him, all these things and more, including the little pills we fed him together, me in the morning, you at midday. And I had no other ideas; I knew our love affair was running out of time.

It was kind of you -- kind, and I think, somewhat foolhardy, once we saw where things were going -- for you to try to take us back, to offer to try to continue my son in your classroom, if we were willing to hire him an aide. Kind, foolhardy, and also cruel -- the usual mix of breakup things -- because the price was so far beyond what my husband and I could afford, more than a doubling of your tuition.

But I know you did not have the resources to bear the cost yourself. For us to bear the cost, for you to bear the risk: both these things were nice ideas, but impractical. You had other parents, and other kindergarteners, to think of. I am a teacher myself -- probably one of the things you liked about me -- and I will freely admit that my son’s behavior problems could not help but impact the other students’ learning.

I loved you, school, I loved your scrappy do-it-yourselfness, I loved your rundown building, your crooked window that the 8th-graders installed into the drywall themselves, I loved the recycled-objects sculptures that my son brought home on his “normal” days. I loved the other parents, the mix of artists and intellectuals, all a little counter-culture, just that hint of anarchy gone to middle-aged seed. I loved sharpening pencils, I loved washing rags, I loved digging in the soil of your playground on that one outdoor work day, because these small, practical, tactile jobs needed to be done, because they’d complete a social good, because they’d contribute to the happiness of our children: our children, together.

I loved your community, I felt a part of it: and now, despite our no-fault divorce, you get to keep all the friends. What can I say to them, anyway, the other parents, and what must they think of me, the parent of “that” kid, the one who pushes, screams, insults, disrupts? I feel less like the jilted, the rejected, and more like the guilty party, the by-proxy domestic abuser.

I have never laid a hand on my son, yet I know, other parents, he has laid his hands on yours. All I can do now is leave, take him with me, try to get him, somewhere else, the help that he needs. Just know that I’m sorry, know that my son is not bad, but unwell, and know that I grieve for the loss of our imagined union.