As I type I can hear the house stirring. My two sons are getting ready to go back to college. Nothing unusual there. They play computer games too late and they laugh and bicker together at the dinner table. Nothing unusual there.
My husband is a teacher and has gone back to school. Something a little different here. He works with severe and challenging behaviour and he never finds it severe or challenging. He puzzles out the communication issue and offers his students two choices and a sense of humour.
‘Most of the time it’s me that’s the problem. I haven’t found a way to understand.’
I smile as he tells a story of a guy who takes off his clothes and lies in the corridor waiting for him to tell him to put them back on.
‘What are you doing?’ He laughs, because everyone else has got mad or upset with the child. ‘Put your clothes back on, mate.’ He is from London. Then he has the mix of setting up the choice and following it with a reward. But the reward is inward.
‘They achieve because they want to,’ he said that as he put his plate in the dishwasher. It stayed with me all evening.
Now the tears are falling as I type. It’s time to talk about what I did. I never thought I would. I spent years writing columns for papers and magazines in Ireland and I talked about my family, of course. Not about the most private things happening, just the relatable things.
I am an ordinary person. I hate to be known. I hate to be seen. I have worked for years in words and in pictures, in television, in print, in books, in university and community as a teacher of creative writing, as a creative mentor and editor. But that is my work. Behind my hall door I am a quiet member of a quiet family.
We make our way in a different way, always have. I don’t mind hard, I mind wrong.
So I flow as a parent. I am so shit at putting sandwiches in lunchboxes and tidying up. But I will cook you a passionate meal and want your honest opinion of it. I will listen to you. I will encourage you to make your own choices. Even when you are five years old. Set up the choice and inward reward follows.
It works for us. This post is not for the parents who like results, who want their child to try better, harder, faster, become more independent, enhance their gifts, and get certificates and medals to prove this advancement. Our medal cabinet for years was a soda can that one of the kids hit with a tennis ball one time. It had pride of place on the fridge. There are memories made around victories and they were about teams and the medals are in a drawer somewhere in their rooms. They talk about the times the team won them. But they don’t talk about the medal.
On a pitch, back in 2009, my son, who I will call Football for this piece, went up to one of the players on his team who was crying with anger because they were losing bad and hard.
‘It’s fun! Stop trying to win. Get the ball!’
The player switched off his tears like a light and they still lost but they got a few more goals.
‘He was a win-win, wasn’t he?’ I asked Football through the rear view mirror.
‘He was.’ Football had already forgotten about it. The game was over.
I called those kinds of kids’ win-wins, because of the win-win term. But what I told my own is that you sometimes have to go a long time between wins in our world. So needing to win all the time causes more anxiety than the win alleviates.
Set up the choice, the inward reward follows.
By 2013 no one in our family was winning, anything at all. Something happened that meant I had to leave the world. Not for the first time. I developed ME in 1998 and spent two years coming out of the world of achievement and into the world of meaning.
My sons started secondary school. It was the right school. It had the right ethos. It had the right practice. It had the right staff. It had the right history. It had the right location.
Both were seriously assaulted within months of beginning there. By the following year they were not engaged with the curriculum. They were not interested in sport. They were not participating in a thriving extra-curricular life the school had.
We were living hard. We were living wrong.
Football, who had the reading age of a 15 year old at the age of 10, who had written the speech for his parents’ wedding, was non verbal. He spoke to no one in his class for six months.
My other son I will call Music, who has brilliant musical ability, could not pick up his guitar for love nor money; he had put his passion on pause, to survive the day.
Their school results were like road kill.
We had the quiet voice of a guidance counsellor working with us through this painful and terrible time. We found counsellors for the children. I was in counselling. We had the fact my grandfather had been born within sight of the school’s gates and I prayed to his deceased spirit to protect them from harm. I had found the best school for my type of children. Creative, intelligent, gentle children.
And they were being destroyed.
By May 2015 I knew two things. If I did not do the thing Eleanor Roosevelt recommends, then something bad was going to happen. ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’
I took the summer over the decision. The guidance counsellor, now a lifelong friend, took phone calls out of school time, in her long holiday, to help me. I told her I was thinking of taking them out.
‘Suzanne, please don’t. They will miss out on so much. They are resilient and they will find a way to negotiate this.’
So I took a little longer to make the choice. Then I saw something remarkable. Football stood on a gatepost in the back garden, like a totem, practising his balance, for a long time.
Music came in from an impromptu run in the fields and said to me, ‘For a few minutes there I was really happy.’
I had given over my day to take the children as my clients. I was training as a poetry and biblio-therapist to deepen the source of my teaching practice and my creative words. They had followed a poetic prompt into writing, then into actions. They wanted to get outside, use their physical natures to do a kind of mini vision quest.
Football was literally finding his balance. Music literally running free. Music said, ‘When I talk to the counsellor I just pretend it’s you. I prefer to talk with you. You understand me.’
Then my mothering spirit took an upward soar. At a time when I was crying in the laundry room and toilet so I could have privacy. When I was journalling for hours about the pain. When I was still trying to make sense of a system that supported the assaulter but not the assaulted. When I could no longer breathe, I gave into my strength which has always been my intuition.
I phoned the guidance counsellor and said the first of the words that would put us back on the road to recovery, of self, of passions, of direction. I began to recover my marriage which had worn down to the nub with the entire blunt force trauma my husband Albie and I had endured. He having to detach to keep the family financed. Me having to suit up in the armour and walk with my sons without any idea of when the war would end.
I phoned the guidance counsellor.
‘We won’t be back.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. If we come back for autumn I am going to lose Football. I already have. But I am going to find him and bring him back out. I am going to get Music playing his guitar and running free again.’
I resigned from my teaching as a creative writer at university and in community. I took myself out of pondering on television. I stopped writing my own books. I took the work that came to me by word of mouth, as an editor or creative mentor. I even ended up writing CVs and cover letters to pay bills for the plethora of private tuition my sons would need.
A great friend told me to start to write about this. I said, ‘What advice can I give? Go rogue. Go crazy. Go bankrupt? That’s what we did here.’
She said, ‘Got through. Got educated. Got your kids back. You are living a connected life. That is what people want to know about!’ That is 2020 vision in action. But I am writing about 2015.
I knew the next right thing was not about me, but about them.
I pulled down the shutters of a beleaguered home and I went inward, with my kind kids, to pick up the pieces of what we had lost. We had to do the next right thing. The only guide rope through the apocalypse our soft lives had become. For that September my children slept away the worst of the influences, the balm of relief they would not have to face the same trauma, the same brutal ritual.
By October they had woken up.
George Eliot says the greatest heroes live in unknown graves. I am going to be honest about where the decision to live creatively and connectively took me. The sailing was not all plain, it went through cyclones. But the boat hung together. The Friend Ship. I will share that drawing with this post. Music did it in 2009, before he had his heart ripped out.
This is a story that is not over yet in terms of emotional recovery, but it has achieved meaning and brought amazing outcomes, over results, if that is the kind of thing you are interested in.
Football, Music, Albie and I aren’t results people. We just want to be free and we are living that.
To connected living – working, talking, making and embracing. To the strength the soul finds in times of torment to make more than memories. To make future.
It has been hard, it has not been wrong. You’ll read about their future soon. The one they are creating for themselves.