Monday, January 9, 2012

A New Headmistress

Any experienced SN parent will tell you that the quality of the school you find is the single most important factor in determining your young child's general happiness, and that you need to look beyond the brochure or results (or, here, the socio-economic "decile" factor). It's not class or achievement, it's attitude and inclusiveness that matters. So clearly I should be interviewing dozens of headteachers, sitting in on classes, comparing a list of difficult questions, chatting to other parents, before making my move. But I can't. It's impossible to research schools at all, what with it being the middle of the summer holidays. I could wait until term starts and then do it, but the idea of an extra week or so before my eldest starts school makes me quail slightly. So it's a case of going with what's closest and hoping it works out. There's a primary school in our road, and our babysitter (whose son has Aspergers) reckons it's good for children with additional needs. That'll do for now, then. So I "flicked" (this is what you do here, no one talks about email, it's like being in a permanent virtual game of Tiddlywinks) an email to her to say that my son (6) would be starting in February, and could we register him please? Oh, and by the way he had high-functioning autism and would she like the opportunity to discuss his needs?

She flicked me back straightaway, as fast as a horse's tail reacting to a new and unknown type of fly. Yes, she would like to meet up to learn about my son, and would 11 am on 17th suit? I wrote back explaining that I was terribly sorry but no, actually it wouldn't, because I was meeting a therapist for my youngest son at that time, who also had autism, and oh, by the way, I should probably mention my second, who would be starting at her school in six months and has a diagnosis of global developmental delay and verbal dyspraxia?

Headmistress is probably picking herself off the floor and wondering what on earth she did wrong in a former life to get THIS family moving into her school zone.

When I was a teenager I read a book about the Kindertransports, when thousands of desperate Jewish parents packed their children on a train and sent them out of Germany to a new life in the UK: an international precursor to evacuation. I have often wondered how that must have been for the parents, and how it must have felt to trust their children's future to the kindness of strangers, foreigners even. I don't for a minute want to compare our situations, clearly that would be ludicrous. But there is a sense of acute vulnerability that I feel now, as I start making contacts with significant professionals, circling schools and doctors' receptionists warily, wondering "Is your institution going to be really helpful to our family, or (another) frigging nightmare?" The fear of entrusting your vulnerable child to school is magnified a hundred times by being in a new country. In the UK I knew my legal rights backwards, could tell instantly when a SENCO or Head or lazy medical specialist tried to fob me off. Here I know nothing. I can only hope that I will meet the right kind of professional, with integrity and a desire to help my kids properly, rather than simply wanting to arrange the bare minimum of provision and have an easy life.

I remember the Israelites wandering in the desert, again. I always think that when they got to Canaan, setting up a society from scratch can't have been that easy. You can imagine the elders of the tribes scratching their heads when they hit a glitch, the crops failed or disease struck the community, and saying to each other "You don't suppose we took a wrong turning? What if this was still desert, and we were mistaken in thinking we'd got to the Promised Land?"

Exile or Home-Coming? Desert or Promised Land? Emigration gives you a flavour of both. For a while after you arrive, your life remains desert-like and transient. You are travelling without resources, hoping that you have arrived in a land that will bloom for you in time.

I study the Head's email carefully for hints that she doesn't want my son, and wait for her reaction to the news of the other boys. Her response will define much of how my kids experience her school. I'd like flowers to bloom in this desert soon.

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