Back To School – Autumn 2020

The last few days, and in particular yesterday, have been momentous. Not momentous on a global scale, a national scale, or even regional scale. On a very local level, the household level, in fact, the last few days have been so very important. To anyone else, the occurrences that have, well, occurred might seem mundane, bland, or just plain trivial but to me, the last few months, then weeks, and then days, have led to this time and the tension and worry leading up to this critical moment have been so tough, What event is this? It sounds so simple and normal. All three of my children went back to school.

Children across the country went back to school, of course, so to most people, it was nothing special beyond the fact that the majority of children have been off from school for five or six months and was, therefore, something of a novelty. To me, with my three children, the day was so important that it has occupied my thoughts and worries for so long. If you will spare me your time I would like to tell you why.

One of my twins, aged 10, is autistic and has generally disliked, or more correctly “hated”, school for some time. The lockdown was his dream come true. Homeschooling, or what little I could manage or face, and freedom from the constraints of boring lessons, annoying classmates, and generally unsettling environments gave him the freedom to be…himself. He was free before becoming bored with freedom. As we learn through life an unstructured existence is exciting and liberating for a time but, really, most of us crave a little guidance and a routine. Order is comforting to many of us.

The very idea of returning to school, brought to his full attention by trying on an old, ill-fitting, school uniform some weeks ago, has caused my son considerable distress. He has been agitated and unhappy. Unless he is thoroughly occupied he dwelt on the prospect of being at a place he hates. His sleep has been disturbed, increasingly only settling down incredibly late or in bed with me.

Yet, the first day back for the twins loomed last week. Uniforms were laid out the night before, portents of the impending events that lay ahead. The twins dressed with a little help, the knack of securing a tie being something of a distant memory, had breakfast and we went. One keen and excited, the other filled with dread and upset. My eldest was to start school the following week.

We made it to school. A very unusual scene indeed. The first day back at school, with staggered drop off times and different drop off locations turned out to be something of a family spectacle. There were so many people it was rather disturbing, considering the current Covid climate. For many families, both parents and even grandparents appeared to think it a special occasion worthy of a family outing and went to school en-mass to witness the goings-on and wave their little darlings off…finally. Friends who had not seen each other since before Easter congregated around the entrances to the drop-off points, keen to reunite, unaware that they were in the way of the next heaving mass of day-trippers. I am relieved to say each following day since has been greatly improved, easier and comforting.

In the five days that they have been back, there have been some phone calls and notifications about “goings-on”, disruptions and upset at school. Yet, each day, we go. I hope that the regular chorus of “I hate school” reduces to “I don’t like school” and then, perhaps, even “school’s ok, some of the time”.

But the returning to school for a boy who hates school is one thing. That was always going to be a problem, but it is a battle fought after every holiday or half-term break. My big concern, and cause for anxiety, was the return of my eldest. At thirteen years old, my son was present during the final weeks and days of my now deceased wife’s life. As you might imagine, it hit him hard. He had no real forewarning and had to deal with the news, the fright, the upset, the plethora of emotions created by the events in a short space of time. After she parted, my son was generally doing well. He was still sociable and carried on with life. For a time. Early this year he began to change. A difficult combination of reaching teenage-hood and losing a parent, within days of each other, caused a strange problem to occur: my son became nocturnal. He was unable to sleep at night.

Whether through hormone imbalances, stress, anxiety, all of the above or something else ES was unable to sleep at night. He usually fell asleep mid-morning and was nearly impossible to wake during the day. It might take twenty to thirty minutes of continual shaking, shouting, making of loud noises to make him stir. The result of this was he was unable to attend school. ES missed a lot of school to the point where he was basically off school a month before the lockdown. When he did attend, groggy, he had missed so much work he did not understand what was going on and felt out of place. Over time, this caused him to become something of a night hermit. I would try and wait up for him and spend an hour or two watching TV with him before having to go to bed. Any enthusiasm for school, friendships, activities, slowly ebbed away. The end result was a self-isolating, depressed, child.

He often told me he never wanted to return to that school. Once a star-pupil, he now felt “stupid” and did not want to return. The events of the Covid-induced lockdown suddenly meant all children were off school for months. He was no longer different from others. His returning to school at the end of lockdown was the best chance of him returning to school and not feeling different, or not being perceived as different. If he missed it, then returning would be a massive barrier to overcome. If everyone knows the new rules, except you, everyone has started lessons, except you, and everyone has rekindled friendships, except you then you will feel like an outsider or an outcast. He just had to go back with everyone else. It was my goal. It was imperative.

For months my son has stuck to the line of “I’m not going to (that) school”. He has barely left his bedroom, let alone the house. Daylight seemingly having the same effect as to a vampire. Interactions within the household tended to be solely about food and when it might be forthcoming.

It has been a many-pronged approach, from health agencies, the school, friends, and home but I am proud, and incredibly moved, to say that my son has returned to school. We are two days in. He is not really interacting socially, yet, but he is there. He might not be engaging with the lessons, yet, but he is there.

My son has returned to school. Even a handful of weeks ago this seemed like an incredible ask, an impossibility. I hope he will find the internal strength to stay and that being there will help his recovery. I am longing for the day when the son I know and love emerges from the depression he has found himself in.

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