Earlier this month, I crushed my kids’ dream of an endless summer by sending them off to their first day of school. Heading into sixth and eighth grade, they’re not new to the ritual of packing fresh lunches, loading up new backpacks and laying out their freshest first-day gear. But this year was especially bittersweet for me.
It was the first time both kids completely shut me out of the process of picking out their first day ‘fits – a fact I couldn’t help but take as a not-so-subtle jab at my “mom style.” It is my daughter’s last year of middle school, and likely the last chance I have to pour enough wisdom and confidence into her to make sure she’s ready for the pressures of high school and beyond. But most importantly, it was the first time I sent my son to school and felt like he was truly safe.
From the moment he entered the world, in the middle of our Brooklyn apartment, I knew my son was special. An especially poor sleeper with a cry that always seemed to get louder during his two-year-old sister’s nap time, it didn’t take long for him to make his presence known. But when he started preschool, we noticed something different. Almost every morning at drop-off, he would cling to my leg until I could pry him away and run out of the door feeling guilty as hell. Much more than the typical first-day jitters, we soon learned that he spent most days with his head on his desk, refusing to speak or make eye contact with anyone. But because he had no problem speaking at home, my husband and I had a hard time relating to what his teachers were going through.
In kindergarten, he was diagnosed with selective mutism (SM), a rare form of anxiety characterized by the inability to speak in certain situations. For a child with selective mutism, school and other social situations can be especially stressful, which explained why my son didn’t want me to leave him there. And while I was relieved to finally know what was going on, I had no idea how we were going to deal with it.
I went into full mama bear mode and decided to learn as much as possible about SM. We found a therapist who specializes in the condition and worked with the school to get him an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that allowed him weekly counseling and speech therapy. Each year, I wrote a detailed email to his classroom teacher before the start of school, giving them as much information as possible on how to deal with him in class. My advice was always the same – he learns best near the front of the classroom, encourage him to calm himself down with deep breathing if he gets anxious, and more than anything, don’t force him to speak.
But in a large public school, with nearly 40 kids per class and one counselor to deal with everything from playground brawls to helping with the middle school admissions process, my emails often went ignored, and my son rarely received the support he needed and was entitled to. And when I cried out to the administration for help, they told me they didn’t believe he could handle the “rigor” of the curriculum and suggested we find another school.
The Black mother in me wanted to cuss everyone out on the spot and run out of the building with my son. But he begged his father and me to keep him in the same school with his older sister. She was “annoying” and “bossy” at home, but if he had to go to school, he said he liked knowing she was in the building.
Against our better judgment, we decided to let him lead. We kept him in the school and did everything we could to support him at home. Still, instead of working, I spent most of my days worrying that if something happened to him at school, he wouldn’t be able to find the words to tell anyone. As a young Black man I knew his anxiety could easily be misinterpreted as defiance, and in some situations even put him in danger.
But his naturally competitive nature made him a determined student, and his grades reflected his effort. His spirit was infectious and made me want to do everything I could to be a positive advocate. So when after years of being ignored, his fourth grade teacher finally responded to my summer email, I couldn’t wait to work with her. We came up with solutions that met the curriculum within his level of comfort, like allowing him to record his class presentations at home. And it didn’t take long to see his confidence grow.
When it was time for the middle school search process, I knew we had to right the wrongs of the past five years. This time, we knew the questions to ask and the red flags to avoid and found a place where we knew he would be safe and supported. The school counselor met with our family before the start of the school year and shared his diagnosis with all of his teachers. One teacher responded by giving him a white board to write things down if he feels uncomfortable speaking out.
He was a little nervous about starting sixth grade at a new school, which is to be expected. But I’m less anxious this year knowing he has the tools and the support he needs to cope. He feels empowered to email his teachers and ask for help outside of class or make an appointment with the school counselor if needs to talk. He’s playing soccer with a team of boys he calls his “friends.” And for the first time in a long time, he let go of my leg, waved goodbye and walked into the school building to face the day.