Today was Jax’s first day of summer school (ESY for you special education people). He hasn’t been in a school setting for about a year because some medical issues snowballed with his anxiety, which resulted in the school district sending a teacher to our house. At the time, it was the right decision.
But now, the medical treatment is over, he’s feeling better and doing better.
It’s time. I think it’s time.
I chose a private school that specializes in kids like mine. Kids with learning differences or anxiety or trauma or all of the above. Kids who need to be squarely in their comfort zone, who need to know they are 100% safe before any academic magic happens. I toured five schools in the last month, and when I met the staff at this one, I teared up. There were much shinier schools, fancier schools, closer schools, but I chose the school with the people who finished my sentences, who nodded knowingly when I explained the safety net Jax has in place, who said, “When Jax is comfortable, the academic progress will come.”
I went with the small, hodgepodge, renting-space-from-a-church school with the people who understood my kid. I went with my gut.
Jax visited the school, he met the staff, he saw the space. We’ve been talking about it and preparing. I bought him two Under Armour t-shirts yesterday so he could look like his cousins, we made a musical playlist with his favorite songs for the morning drive, we packed his favorite snacks. In his backpack this morning was an airplane magazine, a small 747 model, his aircraft drawings, his token chart and emotional regulation visuals. The school has a one-on-one aide for him, and I sent Hailey, his long-time sitter, to be with him today.
We were as prepared as we could be.
We jammed out to Michael Jackson on the drive. “Wanna be startin’ something, You got to be startin’ something.” He was cheerful, calm, nodding along to the beat. We car-danced our way into the parking lot.
Jax popped out of the car, put on his backpack, and grabbed his water bottle and stuffed Minecraft toy. I looked at him, all ready to go, and remembered seeing all the back-to-school photos in my newsfeed this past August, while I wistfully wondered if I would ever take another one.
I am so proud of this kid.
On the walk in, the calm started to piece apart a little bit. Jax started talking about airplanes and stowaways and crashes. I squeezed his hand that was already in mine as we reached the door.
He nodded and we walked in. The lights were low, no one bombarded us as we entered, and in the huge room adjacent to the entry, I saw more adults than kids. This school gets it.
Even so, the tics started. I expected them, but I don’t think he did.
“I have tics, mom.”
“No worries, Jax. Keep breathing, we’ll go slow.”
Jax’s aide, Drew, came to meet us. She got right down on his level, and said she used to have blue hair just like his. Jax ignored her and dove right into Boeing trivia. He turned to me, “Mom, Boeing is the largest building by volume in the world. Do you think everyone here knows that?” “Well, Jax, if they don’t, I’m pretty sure they will by the end of the day.”
We walked to his cubby – a cubicle, a private space just for him. The director had already chosen the cubby closest to the far wall, the quietest, the furthest away. Jax ripped open his backpack and started whipping out everything he brought for decorations. “This is an Airbus A320, this is a Boeing 787, I didn’t bring a B-29 with tricycle landing gears, but I have a model at home.” He kept talking, rapid-fire, to no one in particular, not at all interested if anyone was listening.
We let him acclimate for a bit in his comforting chaos, then I touched his shoulder from behind. “Jax.”
He turned towards me, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Mom, if I was on a Boeing 747 and the engines failed, I would be really scared. I might need strength if we crashed.”
He looked up and met my eyes briefly, then darted his eyes away. His left arm jutted out, his mouth grimaced, his eyes blinked hard. “I don’t want to be on a crashing airplane, Mom. I would get really scared. I would need strength.”
He looked at me.
“This is a safe place. Hailey is here. Our new friend, Drew, is here. Their only job today is to hang out with you.”
“Will they give me strength if I get dizzy like the boy who jumped out of the wheel well of a Boeing 767?”
“Yes, buddy. They will give you strength.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
With that piece of eloquence, I hugged him. I told him I would see him in a few hours, and watched Drew and Hailey walk my son around the corner, to the bathroom. I couldn’t see him anymore, but I could still hear him talking, nervous and tense, perseverating on airplane crashes. I thought about staying. I could have hovered in the corner and made sure the transition was smooth, made sure the staff understood and used the visuals, made sure I caught him if his anxiety started spiraling towards disaster.
I could catch him if, like one of his airplanes, he started to crash.
But I left. Jax needs to try this on his own. He needs to get out of our kitchen and meet some friends who aren’t paid to hang out with him. He needs to slowly, with the help of all the groundwork I can lay, start expanding his comfort zone.
I’m going to sit here for the next few hours with my stomach in knots.
But I’m going to do what I tell my kid to do:
I’m going to close my eyes.
I’m going to breathe.
I’m going to be brave.
I’m going to trust that throwing my son up into the air today was the right thing to do.
I’m going to let my kid fly.
Rebecca Masterson is a writer, speaker, and an advocate for children. For more from Rebecca, follow her on Instagram.