By Jes Wright
“If you’re going through hell, keep going,” ~ Winston Churchill.
I held my breath while reading the article, Fort Bragg High asks team from Mendocino to stay home over T-shirts in the Press Democrat the other day.
My heart paused, as I am sure most of us would upon hearing about the students banned from playing in a basketball tournament because they chose to wear the I Can’t Breathe shirts—trying to draw attention to political difficulties that exist within our nation.
As I saw the young women’s smiles in the photo accompanying the news story, I felt so sad because my almost 15-year-old son should have been in this crowd with his former classmates, but he wasn’t.
I’ve worked on dealing with the reason why he was no longer a student in Mendocino through using Buddhist ways (especially just breathing), and I thought that I came to an acceptance with our unjust experience in Mendocino.
The article opened up the flood gates of frustration: you see, the “story of why” my son wasn’t in the audience is a very long one that I’ve been trying to condense, knowing that words will never change what has already been done.
As I feel that burn of injustice again, I am aware that the only resolution for justice will be in our own hearts, in our own souls.
Yet I feel that part of justice in my own soul involves a letting go of words, of the enormous burden that we’ve had to carry around because a school district’s administrators did not help my son with his disability.
As with any aspect of public education that involves the use of 504s or IEPs, there are so many hoops to jump through before a school willingly participates in helping a child—especially one with Asperger’s because often their test scores are high, meaning that they are “not” in need of special education.
But they are. They are beautifully special.
Here’s the part where I must remind myself to just breathe. Like in labor, breathing through the waves of contractions.
We often think that birthing will be the most arduous part of having children, but it is not.
There are many more painful moments such as the phone call from the PE teacher who explained how my son had been physically and emotionally bullied (called gay over and over again in the locker room) in 6th grade at a rural New York school in December 2011.
And then the evaluation by a private psychologist confirming an Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s) in February 2012, which prompted our relocation across country to a school in the Sacramento area in May 2012.
I felt so relieved to finally have an understanding for my son’s ways of being: his lists of schedules compiled in notebooks, uneasy eye-contact, excellent memory, awkward movements of his body, and social difficulties with his peers.
We began the Individual Education Plan (IEP) process at this new school (thankfully, my son didn’t take PE during this evaluation period), but then we relocated to the very spot where he was born near Mendocino.
His dad had landed the golden ticket job as the new 7th/8th grade science teacher (and would be my son’s teacher) at the Mendocino K-8 school.
After finding a house within the Mendocino district in late October 2012, my sons and I joined their father (who had been commuting four hours every weekend to see us as we remained in the Sac area waiting for a house).
In Mendocino, my son remained on the fence about whether or not he could do PE, but the teacher in charge happened to be a wonderful man whom we knew from years earlier.
We trusted that he was in the right hands and wouldn’t be endangered in the gym or surrounding area. Having this PE teacher was at the core of the 504 that we were encouraged to take instead of an IEP (an Individual Education Plan).
We didn’t argue what they wanted because my husband was a new teacher, and didn’t want to make waves with his boss/principal sitting across from him. Not to mention, all of us were scheduled to go to the Christmas party following our meeting.
Within a few weeks of this meeting, our son had to change schedules for the new semester (a first for him). Aspie’s tend to be all about schedules and the principal was making it very difficult on him. She put parameters around what he could and could not take, and also threw us a curve ball. The PE teacher would no longer be teaching the 7th/8th graders, but only 6th grade PE.
My son was overwhelmed and called the principal the worst principal that he had ever met to her face.
I returned to the words by warrior poet Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you,” as I thought about my son’s act of standing up for himself as a pure emotional reaction in a state of distress.
My son spoke his truth because he was afraid to be in a PE class again (after being physically/emotionally bullied while in his former PE class). He was afraid of change.
He was scared and didn’t know how to neurologically process it while we—as his parents—didn’t know what to ask for because it was all new to us, having only known about his disability for ten months and trying to get the help he needed.
But it got harder as my son became “suicidal” at school in the bathroom trying to strangle himself with his own hands because he couldn’t handle going to PE.
So I had to just breathe.
We worked through the emotional difficulties, as I sought out a private psychologist for him on the coast.
On the day after Valentine’s Day, my husband was called for a “quick meeting” at the prinicpal’s office with her and the superintendent. With thin lips, they told him that he was not a good fit and that they wouldn’t renew his contract (even though he was the top candidate out of 120 applicants). There were no other reasons except not a good fit.
For some reason they told my husband while our son was still on campus, knowing that my husband would have to walk out of the office and back to his classroom where his son was waiting for him.
Oh, it was so hard in those days, weeks, months following this moment. Our son found out immediately. He was overheard telling a fellow student “that he’d like to kill her (the principal)” in the same way as if one of his classmates had taken a pencil and said “I’m going to kill you,” to their peer. Of course, this was reported to the admins and suddenly we were in a serious meeting with a new stigma attached to my son’s file: transitory threat.
Yes, it’s been almost two years since that day and I think that I’m going to be okay. We were homeless/jobless that summer, staying with my friend. Humbling, right?
But then I see this news story about Mendocino and I am not okay because my son should be there.
He should have had his rights respected, but they were not. The administrators had the first opportunity to help us with our son, and they pushed him away (dismissing his father, subsequently our son from their school district).
In effect, this dilemma placed a burden upon our family and our marriage.
I watched my husband continue to fulfill his contract to the end of the school year—he sat through a monthly staff meeting where the principal talked about who was replacing him (another teacher was being moved into his position), and then received feedback from some of his co-workers about lack of respect from the principal shown toward him (as she could’ve told him not to come to the meeting).
But the ultimate moment of my husband’s true Buddha nature came during the graduation ceremony.
Five of the 8th grade students were given the opportunity to speak in front of the audience of family, friends and the community. The five students each said praises of their time at the K-8, recognizing their favorite teachers.
Of course, my husband sat in the front row with his fellow teachers, as he heard one of his students say, “and then there’s Mr. M, he’s lackadaisical, but still gets things done.” He gasped, as did the surrounding teachers, knowing that he was always the first one at school in the morning. Mr. M was anything, but lackadaisical.
He opened the graduation booklet he held, thinking that can’t be right and sure enough it was there in print for everyone to take home. That Mr. M was lacking enthusiasm.
Who were the editors? Who allowed the word lackadaisical to go through? Did the principal sign off on this graduation pamphlet?
Regardless, the pamphlet made it through, and no individuals were dismissed for their actions.
Yep, it’s probably better that we moved on—but none of us wanted to leave, as Mendocino is a gorgeous place to live with a vibrant community of kindred souls.
Even though my husband had applied to jobs in the area, he did not get one around there (maybe the other local school administrators had heard that he was too lackadaisical).
I’d like to say that my son is perfect now, but that’s not the case: Asperger’s is a life long disability that has the potential to improve with a lot of work regarding social cues and more.
My two sons have been amazing for going through one of the most unjust experiences. We’ve physically moved on, but I am still feeling consequences of this experience. As I said, no matter the words that I write, nothing will change the pain of living through such an injustice.
And yet, I saw a similar thing happening in Mendocino again. I shook my head after reading these words in the Press Democrat story:
“[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Superintendent Jason] Morse said the T-shirt protest was ‘a player decision and in fact was a complete surprise to our basketball coaches and school administration.'”
In my opinion, I wondered why didn’t he know what was going on? And why is history repeating itself, as he didn’t know what was going on when the graduating student’s words (lackadaisical) were put in print for the pamphlet?
What can I do about it now?
Nothing because I’ve sadly learned that the law does not protect the ones who need it the most.
Just breathe, right?
Just breathe because sometimes it’s the only thing we can do when we feel the burn of injustices, and then on the exhales we must give voice to our experiences so others may not have to go through such hell as my family endured.
These words will never heal the ache in my soul, but I can no longer keep them covered.
We must continue to wear our words for justice on the outside.
You may find the Press Democrat’s article here.
Photo: Blue Skyz Studios/Flickr
Editor: Dana Gornall