Mr Chaos asked me this morning, as we yet again worry about choosing the right secondary school for our eldest daughter.
I honestly don’t know. I guess because I went to a small girls-only secondary, because my primary teacher recommended that my parents sent me private if they could afford it (thinking that I wouldn’t cope with a big secondary, quite accurately I suspect), it wasn’t the same as surviving a huge mixed state school.
There were 400 pupils at my school, aged 8-18, and about half were boarders. My mum drove me to school every single day from age 11 to age almost-18 (summer birthday) because we lived up to 25 miles away, although I expect a “normal” child would have worked out busses. But I was never “normal”.
I started self harming by the age of 17, but I was miserable for long before then. But also I was happy enough living in my own little world. I just read books constantly. I did school, then I forgot about it. I rarely did homework; I rarely studied (I was one of those annoying people who could pass exams with looking at the work ten minutes before going in to an exam); I didn’t see “friends” outside of school. I didn’t know that my experience was really quite different to most people.
Somehow I got through secondary. Somehow I went to university. I don’t really know how I did any of it, other than I just knew I had to and I was rubbish at breaking rules so I did what I thought I was supposed to. My school reports are full of comments like “we’re not sure if Anne-Marie is happy”, and “maybe she would benefit from outside help”, and “if only she would apply herself to all subjects, not just the ones she likes”, and “I was disappointed to hear her say that she finds most subjects irrelevant and uninteresting” (I learnt to not say what I really felt at that point!)
My daughters are not me. The small local primary school has been right for them. Not perfect, but better than our other options. Getting anyone to understand that your child is wearing a mask much of the time, and needs more support than they see, is difficult.
MG is in year six, in less than a year she will be in secondary education somewhere. Most of her classmates will travel to secondaries on their own from the start, age eleven. I can’t imagine my eldest daughter travelling to school alone. It takes five minutes to get her through the door to school most mornings, and those are the good days.
I don’t drive. I’ve failed ten practical driving tests. I don’t know whether that’s because of my autism (I know plenty of autistic people who drive, but we’re all different) but it limits our options. I want to send my daughters to a Montessori based school: no homework; no uniforms; 20% of all lessons taught outside; genuine individual support (25 pupils age 11-16). But it’s a drive to get there. There are busses, but the time to bus there and back would double the school day, which is not feasible.
We think we’ve chosen the most likely candidate for MG’s next school. £16K/year fees – we’ve been offered financial assistance, but I don’t want anyone to spend that kind of money if it’s not exactly the right place; and I really don’t think it is exactly the right place.
I know I’m accused of thinking of my children as “special snowflakes” and being an over-anxious mother. I am over-anxious. But in my parenting, my anxiety over my children has grown over time. I used to be utterly blase about sending my children to nursery and school, and completely trusting of the people looking after them.
After years of trusting everyone else, it’s not worked. Supporting my children with their unique needs does work. I’m only just starting to express my opinions more confidently; I’m only just telling school when I think things need to change; I’m only just starting to try to trust in my opinions.
But I don’t quite trust my opinions. I don’t believe in myself. I struggle through every day. I don’t know how to express myself in the right way. I do curl up under a duvet and cry most days.
I don’t know how I managed school. I don’t think I did. I don’t think I’m managing life much either. But I’ll keep plodding on, and trying, and hoping.