One of the nicest by-products of Sam’s switch from mainstream to special education has been the improvement in our family holidays. I don’t mean that we have suddenly come into a previously undiscovered pot of money, enabling us to jet off to glamorous locations far and wide; sadly, no. Neither do I mean that my children have suddenly stopped the fighting that ensues as they seek to reassert themselves, re-set the pecking order, as they spend more time in each other’s company than they do in term times; sadly, not that. And unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which way you look at it, we haven’t got longer holidays, either.
No, what I mean is that, since starting his secondary journey, our school holidays, those times of testing and challenge for me, the at-home (if sadly no longer stay-at-home) mother are immeasurably lifted by Sam’s inclusion in the extra-curricular. This is not to say that he never did anything before. Two years in a row he attended a summer school run by the school he now attends, but they didn’t have the significance back then. Back then, when I was struggling with my feelings about him being in a ‘special’ environment, I didn’t fully appreciate their value.
Back then, I wanted nothing more than for Sam to be included in the holidays of the ordinary world. We tried out various holiday clubs, drama days, sports camps; all with varying degrees of limited success and a certain amount of unmitigated disaster. Now, though, I have learned to do things a little differently. Now, I am happier for him to march to the sound of his own drum, rather than mine.
For a start, when the leaflets come home (and there are far more of them than there used to be) I don’t keep them to myself. Sam and I look at them together. And that dialogue has produced some surprises. Rather than days at farms (Horses! Tractors!), sporting activities (Football!), or music (Loud!), Sam has gone for dance and drama, carnivals and costumes. Nothing could have surprised me more, especially when I consider his theatre aversion.
He loves the fact that he is going off for some organised fun. Sam can find it hard, all that unstructured holiday play time. Only this Christmas, and that’s a two week tiddler compared to the Leviathan that is the summer break, Sam was up and at ‘em in his school uniform a couple of days after Boxing Day while we were still waffling around in our pyjamas. Structure and routine give Sam a sense that he knows where he is going, what he is doing.
I love the fact that my younger children are impressed by his holiday clubs. He has done things they are envious of; they are goggle-eyed. They quite fancy having a go at being on the stage, or making the costumes themselves. The dynamic between my children is kind of mixed up, what with the eldest having learning difficulties and outstripped in so many ways by the little ones, but these holiday clubs, these inclusive activities, go some way to restoring the balance, allowing each of them to revel in ‘normal’ experience.
For inclusive they are, but not in the way you might expect. These clubs are no ordinary clubs, run by the local school or church, football, rugby or cricket club, a place where bored children can run off a little steam with activities thrown in. These clubs are run by professionals, people who know what they are doing where inclusive practise is concerned, both with children with special needs and with ordinary ones. When he goes to these activities, Sam isn’t the different one, he isn’t the one off in the corner with a basket of cars, the one nobody quite knows what to do with, how to communicate with. When he goes on one of these holiday courses, he is in the majority, not the odd one out. I can see inclusion working for him, but not in the way I thought it did. He isn’t thrown in at the deep end; ordinary kids are invited to come and play in the shallow water too.
Now that Sam is in special education it would be easy to accuse us of excluding our son from society, hiding him away from the cruel gaze of the outside world, and, as a younger mother, that was certainly something I was afraid of. My son wasn’t somebody to be ashamed of; he was (and is) different and proud, and we are proud of him. But when it came down to it, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice his education to an ideal of inclusion that I didn’t see working for him.
Because I don’t think that inclusion is all about school, any more than I think that teachers, and schools, are responsible for the ills of society, or its cure. If I want my son to be in the thick of things, if he wants to be in the thick of things, then it’s up to me, to us.
Rather than sending Sam out into the world, maybe we need to invite it into ours. And that means more than school.