The following is adapted from a speech given by TCS parent Judy Martin at TCS’s annual fundraising event, the Southern Soiree & Auction, in February 2014.
Tonight I have the pleasure and immense joy to share the story of The Community School’s powerful, life-affirming impact on my family’s life.
My son has always struggled in some way with anxiety, but around the age of ten, his anxiety grew exponentially in ways that began to severely hamper the quality of his life. He began to trust the world less and less, craving to avoid and retreat as much as he could. Teachers often had exasperated looks on their faces; my son became so desperate to escape his discomfort that on a few occasions he tried to bolt out the school exit door in the hopes of running all the way home to find me. Some teachers suggested punishing him more; others suggested words like “spoiled,” “manipulative,” and “defiant.” The mismatch between my son’s struggles and others’ understanding of him led to numerous school dismissals, social isolation, and many moments of despair. Even within the cocooning safety of home, he often hid in closets or craved to spend vast majorities of his days in a windowless basement room. The questions beat down on me: “How can I ease my son’s experience of life?” “How can I help others see the beautiful child within?”
I will never forget my son’s expression when I let him know that I would begin homeschooling him until I could find a school that understood him. Relief swept across his face, his mind and body relaxing as if I had lifted the heaviest of weights off of his shoulders. The pain of such an uncertain future for my son challenged me in ways I had never known before. Yet, gazing into his lovely, trusting eyes, I found my inspiration and made a promise to him that I would find a school that helped him feel more comfortable.
And so we found our way to Dave Nelson’s office one fine day. After a short while, my son burst into tears and promptly said to Dave, “I never want to see you again!” While some people have you at hello, my son makes you work a little harder, to say the least. Of course, Dave had me at, “See you next week.” Finally, a door was opening, leading us onward to a new pathway that quite simply has transformed us all. It would take a few more years before my son began attending The Community School, but he is now in his 7th life- changing year.
For after years of feeling isolated, marginalized, and misunderstood by schools and society in general, we had finally met a group of individuals that didn’t see a host of diagnostic labels walking through the door, but rather saw the pure spirit of our striving, capable son.
Our highs and lows together have been monumental. During our lowest time, our son could only attend school for a few hours, hiding in a make-shift fort under a table while teachers one by one lovingly sat by his side each day talking him through his fears, while I camped out at a nearby coffee shop on call for many tenuous months. Through thoughtful collaboration, we all emerged stronger after that setback.
Which leads me to the highs… there have been so many. Like one day, when I arrived early on a day his class was playing Lacrosse on the field, and there was my son, not pacing on the sidelines full of anxiety, but rather running in carefree fashion with his friends and teachers. He paused to look over at me, smiled and waved, and then joined the group again. I was nearly breathless, as such a moment had never happened like that in his 17 years. Recently, he spontaneously said he wanted to show me something. He proceeded to play the piano and sing a song for me that he and a favorite teacher had been working on that day. He beamed in pride, and said, “Isn’t that good, Mom?!”
Through a devoted collaboration between home and school we helped my son find his way to a happier, more fulfilling life. It is safe to say I have found my way too. For through this journey, I learned that diagnostic labels need not limit my son’s potential and that society’s labels of success did not define my son. I learned that the labels I gave myself, such as failing at motherhood, not good enough, were labels that needed to be tossed out. I learned that as long I could imagine and dream, then my son’s life potential and that of my entire family was boundless. I learned that loving, intimate, validating, and supportive relationships held the keys to walk through fear with grace and emerge on the other side emboldened in ways once unimaginable. I learned that a different pathway is not a hopeless pathway; a different pathway is an empowered pathway.
My son is 19 now, and we are so far away from his times of extreme despair. He is a funny, lively, joyful young man, who now dreams of a future in ways he never could before. He loves school so much that when we recently had snow days off, tears fell from his eyes, as he did not want to miss seeing everyone. When once his acute attention to the various noises in life felt scary and threatening, now composing songs and recording dramatic story telling by changing his voice in countless ways has fueled his passions and his emotional connections to others. He is now a vibrant participant in a host of group school activities. Nearly every day, our son declares, “I am so happy! I have the best life! I am a lucky guy!”
Our story is just one. There are countless others. To all the families at The Community School, to Dave Nelson and the entire teaching and therapeutic staff, and to the generous and altruistic support of those of you in this room, we thank you!