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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 2001 Issue #80 

Was It The Right Decision?
Was it her problem, or mine?
By: Hanna Buck, Associate
Helene Reynolds and Associates
Princeton, New Jersey

The question has been asked so many, many times by now that it seems impossible not to address it. “How could you send your child away to school? I could never do that, I would miss her too much!” or “I’m so sorry that you had to send your daughter away to school, you must be heart broken.” I worried for a time that maybe I was a bad parent because I was not heart broken or sorry for deciding to send our daughter away to school. 

Certainly, in the course of the long and difficult process of looking for the right school, I struggled with all sorts of ideas. I had the basic concerns of worrying how she might interpret us sending her away to school. I thought she might think we were getting rid of her because she had special needs and that we did not want to or could not have her at home because of those needs. I worried that because we were about to have a new baby that she might think we were trading in the old model for a new one and replacing her. On the other hand, maybe she would think that we needed her room to house this new baby and that is why we were sending her away. I created many ideas, all born out of a sense of guilt I felt about the potential impact this would have on her. 

Because of this guilt, I focused my school search on local, very inappropriate day schools, none of which were equipped to educate my daughter. I searched high and low using the resources that I had at hand as well as the limited resources that were made available to me by my local school district. I came up empty handed because my daughter posed such a unique challenge to any school that offered a basic special needs program. We have a child with special special needs and there are not any local schools that work with children who break that mold. 

Therefore, here I was revisiting the idea of boarding school and I did know of a few good ones who work with special needs children. During that time, a family friend who works in the field of special needs children came to town for a visit. During his visit, he had the opportunity to spend a whole day with my daughter, in my absence with some other relatives. At the end of that day, we regrouped for supper and he pulled me aside and asked to speak with me in private about my daughter. He shared his impressions of her and what he believed she needed in a school. Part of this was the idea that she would be better off in a school away from home. Through my tears, I told him that I appreciated his thoughts but I was not ready for that move for all of the reasons mentioned above. 

His response to my tears and guilt was very powerful and became the catalyst that moved me to decide on boarding school for my daughter. He pointed out that all of those feelings of sadness and guilt were things that I had issues with. Meaning that although I was worried she would think I was getting rid of her to use her room or because I was unable to cope with her needs did not mean she was having those feeling or ever would. Actually, one of the functions of my daughter’s disability is being incapable of entertaining that type of intricate emotional processing. Therefore, it is likely that her disability would save her from all of those bad thoughts that I was giving her credit for being able to feel. Further proof, that these thoughts were mine and mine alone and would likely never be her’s. For every point I made to our friend, he was able to show me that my reasons for not sending her away had nothing to do with protecting her, but rather assuaging my own guilt that was completely unfounded in the first place. 

Despite my newfound peace about her potentially going away, I still had to consider how she would react to being away from home. I was however, able to do this based on her needs and not my own. She has attended sleep-away summer camp for four years in a row. Each year she would spend more and more time, and this year, she spent eight weeks. Because she has been able to do this each year without any signs of home sickness or trauma, I was not too worried about being missed and I was really able to assess this decision based on a very positive experience – her’s and mine. 

However, what if she hadn’t been away to camp or away from home much ever? Would this be different? What if she indeed did think I was getting rid of her for whatever reason and I was faced with the challenge of convincing her it was a good idea anyway? Certainly, I would be in for a difficult ride if I had those feelings of hers to combat. However, if I were really convinced that the best school for her was not near our home, I would be willing to risk hurting her feelings, if it meant that ultimately she was going to learn and grow. Eventually, she would feel a sense of peace if it was the right place and eventually, she would stop being mad and stop fighting it and allow herself to get involved with the business of learning and growing. I would have to take the leap of faith that uses the motto, “if it’s meant to be, it will be.”

We took her to her new boarding school last week with a car full of her things to make her room into the same shrine to teen idols that we have at home. When we arrived, we busied ourselves with the tasks of hanging up posters and putting away clothing. While I put away clothing, she nervously surveyed the other kids to see if she recognized any of them she had met during her visit earlier in the year. Before she had a chance to find any, a group of them found her. They appeared at her room door and whisked her away into the excitement and nervousness of the first day. My husband and I stood and watched her go and realized at that moment that what had just happened was the reason why we made the right decision. At that moment, she was doing what teenaged girls are supposed to do; running around and laughing, being nervous, giggling at boys and talking about their favorite groups. All things that she has not been able to do at home because there are not other kids like her at home who understand or function like her. However, these kids, all function like her. 

It was as if somebody pumped oxygen into her finally and all of the other children as well and she felt comfortable to be what she is. Finally, she can be a teenager first and the fact that she has special needs does not have to be worn like a banner. This would not be possible at home, not in school or out of school. This gift could only be realized at school, away from home. 

When it came time for my husband and I to leave, we looked around for her to say, “good-bye.” We finally found her surrounded by a group of boys and girls, who were all talking, laughing and having fun. We did not want to break up the party, so we stood back, watched, and cried in happiness over this vision of her contentment. Finally, one kid noticed us and poked her to let her know that her parents were standing by. She extracted herself and ran over and we let her know we were leaving and she gave us both big hugs. My husband and I cried, but she did not. She said, “Mom, don’t worry about me, I’ll do great!” And, she is. 

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