There are many reasons why people join the PTA. This is my story.
I stood in the middle of a narrow hallway after the orientation meeting, as a crowd of parents swarmed and moved around me. Nothing resonated in my ears at that moment, but my own fears and the fierce beating of my heart. My son can’t do this, I thought over and over again. He’s going to fail. What am I going to do?
My feet, under their own mysterious propulsion, began to move me forward with the last stragglers from the orientation meeting. I began to look around for help. I was not going down without a fight. The special education staff were surrounded with parents who needed an IEP or assessments. I had both, but after the kindergarten orientation meeting I could see now that my IEP was woefully inadequate. There was no way I was going to be able to talk to any of the special education staff. How was I going to fix the problem?
The guidance counselor stood near the exit doors and noticed my panic stricken demeanor. She asked if everything was okay. I honestly answered, “No, I’m not okay.” She tried to reassure me that everything would be fine. In a shaky voice, I asked simply, “What if it isn’t? I don’t think my son can do this. I need help.” I also told her that my son was on the autism spectrum and I was deeply worried about him. While she never physically touched me, I felt her answer as a patronizing pat on the back. Again and again, I was told that everything was going to be okay. She saw me as just another anxious mom. I can still hear the words, “Everything will just work out fine.” In my head, I wanted to scream, What if its not fine? Instead, I slinked back home with a giant weight on my heart.
I was right. Everything was not fine. Kindergarten was the hardest challenge yet for my son. Before kindergarten, many people couldn’t even tell my son was on the autism spectrum. Within the first week of kindergarten, my son began to have his first truly violent meltdowns. He spit, he kicked, he hit himself and others. That first week, I got a frightening call that a vice principal had held my son down to restrain him.
I was outraged. I was shocked. I was also ashamed. I was a good student. My husband was a good student. We got good grades. I was teased for a being teacher’s pet. This couldn’t be our son. There were few people I felt I could tell about my issues. My friends may not have all been honor students, but they certainly never visited the principal’s office for bad behavior reasons. The shame of parenting failure consumed me that year.
I didn’t want to pick up the phone when I saw it was the school calling. I didn’t want to join the PTA with all those parents with happy well adjusted kids. I didn’t even want to step my foot into the school if I could help it. To me, the PTA symbolized good parents with healthy well adjusted children. My son was not typical, and I felt he was anything but well adjusted. I didn’t want to run into parents who had heard stories about E’s latest meltdown. I didn’t want to run into teachers or administrators.
Because my son had never had long violent meltdowns, there was so much I didn’t understand. It was only after E began having meltdowns, and exhibiting those behaviors at home, did I began to understand the scope of the problem. This was autism and there were things we could do to improve the situation.
I am thankful for a family therapist and a supportive husband. I was thankful that despite the fact that E’s teacher was green and new to teaching her own classroom, she was willing to learn. Not that I didn’t think about leaving the school and perusing other options. Still, as a family, we persevered.
I slowly came to realize that the only parent that was truly judging me was me. I had to get over my own self. I had to accept E as he was. I had to get over my own perceived notions of childhood. I had to help E, and not hide in a corner behind a large potted plant.
I also finally joined the PTA. At first, I paid my dues and did little else. I volunteered, but my focus was on my own child. I filled gaps when no one else could help. I was on the outside and rarely bothered to look in. They just raised money right?
My moment of truth came in the form of advocacy. I found out that PTA moms advocate for children. They rally, they petition, they go to the legislature and speak up on behalf of kids. As I watched parents in my county organize, I knew I had to speak up for my public school, and for kids on the spectrum. Fighting for our kids is what special needs moms do best. To help make E’s experience at school better, I had to do something and speak out.
I still cringe when my kid throws a rock or rips up his work in defiance. I still see a family therapist. I still judge myself as a parent. However, most of all, I still advocate on behalf of the PTA, for all those misunderstood kids on the autism spectrum, and all those parents who dread walking through the doors of their school.