Monday, 9 July 2012

The trick is to keep breathing

The woods are soaking wet.

Above, tattered trees look exhausted by the relentless rain. Below, broken branches litter the way ahead. A sea of slugs and slimy vegetation make the going more treacherous still. I've been running for ten minutes and I'm already shattered. I wanted this run to take me away, far away. But it's forcing me to concentrate on every little detail around me.

The details, the bloody details. There is no escape from them, no matter how hard and how far I run.

Two weeks ago I finally received the piece of paper for which I have agitated and waited so long. The green logo of our local council has appeared on so many disappointing letters and bleak reports over the last few years that when I opened the latest envelope and saw it within, my heart sank on reflex -- before bounding when I realised that actually this was the letter that brought good news rather than bad.

The council has agreed -- finally, after years of pleading and negotiation -- that Grace needs more help. It says so in black and white in the statement on my desk. I have checked and re-checked this piece of paper every day since I received it. I still worry that it might disappear in a puff of smoke. It says that Grace requires very specific teaching provision, which it details clearly, and adds that she must also have one to one teaching support, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. It also says that she must go to a specific school, the one we want, the one that can properly care for her and help her bloom.

The piece of paper means Grace now has a whole new life in front of her. Just like that, her future is brighter.

But the details are breaking my heart. Despite its ultimate message, the letter is not a happy read. It includes a long, long list of my lovely girl's inabilities. It sets her apart again. This sounds so obvious as to be ridiculous, but nevertheless it comes as a shock. In the day to day, my daughter is just my daughter. She is brilliant at some things, hopeless at others. The council's letter, a wonderful gift of education, also formally acknowledges a gulf between my daughter and other children. It makes me cry.

I spend far too much time crying (as patient regular readers of this blog will attest.) So I decide to throw myself at the next tasks in an attempt to halt the blubbing. I have to find a secondary school for my girl, and I have to start another running regime ahead of the next half-marathon in aid of autism awareness. (I am running the Royal Parks half-marathon again in October to raise funds for the National Autistic Society.)

The first bit of this is easy. I know precisely which school I want for my daughter. It's out of our catchment area and so only accessible for us because we now have this statement. It's one of many reasons I battled so hard for the statement. The prospect of my daughter being forced to go to one of our local schools -- and get eaten alive there -- kept me awake at nights and fuelled my fight.

I know that the school I want specialises in supporting children with autism and Asperger's alongside the mainstream; I've seen its airy art studios, drama studios, music rooms and recording studios, and its theatre, its photography department and library. I've seen its position in the results tables.

Last week I took Grace along to see it. She started smiling very soon after we arrived and didn't stop after we left. Walking back to the car she clutched my arm and said: "Mummy, I can't wait to go to that school! I wish I could go there right now." She hasn't been so hopeful about school for years.

Then she went back to her primary school, where in a bubble of excitement she relayed her find. One of her classmates, a regular tormentor, started laughing at her and said that she thought she'd be going there too. In dismay, my daughter said that she had hoped this time to go to a school where she'd be looked after. Her tormentor told a teacher, who then shouted at Grace for saying that her current school wasn't looking after her.

I found all this out later that afternoon, at the end of a day in which I had felt more positive about Grace's prospects than I had done for years. I did what I always do: I comforted Grace and told her I would fix it. I phoned the school and talked the incident through with an apologetic-sounding teacher. Then I laced up my trainers and went running. There were slugs underfoot. There was driving rain in my face. After a while I allowed myself a small, hysterical giggle about a teacher who could think that the correct response to a child who felt unprotected would be to shout at her.

I kept running and after a while the details faded a bit.

The trick is to forget about the details.

The trick is to keep breathing.