Four years ago…don’t be fooled by that cherubic face!
Anthony got a citation at school today. He walked in the door and without hesitation explained to me why it wasn’t his fault and the teacher was wrong. She always is. I’m surprised she still has a job with all the times she’s wrongly disciplined my son whilst he, an innocent angel of youth, patiently puts up with her shortcomings as a human being.
He’s so tolerant…he’s so accepting…he’s so Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
Yes, the Anthony we all know and love is brilliant, sweet, hilarious and charismatic. He is also diagnosed Reactive Attachment Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder as well as is a victim of child abuse and neglect to such an extent as most of us cannot imagine. He has survived the kinds of things we read about in the paper…and wish we hadn’t read.
Children who are early childhood victims of abuse and neglect often develop a lack of trust in their surroundings. After all, they cry and nobody answers, or the answer is scary. They need food, it’s not there. They need nurture and none is offered. They learn very early that their needs are not going to be met and so those links inside the brain that would normally connect need with satisfaction simply do not develop. And as they move into their toddler years and those needs continue to not be met, the connections may actually never develop. By three years old, say the experts, it may be too late. Even if they have wonderful families in their later childhood years and move into adulthood with healthy surroundings…they sometimes never regain those lost phases of basic trust development. Their brains simply lack the capacity to trust, to connect, to love.
And trust, as most of us know, is pivotal in positive and healthy relationships. Trust, especially subconscious trust, plays a role in every single aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not.
So when Anthony came to me with a citation and tells me all the reasons it’s not his fault, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I was, however, surprised when the teacher told me the citation was for being argumentative and talking too much and that he’d not thrown a chair, knocked over a desk, threatened anyone or cussed. Because not so long ago, the calls were a whole lot different. Not so long ago, we wondered if he’d ever be okay.
We wondered…if he was salvageable.
Four years ago he came to us with a chip on his shoulder and a view of the world consistent with trauma and neglect. He was angry. He was volatile. He was damaged in every possible way and it showed in his every action. He was, without a doubt, the most difficult and challenging child I’d ever had before or since.
And so the work began.
The first step in ‘fixing’ Anthony, if he was to be fixed, was to create a trusting relationship between him and someone else. Lucky me, I was the obvious choice.
Anthony went off to first grade just two months after his arrival and we began to see behaviors develop in the classroom that were nearly unmanageable. He would crawl under tables and not come out. He screamed, yelled, cussed, argued, threw chairs and basically rebelled against all forms of authority. Because remember, in his world, authority figures had destroyed his life. Authority figures had failed him in every way imaginable and then removed him from his family, who though they abused him horribly, he loved them ferociously.
Authority figures had pretty much removed all sense of control over his own life…and so he sought control. Over anything. Over his environment and surroundings, if that was all he could manage. Just something he could grasp on to and manipulate. Because if you can manipulate, you are not lost. And Anthony, at times, must have felt completely lost.
And so when Anthony went to school…I went to school also.
I walked him to the classroom, helped him with his backpack, got him to his seat, pulled up my own tiny chair, and plopped myself down. I rubbed his back, played with his hair, spoke soothingly in his ear as he settled in to work. And for the first two hours of school, if I followed this routine, he would sometimes make it through the school day without a total meltdown. Sometimes.
I would then return to school early, before the bell. Often, when I walked in, the secretary would just say, “The principal is down there with him…” and I’d nod my head and switch into intervention mode. I’d enter the classroom and often find him curled in a corner, pulling his own hair or banging his head on the floor. Anthony was barely able to function outside of my watchful eye.
This is a child who looked his principal right in the eye and, at seven years old, said, “It’s a free country and I don’t have to listen to you.” And he probably had some statute ready to back up his claim.
And so first grade continued like this, with me at his side daily. I volunteered in the school so I could be there, just in case. Once the music teacher found me in the gym, decorating for a carnival. He walked Anthony to me, one hand on each shoulder and simply said, “I can’t do it any more today.” And then a teacher with undying patience, who loves my children, turned and walked from the room. I took him home that day, half carrying him from the building as he screamed his hatred for me through the halls, in front of the office where the secretary was sweet enough to not look up, past strangers who entered the building and surely must have thought me a horrific mother, and out the door. We went home and sat together, side by side, him pressed to my arm, and watched a movie together because sometimes discipline is not the answer.
Sometimes…he just needed my side.
After a while, as his attachment to me begin to develop into something somewhat healthy. He began to behave normally as long as I was around. But God forbid, I round the corner or leave the room. I could literally stand on one side of the gym during P.E. and watch him begin to lose it… I’d walk towards him and as soon as he saw me coming, his behavior would change dramatically. The closer I was, the more in control he became.
I was his safety net, said his therapist. I was his stronghold…his grasp on all that was good and okay in the world. I was his salvation…the hand that reached into the tornado inside him and pulled him to safety. Without me…and it could have been anyone who was simply ‘there’ for him…he feared he would spiral away into a realm in which he may never return. And he may have been right.
We moved into second grade and before the school year began, I’d made the decision to homeschool Anthony while the other kids went off to school. It was a way for us to bond. It was a chance for us to spend time together. It was a way for me to not spend the next nine months in the school building, plastered to the boy.
And it worked. For nine weeks we were together at home, studying. I found, in those weeks, that my son was brilliant. His thought processes were unfathomably deep. He shared with me his history and began to relate the abuse from which he’d come…and survived. He began to trust someone for the first time in his life…to truly feel like he could rely on another.
And then the good state of Alaska Office of Children’s Services informed us it was illegal to homeschool a foster child. And so he went back to school. And I stayed home. I just couldn’t be there every day anymore. I needed to devote some time to me. Some time to the other children.
Three weeks later Anthony saw his birth family for the first time in seven months and following that one hour visit on New Years Eve, 2008, he began a spiral that ended with him stabbing another child with a pencil, terrifying the other second grade students to the point that he was not allowed back into school without a “shadow” or personal attendant who’s goal was to keep him, and the other students, safe.
Thankfully, that plummet initiated a recommendation by his therapist that he no longer have contact with his birth parents. That was the last time he saw them. And he’s been on the mend ever since.
And so third and fourth grade passed with only a few serious incidences. Only once did the principal have to chase him into the parking lot. Only once did I find him curled in the coatrack hitting himself in the head. And only once did the bus driver have to turn around and bring him back to the school, just five minutes into the route.
Progress, I say, is what you make of it.
Four years from his arrival into our lives at the age of six, we’ve reached a point with this child that he is a joy…nay, an absolute wonder, to be around. He still lights up when I enter a room and requires continual hugs. He still gets into trouble at school. He still argues continually, and probably always will. He sometimes, though rarely, loses his temper. But he’s learned how to transfer that need to control others to his own actions and…to some extent…he’s learned to control himself.
And he did it not because of the therapists, myself, teachers and aids who tried everything we knew how to ‘fix’ him…but rather he did it in spite of our flailing efforts. He did it, on his own.
Honestly…there was a time when I didn’t think that possible. There was a time when his first grade teacher said to me, “Keri, I don’t know how you take him home at night,” and I wondered the same thing. There were discussions as to whether we would adopt him or not. There were times when we thought it wasn’t a matter of “if” he went to jail, but how soon it would be.
And now…the unimaginable has happened. He got a citation at school…for talking out of turn. He got a citation at school, for not making good use of his time and doing what he does best…arguing. And though I should have been upset with him. I should have been angry that just two weeks into the school year he has already gotten a notice sent home… and I did give him a talking to…
All I could think was, “Damn….that’s AWESOME!”