A Different Success is one of three short stories from my collection Snapshots of a Different Normality. I'm reprinting it here during the school report / exam season in the hope of encouraging anyone who needs it just now!
A Different Success
I wish I'd stayed in bed yesterday, at least until all the feverish excitement had enjoyed its moment, dispersed and dropped down to the bottom of my news feed.
It was my own fault, really: I should have known better than to open my laptop, let alone log on to Facebook, but I wanted to wish Ali a happy birthday and hadn't organised myself sufficiently to get a card in the post to her. And the moment it came up on the screen, there they all were. Tales of academic brilliance. Armfuls of A*s. Congratulatory status updates. Elation and joy and parental pride. And the rest of the internet was brimming with success stories, too: swathes of excited, attractive teenagers featured prominently on every main news website, leaping athletically and photogenically in the air and waving top GCSE results triumphantly above their heads.
Let me be clear about two things: firstly I am pleased, I really am, for my friends and their children, and secondly I had no particular expectations about yesterday's likely outcome, low or otherwise. Simon's learning difficulties are severe enough that I've been aware since he was at primary school how much he was likely to struggle with written exams, and I started coming to terms with it long ago. Extra time and the assistance of a reader don't make an enormous amount of difference to him. The exam system is simply not equipped to include kids like Simon properly: it can't. I've been reminding myself of this for years, especially so when his annual school report comes home and I peel back the seal on the envelope already equipped with the knowledge that it will be crammed with Ds and Es and Fs despite positive, encouraging comments about how hard he works and what a delightful young man he is and how greatly he contributes to the school community. And since anything below a C counts most definitely as a fail in GCSE parlance, that's the label my son has quietly and gradually assumed over the last couple of years: academic failure, even if no one actually uses those precise words. From the perspective of the exam boards, it doesn't matter in the least that he's trustworthy and kind and hilariously funny and fantastic with animals – he's always going to “fail”, and there's very little we can do about it.
Rob and I have no intention of allowing Simon to feel like a failure if we can possibly help it, so we've always encouraged him to aim for his own targets and no more. We've ignored national averages and statistics and the achievements of his friends and peers as far as has been possible since he embarked upon his GCSE courses. If his teachers predict him a D, then that's the target. Anything more is an amazing bonus, and I think he knows that, at least most of the time. Most of his teachers are kind and supportive, and obviously the appropriate provisions have been made as he's moved up the school. I have to say that the SENCo and her team have been fantastic with him, and Simon has done as well as can be expected at least partly as a result of their input. His achievements certainly fulfil expectation, and no one can say he hasn't worked hard, but as far as league tables go Simon is a fly in the proverbial ointment.
In my lower moments I wonder if it'd be easier for the school if Simon was badly behaved; the most disruptive pupils are peeled off temporarily (and sometimes semi-permanently) to the Student Support Centre and offered behavioural and academic support. Less is expected of these students, and few sit the full complement of public exams. I occasionally wonder what happens to them after they finish Year 11 and disappear from the school corridors for good. Simon is an example of that slightly more unusual creature: the child who struggles enormously with his schoolwork but doesn't, in consequence, turn each lesson upside down as a defence mechanism against low self-esteem and fear of failure and ridicule. I don't tell you this to brag about my son. His younger brother is both far more academically inclined and much less well-behaved, assuming the mantle of class clown whenever possible, much to my dismay. Parents' Evenings are, therefore, an absolute barrel of laughs for me, especially since I can't stop myself from finding some of the things James says to be hilariously funny. Needless to say I don't allow him to accompany me on these serious and important occasions, because the inevitable displays of unseemly mirth would get us thrown out and the staff would subsequently understand exactly where he gets his inappropriate sense of humour. Really, I should start sending Rob along to these evenings instead, since he's quite good at assuming a straight face and behaving himself properly when necessary.
Yesterday's Facebook statuses pierced me more than usual, I think, because they were so specific. It's easier to handle the idea of a generally excellent school report or a brilliant but vague collection of SATs results, because there's less scope for comparison. The fact that a pass in all three core subjects is vital for sixth form assists in delivering the final, crushing body blow when you learn that the GCSE-age offspring of all your friends and acquaintances have effortlessly acquired high grades in everything including English, Maths and Science, and have each been awarded a passport to the next educational stage. The Sixth Form is an exclusive club to which my son can never belong, whether or not he wants to. And I think that is what hurts the most. The exclusion wounds me on his behalf. Others are granted membership, and Simon is denied it.
What's Matthew doing next? I might ask, next time I encounter the mother of one of Simon's classmates. She'll reply Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and hopefully Maths at university. He'd love to go to Cambridge, but we'll see. How about Simon?
And, at this point, I'm truly not sure what I'd say: partly because I don't have the answer at this moment in time, and partly because I can't handle the possibility that I'll be met with an expression of half-embarrassed sympathy. The problem is that top grades are so very prolific nowadays, for some reason. Perhaps the exams are easier. Maybe teenagers are gradually raising their game by studying harder. I suppose the teaching might even be more effective than in previous years. But it is so very usual – almost commonplace - for a teenager to come away from Results Day clutching a full set of perfect grades that anything else now seems astonishingly wide of the expected mark, somehow. And because Simon is well-behaved and hardworking and charming and outwardly confident, it always comes as a tremendous surprise to those adults who know him only slightly that he struggles so much with his schoolwork.
And I wish it wasn't this way.
I never, ever wish that I had a different child or that Simon had been anyone other than who he is, but I very much wish that school and academic work and exam results didn't count for such a very great deal in life when you're a teenager. Each pupil in the country is essentially stuck with the school system and has no choice but to accept what it offers. There is no real alternative option, and until the age of sixteen, your lot in life constitutes six hours a day inside the four walls of a school. This is great for some kids, tolerable for others and hellishly difficult for a small minority. Yet here's the thing: when it's your kid who finds schoolwork to be incredibly, impossibly difficult, you don't much care that all of his contemporaries seem to be coping with the various challenges presented by school and teachers and exam boards. You just want life to be fair, somehow, and rail helplessly against the reality of the situation, which is that life isn't fair and that each of us can only work with the set of circumstances we're handed. And the Facebook statuses just form a small part of that reality. You can spend ages – years – honing your defences against all that unfairness, and convincing yourself of what you truly believe about academic success and its relative worth and the importance of other things, and then someone will derail you temporarily without even realising they've done it, and you have to pick yourself up and refocus again. Whilst the successes of others don't take anything from you, they can serve to remind you, painfully, of what you don't have: what your child doesn't have, which is much more important. Like all parents, I want the best for my children. And the thought of how much Simon has struggled over the years – how much he must have compared himself to his classmates when they achieved As and he fought for Ds – makes me both incredibly proud and desperately sad for him.
Simon isn't sure yet what next year will bring for him. We talked early on in Year 10 about what he thought he'd like to do in terms of a career. You hear a lot on television about people reaching for the stars and following their dreams and achieving anything they want to achieve if they just believe in themselves hard enough. I'm not cynical by nature, but I believe there are things that remain out of reach for all of us. I, for example, will never understand computer programming. Rob does this for a living, and it swoops swiftly and entirely over my head. My mind is simply not capable of comprehending the intricacies of code and parsing and algorithms. That's fine: I can do other things. And Simon has a hundred options open to him too. He just needs to sift through all those options and discover where his enthusiasms and strengths collide. He'll be functioning as part of a workforce before his peers do, which I think might serve as an advantage. He has skills. There's plenty that he's good at. And now he's left school – officially left it behind – his perspective will change, and so will mine. I will no longer be full of guilt over the idea that I've sentenced him to twelve years of nightmare after nightmare, thinly disguised as compulsory education. Simon has had such a lot of pressure to manage recently, revising doggedly for exams he knew he wouldn't ace and trying over and over again to stuff chemical formulae and verb conjugations and historical facts into his tired mind. So when all his friends and classmates were choosing their A-Levels and making plans for the future and thinking tentatively about university courses, we just said okay. Let's worry about this another time. It doesn't need to be sorted out now. And it's amazing how unburdened I've felt as a result. Simon has just been cheerful about the whole thing. He doesn't worry. I worry enough for us both, so he needn't.
Anyway, today has been easier. I've deliberately avoided looking at news websites and papers and Facebook. The Results Day Aftermath has largely passed me by. We're all going out for a meal tonight, to celebrate Simon's exam results. He exceeded expectations in two subjects, and is handling the discrepancy between his own results and those of most of his friends with great maturity, which makes me even more fiercely proud of him than I was already.
When I look back more than a decade to Simon's early years, the point at which maternal competitiveness rears its head initially over the first smile or tooth and intensifies as children learn to walk and talk, I remember a lot of Olivia knows her alphabet and Phoebe can write her name and wondering whether it was just because boys and girls developed differently. Simon could count to thirty, was capable of constructing the most intricate Lego structures and had been walking since before he was one, so did it really matter that he couldn't read by the time he started school? But gradually, words like concerned and difficulties and developmental delay started creeping into my conversations with his teachers. And the ensuing years became a battle of increasing proportions: for an assessment, for support, for a statement of special needs and sometimes for nothing more than basic understanding. I'm so grateful that I haven't had to fight this battle alone. There have been a lot of people looking out for Simon over the years. But it's all over now. A new chapter is opening up. There are about to be new joys and new challenges, both for Simon and for us as his parents.
As I turn on the tap and a jet of steaming hot water shoots into the kitchen sink, the back door opens and here he is, sauntering into the kitchen carrying a small hedgehog in his bare hands. This is not at all unusual since we live in a fairly rural area, and if there's an injured animal to be found, Simon will find it. He grins, greets me and plonks the hedgehog down next to the toaster before opening the larder door and rummaging around inside, presumably in search of an old towel in which to wrap the creature.
I realised a long time ago that expecting Simon to remember not to place germy, flea-ridden wildlife on the kitchen worktop was entirely pointless; I'm not sure whether this habit of his is symptomatic of dyslexia or simply the fact that he's a teenager. So I've learned to loosen up and have stocked the kitchen cupboard with anti-bacterial spray and disinfectant instead of blowing my top all the time and allowing myself to become overly stressed about hygiene. This has been good for me, as has donating pairs of perfectly serviceable eyebrow tweezers (great for removing ticks), replacing tins of cat food that Simon has appropriated for hedgehogs in search of a nighttime snack, and relinquishing shoe boxes, pilfered secretly from my wardrobe in order to house injured mice.
My son emerges from the larder with a large, tatty towel in his hand. A significant portion has already been cut away from its surface area, and he lays it out on the kitchen counter to hack off a further chunk. The hedgehog sits quietly and obediently, waiting to be tended to, its nose snuffling imperceptibly, spines quivering. I gently extend a finger in its direction and it sniffs and nudges my hand. Once upon a time I would have offered a hedgehog a saucer of warm milk and bread, but Simon reliably informs me that as a species they're lactose intolerant and the thing to give them is cat food. This little one is young and lost and disorientated and probably dehydrated, which is almost always the case when they're found out and about during daylight hours. And there we have a prime example of a piece of information that my son must have slipped into my brain when I wasn't concentrating.
I automatically start heating the kettle in preparation for the hot-water bottle Simon will almost certainly wish to fill in a few moments, and watch in wonder as he scoops up the tiny animal with infinite care. He cradles it close to his chest and strokes its spines as if it were as soft as a baby rabbit. Suddenly I remember, unbidden and out of nowhere, his childhood habit of gathering up worms and snails and caterpillars from the garden and homing them thoughtfully in a pot of earth or tumbled heap of clover-rich grass. Simon always wanted a puppy far more than he wanted a football or a guitar. He cried more than anyone else in the family – including me – when the cat was put to sleep. Caring for wildlife is one of the habits that define him, something which makes it tantalisingly easy to forget all about essays and handwriting and comprehension exercises and learning difficulties and struggles. His affinity with animals comes completely naturally to him: it's a gift. A real strength. Something to celebrate and appreciate and use in joyful abundance.
As I watch him silently, the tableau seems almost symbolic of his life. Of how much I worry for him, and the fact that I probably needn't. The animal he holds in his arms is vulnerable, but it'll be okay. It has come up against challenges and difficulties but it has emerged nonetheless: not exactly unscathed, but ultimately unharmed.
The kettle whistles, interrupting my thoughts. Simon holds the hedgehog out to me in his cupped hands and I take it in my arms with only a little reluctance. Once, I'd have worn rubber gloves. They're not necessary, though; they're just a barrier. A baby hedgehog isn't as prickly as you'd think. It curls instinctively into itself, then relaxes after a few moments, evidently realising it has no need to erect any defences against its surroundings. I can't help but draw a parallel or two between the little creature and his rescuer.
Simon busies himself filling a hot water bottle that he's found under the sink, and wraps it in several thicknesses of the towel so as not to burn his tiny new friend. He's entirely competent when it comes to things like this. He really knows his stuff; he's completely confident in his own ability to take care of sick animals.
As I'm watching him arrange the hedgehog comfortably in a shoe box that until recently housed a pair of kitten heels, the doorbell rings. And on the doorstep stands a man with a beautiful arrangement of flowers, accompanied by a florist's card in a tiny envelope. He hands them over to me and asks for a signature, which I provide, then scarpers.
The bouquet is gorgeous: roses and carnations in shades of pink and white against a collection of abundant, lush greenery, filling my hallway with fragrance. And when I open the card, it says Dearest Louise, I love you. You're fantastic. Lots of love, Rachel xxx
The tears come, then: the tears that I've held back until now. I am so proud of my son, but I've felt helpless and incompetent and as if I'm not enough, somehow, for quite a sizeable proportion of his secondary school years. Rachel, who is my best friend, knows this in a way that others don't. We've talked about anything and everything, once a week, for years and years. We've seen each other through bouts of bullying and various other phases of struggle. These, of course, are things with which our children have wrestled, not us. But because our children have experienced them, we have too. Vicariously, second-hand, but intensely and painfully. And because we've walked each other's path, encouraging and supporting and sharing and opening up, we're stronger.
These flowers are Rachel's way of boosting me, of raising my confidence, of making me feel valued as both a friend and a mother, so I'll be better equipped to live another day. It's easy, sometimes, to blame myself for Simon's struggles at school. After all, who else could possibly be responsible? It's a mother's job to teach reading and instill a love of books and oversee homework and facilitate progress. I've tried, and I've also tried not to feel as if I've failed, but sometimes – when I'm especially tired or Simon has had a particularly difficult day at school – it's impossible to stave off the nagging sensation that I did something wrong, somewhere along the line.
But I didn't, because we have Simon, and he is wonderful exactly the way he is. He is normal in his own way. His learning difficulties don't make him any less than what he ought to be. He is no less of a person, for all his Ds and Es and Fs. And A-Levels and university and the ability to write an essay or complete an exam paper are not all there is to life. So when I allow myself to become upset over a trivial handful of Facebook statuses, all I'm doing is forgetting that fact: there is more to life than this. I can be genuinely delighted by the success of my friends' children – their particular, specific type of success – and experience even greater delight when my son brings a sick hedgehog home or displays one of his many wonderful character traits, exhibiting patience or kindness or humour. He is infinitely valuable in his own individual way. Rachel's flowers will, for the duration of their lifespan, serve as a beautiful reminder of that fact. And after they've wilted and died, I mustn't allow this realisation to go the same way. Simon is Simon. He is who he is. And who he is is amazing. His type of success will just be different.
And that's fine.