Do memories fade?

I have always fancied myself as having a really good memory.  Certainly, when I was younger, I never forgot anything.  I was always able to remember trivial facts and, in my schoolwork, I seldom had to revise hard for my exams.  I also did a great deal of acting at home and at university, and learning long scripts was never a chore, or something that I gave a second thought to.

Now anyone reading this that works with me is probably laughing quietly to themselves.  It is true, now that I am in my sixth decade, the memory isn’t what it was.  I do find that I need to make lists and be reminded of things that I am meant to do.  On the whole, I think my memory is still pretty good.

Then, the other day, I was in the sitting room and looking around at the pictures on our wall. One of the pictures is made up of a number of pictures of Mac, Swee and me. As a gift when Mac came to live with us, some good friends bought us a professional photography session. It was the perfect gift. So early in our time together as a family, those photos taken of us show something of the fun and hope that we had as a newly formed unit – us against the world. We had hundreds of photos taken – so much so, it took a very long time to choose the best ones – but we now have fantastic photos as a clear memory of that time. There are great ones of the three of us, but also some wonderful ones of Mac dressed as a wizard, and holding one of his most prized possessions at the time (a ceramic motorbike that he had painted himself).

But, as I looked at the pictures, it felt as though all of that had happened to someone else. Yes – I could remember the occasion; I could remember how much fun we had and how carefully Swee had picked clothes that would show well in photos. But somehow it all seemed so distance. Somehow it felt as though I was losing that memory, as if it was another lifetime. I went to find Swee and for the first time in a long time, I sobbed and sobbed. It made me so sad to think that somehow, maybe my memories of Mac and my memories of being a Dad were fading away.

But then I thought more about the nature of memories. It is true that some parts of our memories fade. One of the main reasons I wanted to write down my memories of bringing up Mac and our time together was that one day I would find it harder to remember, and I didn’t want his life, and the memories of all that he was, to die with me. I wanted there to be something more lasting to honour him.

So, is it inevitable that my memories will fade?? I guess in some ways that it is. One of my greatest fears has been that one day our short eight years together would seem such a short part of my life – it’s already nearly four years since he died.

But I do know that those years were the most important time in my life – it doesn’t mean that what went before, or what will come after will not be equally important – being a husband, being a son, a brother, an uncle, a godfather, a boss, a friend, a priest – all of these thing define me.  All of these things have changed me and made me who I am.  Just as being a dad to Mac has been one of the most important things – made all the more precious by being taken away all too soon.

What I do know about memories is that certain things come back very easily, and don’t seem to fade at all.

My gran died in 1997 – I loved her dearly and I can still feel her hug made strong by years of manual house work.  I can still feel her sense of complete unconditional love.  I can still hear her soft Wearside accent.

And with Mac, I don’t think I will ever forget the feeling of complete love that I had for him; I won’t forget singing with him in the car; I won’t forget the way he bumped clumsily up the starts like a deer that hadn’t grown into his long limbs and I won’t forget his laugh like a peel of bells.

But most of all it is the feelings that can come back in an instant.  So maybe the memories will fade, but I know the feelings never will.

I love you Mac.  I miss you, but thanks for all that we had.

Happy Father’s Day, my dear boy xxxx

Lockdown reflections – the missing part of Mac’s story

One thing has really hit me during this crisis.  As ever for me it’s not the grand macro events.  I listen to the numbers every day on the TV – and the scientist in me looks for the patterns, trying to understand if we are getting some sort of control of things, trying to see what I think the way out might look like.  

But I also connect on the emotional level.  I know these are real people who are ill and dying, and I feel for every single one of them and their families.  And when I’m at the bottom of the rollercoaster, I can feel very sad.

And as a priest I am very sad that the churches are closed – for me it is a place of comfort where I know thousands of years of prayers are soaked into its very fabric – and the fact that the door is locked is so wrong, even though I understand why.  I know the church is not the building, but the people – but the fact that churches buildings cannot be used for funerals, I know is really painful.  You have seen me describe Mac’s funeral and thanksgiving services – and although they were hard, they were also uplifting.  Being in a church of five hundred people celebrating his life was one of the most extraordinary experiences, and certainly made a start to helping us to move forward.  I don’t know how I would have managed if we had just a few people at a graveside.

But more than the difficulty of mourning the loss of our loved ones – I was particularly affected by the death of thirteen year old Ismael Mohamed Adbulwahab, without any of his loved ones by his side.  The thought of not being able to comfort your child as they die, is unthinkable for all parents.

And that has always been my one regret.

I’ve said before in this blog that I have not dwelt on the circumstances of Mac’s death – I didn’t want to think about it.  But I have always felt that even though I couldn’t keep him safe, somehow I should have been with him as his life passed.  An artist friend of mine as part of an artwork asked people to write what they were sorry for, and it was clear for me that it had to be “I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you died”.

As I thought of this more I decided I wanted to find out who was with him when he did die, and to find out more about what happened.  So I contacted the police, and in a remarkably short time they found the names and contact details of the witnesses who were there.  With some trepidation, I wrote emails of thanks and hoped to hear from them.

And a wonderful woman called Emma wrote back.  She had been first on the scene of the crash.  When she got there Mac was standing up – the adrenaline keeping him on his feet.  She helped to get him to the roadside and to lay him down and make him comfortable.  She looked for his licence so that she could call him by name and she just spoke to him and stroked him and comforted him and made sure he was never alone.

She and some others who joined her made sure that he was warm and stayed with him until the emergency services took him away.  She was able to tell me how hard everyone worked and how gentle they were with him, gently removing his helmet and stroking his arm and his face to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone and that he was loved.

It is hard to put into words the gratitude that I have for the people who were with Mac, but particularly for Emma.  And what she probably doesn’t realise is that she has laid to rest the two main fears that Swee and I had – I was always worried that no-one was comforting him and caring for him; and Swee was always worried that he was cold.  In that reply she was able to answer that for us.

So that part of Mac’s story is now put to rest.  Emma was the angel that Mac needed at that time, and I am so very glad that she was there to help him.

Emma – thank you.

Lockdown reflections – lockdown without Mac

So I’m entering my sixth week of working from home, and most of them under lockdown.  I’m one of the lucky ones – one of the ones who can continue to work from home; one of the ones who gets to experience lockdown in a nice home with my wife and two dogs and a garden; one of the ones whose income has not been affected by these strange times.

And work has been busy and fulfilling and I don’t have to worry about travelling – working long hours is not so bad when you are instantly home.  Of course, it can be difficult to get away from work, when the emails are constantly buzzing away in the corner – but it’s a small price to pay to be locked down in comfort.

But as ever, at times like these I always find my thoughts turning to Mac….he would have been nineteen, turning twenty.  What would he have been doing?  Would he have still been at home? Would he have been stuck in the house with his parents as so may of his peers are? 

One thing I do know is that Mac would have taken lockdown in one of two extreme ways.  Either:

  • He would have hated it.  He hated been stuck in the house at the best of times, especially if he was told he had to.  He would have been super stir crazy, and he would have been impossible to keep in – looking for any excuse to run an errand or to get out, or:
  • He would have taken it super seriously….making sure that everything was bleached and that we were all washing our hands and no-one was allowed near the house just to make sure that he kept us well.

And the more I have thought about it, the more I can’t be sure how he would have been.  All I am sure of is that I wish he was here.  I could do with one of his enormous all-enveloping bearhugs when things seem a bit tough as we ride the emotional rollercoaster of the Coronavirus lockdown.

You see when you lose someone you never expected to die in your lifetime; when your perfect little family of three is destroyed in an instant; when you realise how fragile even the most young, robust life is – it can make you feel extremely vulnerable.  It is often said that three is  crowd – but when it’s the two of you and your child, it turns you from a couple into a family.  A perfect unit.  And when that is taken away – being just a couple feels so much more vulnerable than it did before – it’s just one step away from being on your own…

But in many ways lockdown has been good for me and Swee – it has given us so much time to be a couple and to remember what a strong couple we are, and to enjoy all of the times we have together – watching the TV we like, looking after one another, talking and reminiscing about those we have lost – but mostly just laughing at really silly things!

Mother’s Day 2009

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Special Occasions

I think it’s pretty common if you are longing for children that you spend some time imagining special occasions and how they might be when you do have children.  Birthday parties, Christmas, family occasions more generally are all very different as a parent of a young child.  I know that once we had been approved for adoption, I often spent time thinking about and planning what Christmas would be like, and what I would want to do to make things special when a child finally moved into our home and became part of our family – but then I have always been an inveterate planner.  The thing to be aware of is that the adopted child has being doing the same thing – dreaming of how they wish things could be and how they hope things would be once they have a family of their own.

I know once we had adopted Mac we looked forward to these occasions, the opportunity to “show him off” to our family and friends, knowing that they were going to love him as much as we already did.  We were so keen for him to be surrounded by the family that we cared about so much and wanted him to be enveloped in their love.

We had been warned that to begin with to introduce people slowly as moving into a new home is a pretty daunting prospect – it is most important that the attachment between parents and child is beginning to build, giving the child some much needed stability an opportunity to begin to build trust.

We were careful to follow this advice.  We introduced Mac slowly to the closest members of our family – grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins – and he lapped it up, glad to be the centre of attention and revelling in the treats that the all inevitably had for him.

But we didn’t always get it right.  Mac had a complete meltdown at the first big family party we took him to – a gathering of much of our family for a Chinese meal to celebrate my father’s seventy-fifth birthday.  Dad had hired a private room upstairs in the restaurant, so it was the perfect opportunity, with no-one else around.

WE made so many basic errors – misjudging how long it wold take to get ready with an 8 year old, forgetting he would be tired, not noticing he was coming down with a nasty cold.   You name it, we got it wrong, and so the only thing to do was to leave – me with an eight year old Mac under my arm crying and really quite upset and very hot.  Classic parenting fail.

Actually as soon as we left the restaurant and got into the car, everything calmed down, so we got pizza and went home.  What we also didn’t know was that Mac was starting to come down with a nasty cold and temperature – probably a reaction to all the changes he had been through in the last few months. 

It is interesting that we found an almost sure-fire way to get Mac to calm down in any situation was to take him over a threshold.  It was more than just taking him out of the situation, but we had found that if you got him through a door, it would often take the heat out of the situation.  This was most useful in the morning.  Mac did nearly always wake happy, and was usually fairly content to go to school.  However, we did find him starting to kick up at schooltime when he first started testing the boundaries in the early days.  We were always very keen clear that school was a non-negotiable.  Even if he was very upset in the house, if I managed to get him out of the front door, he calmed down almost immediately.  (I have since read somewhere that there is scientific research that shows humans do change emotions when they move through a threshold – so maybe there is something in it).

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is so painful for many people at some time in their lives – if they have lost their mother, if they have lost a child, if they are childless – and once we were married and unsuccessfully trying for a child, Mother’s Day was very difficult. 

Once we had Mac, it became one of the special occasions we started to look forward to the most.  We would finally be able to celebrate Mother’s Day in a completely different way – as one of the “in crowd”, rather than being on the outside, looking in..  It was going to be a celebration that we had finally become a family.  And for us that meant going to church as we had so much to be thankful for.

Our church, like so many, gives out flowers to mothers on Mothering Sunday.  But the children often also make gifts for their mothers.  I can still remember sitting with Swee in the pew as Mac went up to the front to help give out the presents.  The children had made little pretend “handbags” from a face flannel containing soap and other smellies.  They were in different colours – but Mac knew that Swee loved all shades of blue and looked carefully for a blue one.  He rushed back to Swee with the biggest smile on his face as he launched into Swee to give her the present and a huge hug.  I felt so emotional and happy – I can’t imagine how Swee felt.

As it was Swee’s first Mother’s Day, the rest of the family came back to our house for lunch.  It was a typical family get together and not the first we had had since Mac had been with us, so we thought nothing of it.  Fairly soon after lunch started, Mac became really quiet and pensive.  Quietly he went off to his room on his own.

You see through all the excitement, including his own, we hadn’t thought enough about the conflicting emotions that Mac was feeling.  Here for the first time, Mac was celebrating Mother’s Day with a woman who wasn’t the woman he first called mum.  Now even though in many people’s eyes she had let him down and not played the role of a mother, she was still his mum and still very important to him.  Despite that fact that he was angry and upset at her for the occasions when she hadn’t been there for him, he still loved her.

And here I have to say it takes a while as an adoptive parent to come to terms with that.  However understanding you try to be, you know that they have let down and hurt the child that is now yours, who you love as much as you would your own biological child, and it is difficult to forgive them.  We always made sure that we never let these feelings show with Mac, and over the years, as you realise how important they still are to your child, the angry feelings subside.  (Now in our shared loss of Mac, we have established a friendship and often drop notes to each other on social media checking up to see how we are).  Mac was always emotionally intelligent and he knew she had let him down, but she was still his mum.

That first Mother’s Day, we had forgotten the huge conflict of emotions that Mac would have and didn’t make allowances enough for them.  But we did learn a lesson.

So on any other big family occasion, we would make an effort to mention Mac’s birth family so that he knew they were not forgotten and to make sure he realised it was OK to be thinking about them.  It was always a tricky line to tread, because as Mac grew older he made it clear that they were his family, not ours.  But we would still mention them as I think it was important as Mac grew to give him permission to think about them and to know that it didn’t hurt us.  We knew he loved us and loved his home and all that it stood for – but there was still room for him to think about them and to love them.

Oh! He’s down!

On the way home from work on Friday, I took a cab back to Waterloo.  As we were driving along the Mile End Road, the cabbie had to make an emergency stop to stop him ploughing into a car that had just turned in front of him with no indicators.

Of course, I wasn’t watching (and naughtily hadn’t put my seatbelt on!) – so the next thing I knew I was flying slow-motion through the air from the back seat of the cab.  Eventually, I fund myself sitting up on the floor of the cab, my hand and arm having taking the brunt of the force.  After getting over the shock, and checking that I just had bumps and bruises, and nothing more serious, we carried on.  As the sense of relief came over me, I just found myself wanting to laugh and giggle – with the phrase “Oh, he’s down!” in Mac’s voice and his laugh like a peel of happy bells ringing in my head.

You see, Mac was clumsy.  Mac had the ability to knock over a small cup placed in the middle of an empty room, just by trying to avoid it.  Every night when Mac went upstairs to bed, you could hear the noise as he bumped his was up the stairs, knocking from the bannister to the wall and back again until he got to his room.

He could fall off anything, and like many boys constantly had some sort of bump, bruise or graze on his legs.  Part of it was that his balance took a while to recover after he broke his femur when he was younger.  It took a while for that leg to allow him to get a proper balance – Tae Kwon-Do really helped him with this as he learned in the increasingly complicated patterns to gain the next belt.

But I think he was also clumsy because he was growing at an incredible rate.  Like many parents, we still have the marks on his bedroom wall that where we frequently marked his progress.  When he came to live with at age eight, he was at Swee’s chest height, and she is not very tall at all.  Once he was settled, it was if his body made up for all those years of being unsettled as he just began one long growth spurt – it was impossible to keep him in trousers.  They wouldn’t even last a term!  His desire was to be taller than me at 6’3’’, and by the time he had reached sixteen, he had done that and was clearly the tallest in our family.

So, it was no real surprise that he didn’t have full control of those long, elegant limbs.  Finally, as he reached the age of sixteen, there began to be a little more poise and elegance about him.

The expression “Oh, he’s down!” was what Mac would shout on those frequent occasions when he did fall over, and you’d see that large, tall frame suddenly disappear as gravity took over.  I have such wonderful memories of that expression, because it was always followed by the giggles and peel of laughter – the same laugh that came over me as I found my self on the cab floor.

It is an example of memory of Mac that always brings joy – one that you remember fondly with a smile, and a warm feeling of love and contentment welling up from inside.  And I do find that more and more, the memories of Mac are like that.  Of course, it doesn’t take much to go back to the darker, sadder place – but it doesn’t have the hold it used to have, and it is easier to find your way out with a warm and happy memory.

And as I was reflecting on memories, thinking about what I might write today, I realised how much we do have some control over what we remember and how we remember it.  I have said before that I made some positive decisions on the day that Mac died – not to be angry and to live my life because he wasn’t able o live his anymore.  And I think unconsciously I must have also made an effort to control some of the difficult memories and thoughts.

There are gaps in my knowledge of what happened to Mac on the day he died.  All I know for sure is that he left us on his motorbike, and the next time I saw him he was peacefully lying in a hospital chapel of rest.  Of course, on an intellectual level I know what happened to him.  But my mind doesn’t let me go there much. 

I could try and visualise the scene, I could wonder if he was scared, I could feel guilty that I wasn’t there in his last moments (and in my darkest moments, my one major regret was that I couldn’t hold him as he moved on to his next big journey).  But I know that it won’t make anything better if I do any of those things, and my mind doesn’t let me go there.  I do know that there were people with him, and holding him when he died.  I don’t know who they are – I started to make a feeble attempt to track them down at the beginning – but I am very grateful he was not alone and that someone held him tight. 

But those are moments my mind does not let me imagine.  It’s strange, because I sometimes see people flinch if they mention a motor accident in front of me or someone dying in a crash and I can see they want to apologise for reminding me of what happened to Mac.  But in some ways I forget that is how died.  It’s hard to explain, but for me the reality is that he did die – as I didn’t witness it, it is not real to me and is irrelevant.  I realised that when I sat through the court case of the man who killed Mac.  It was like an intellectual exercise – interesting in and of itself, considering the points of law and what needed to be proved in evidence.  But it never seemed like it was describing Mac and what happened to him – not until right at the end.

The human mind is a wonderful thing – and I know that bit my bit it has allowed me to process more and more, and that this will continue throughout the rest of my life.  But the most wonderful thing is that mostly it allows me to remember the funny, warm moments that we shared – and to hear in my head that laugh as he tripped over his feet another time.

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A new school, a new start

So, at the end of Year 9, Mac left his first secondary school with some relief for all of us, looking forward to a new school in the September.

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Starting at a new school after everyone else has settled in is never easy.  I had to do that when I moved to Hampshire at the age of twelve and I had wanted to avoid this for Mac.  I think that had probably delayed our decision to look at moving Mac before.  It was a good move for Mac for various reasons:

  • It gave him a completely clean slate with teachers and students,
  • Some of the students knew him from the village, but he would be able to decide how much of his past he revealed, and to whom,
  • He was more confident in himself, than he was at the age of eleven when he started his previous school,
  • He really wanted to make this work,
  • The school seemed to have a much better ethos for Mac.

This showed itself in lots of ways.  Mac had become much happier in his own skin.  He was more confident with his peers, and able to make friends much more easily.  He was really caring and seemed to spot those in need of help and they seemed to be attracted to Mac – he always seemed to be sought out for his advice.

Mac had also grown up physically.  He was now well over six foot tall, and looking forward to the day when he would finally overtake me in height and become the tallest in the family.  As he was very active and doing a fair amount of sport outside school, he had also become lean and strong.  He was also developing into a good-looking young man – he was not as aware of this and seemed slightly surprised by the attention he got.  It was clear that the girls were intrigued by this tall, mysterious, dark handsome stranger that had turned up in their midst.

He would say to me,

“This girl kept staring at me today, dad!”. 

Swee and I would just laugh and tell him that maybe she fancied him.  He mentioned the names of different girls that were taking an interest every couple of weeks or so.  It seemed his popularity was likely to be assured.

Mac was also making friends.  He was asking to stay behind after school to go round to friends’ houses – something he had rarely done at his old school.  And there was no mention of bullying at all.  He spoke of school much more warmly – it felt like he was taking ownership and properly feeling part of the school in a way that he had never been able to do before.  We had taken a risk in making the school move, but it was proving successful in every way.

New lessons

The approach that the school took with Mac was completely different and accorded much more with the way that we treated him and the way that Mac wanted to be treated.   Rather than removing him from classes to help him out, the school ensured that he was part of the normal classes and any help he needed would be provided there.  In fact, the more he was treated as “normal” and the more the teachers expected him to be able to keep up, the more Mac actually managed to do that.  They didn’t give him an easy excuse not to try and succeed, and consequently he did start to succeed more.  I remember early on when speaking to the head whether she thought Mac would be able to achieve passes in the basic exams like maths, English and science – something that had not been assured or necessarily expected of him before.

“I sincerely hope so!”, she said, looking at me as if I had somehow taken leave of my senses.

They believed in him and put the time into him, and consequently he began to believe in himself.

Mac was doing much better at school. He started to move up in maths – he had always been better at maths.  But he also started talking more about English and having conversations about some of the books he was studying for his exams.  He still struggled with his spelling, but his writing was now good, and at least his spelling was now understandable even to the uninitiated.  It became clear that his spelling was never going to be great, but he was at least able to write faster and clearer, which meant he could get his thoughts down in a more coherent manner.

For the first time in a long time, Mac began to enthuse about certain subjects in school.  He loved engineering.  He spent lots of time on his engineering homework projects, researching materials and designs and working on his engineering drawings.  He had become so much more precise. He produced a wonderful piece of work for a home alarm project and we could see how much he enjoyed all aspects of the process.

He also had a great time in RE.  RE is compulsory as part of the National Curriculum, but not all students studied it for GCSE.  Mac did and enjoyed it.  Of course, he had a great background in Christianity – being a priest’s son (something of which he now seemed to be quietly proud) and all those hours sitting in the church choir and listening to Michael meant that a huge amount of information had gone in.  Like me, he was also fascinated by other religions and the similarities and differences.  The other aspect that was a large part of RE was learning to discuss moral and philosophical topics.  He would come home having had a discussion on contraception or abortion or same-sex marriage, and would love to talk through the issues.  On one occasion he called me on my mobile during the lesson.  Luckily, although I was at work, I was at my desk.  He wanted me to talk to class to explain a particular issue to do with the church over the phone.  I did the best I could, but I could see members of my department looking at me in a fairly strange way.

That is not to say that all was rosy.  Mac was struggling with music.  Part of the course required him to write and perform a piece of music and be able to explain the process and thoughts behind it.  Although Mac did have a nice voice, and was happy to belt out a song when it was just him and me in a car, he was much more embarrassed in class.  He had also been learning the drums before and was now taking guitar lessons.  He was improving, but didn’t really have the commitment to sit down for the hours of practice that were really necessary to get good.

Consequently he was falling behind in his project, and this was to form part of his final exam mark.  Previously he had been able to get away with avoiding things – he rarely was picked up on these issues.  The difference at his new school was that nothing was allowed to slide.  I was called by his music teacher to come in and discuss how we could help to get him back on track.  She offered much of her own time to help him, as long as he knuckled down.  I knew the behaviour of old – if Mac thought he was failing at something, he would often stick his head in the sand and hope it would go away.  If he didn’t try then he would not fail.  Now, that was not an option – he was not allowed to avoid anything, but would be helped to make sure that he would do his best in everything.  The approach in the school was fantastic.

I was also impressed by the behaviour of the students.  As ever there were one or two occasions when Mac was starting to get into trouble.  He could still be a bit of a loner at times – and as such was sometimes a target.  Again the approach was completely different.  Whereas at Mac’s old school there had been a lack of control of some behaviour during breaks, the teachers were always on top of things.  It’s not that the grounds were easier to patrol – if anything I think they were a little more difficult.  The staff just seemed to know what was going on.  I remember speaking to the head about it once, when she had stopped a group of boys ganging up on Mac.  She said,

“I always spend some time outside during breaks, and I have a sense if something isn’t right.  The other day when I walked past the group of boys with Mac.  I had a strong feeling that something was awry, so I turned back and caught the start of it and was able to discipline those responsible.”

At Mac’s old school, they wouldn’t have got there until something had happened, and normally Mac would have been blamed.  This is why they lost his trust.  Mac’s new head knew her school, and knew when things were working or not.  This approach was mirrored in her staff. It was, and is, a very impressive school.

School Sports

Sport was also a huge success for Mac at his new school.  His head of year was a PE teacher and took an immediate shine to Mac, and Mac liked him.  He saw Mac’s potential and began to get him involved in all sorts of sports.  As it was Winter, Mac started with football and rugby.  He was OK at football, but there were plenty of boys faster and more nimble than him who had been playing competitive football for a long time.  But the school was good at rugby, and they could see that Mac’s height and strength was going to be hugely useful in their team.

So he started to play school rugby. Mac did enjoy it – he was fast enough.  But he was best as a forward – bringing real strength to the scrum.  I was starting to have to pick him up late from school after a rugby match on a number of occasions.  He also made some friends in the team.  There was one downside to rugby for Mac.  When he was younger he had been fearless.  As he was growing older, like many of us, he was becoming slightly more reticent to throw himself into more physical situations.  He knew it was going to hurt and had decided he really didn’t like it.  As a forward, it was inevitable that Mac would spend a lot of the time crunching into other big bodies – despite his clear aptitude for the game, after the season was over he decided his rugby career was also going to end.

Luckily next came cricket.  This was a game that Mac really loved.  As he practiced a lot in the village he was getting better.  With some good teaching at school, he really began to improve and again was chosen for the school team.  His PE teacher recounted to me the time that Mac had taken his first wicket for the school.  He said that the look on his face was so fulfilling as a teacher and one that he would never forget – Mac had responded so well to their belief in his abilities.  At the prize-giving at the end of the year, Mac was stunned to receive a prize as the most improved cricketer.  He hadn’t won a prize at school since he left primary school.

As the summer approached, we reflected on the huge change in Mac over the past year.  Changing schools had been the making of him.  He was happier, more mature, more grown up and working hard.  He was succeeding at sports and was on track to do the best that he could in his exams.  Most of all he was happy.

What a difference a year can make!

Rollercoasters and testing boundaries!

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I saw this description of bringing up teenagers the other day.

When you get into a rollercoaster, and the bar is brought down over your head and fixed over your lap, the natural instinct is to push it and try to dislodge it and test it.  Of course, deep down we know that the rollercoaster is safe, and we know that the safety bar will not come loose.  We know that we can push it and test it and it will not let us down – experience has taught us that.

It is similar with a teenager – when they push us and test us and find every button that they can to rile us, they are testing the boundaries.  We know that our children need and like boundaries – it makes them feel safe; it helps them know where they stand and to know what is acceptable.  It helps them to find their own way in the world, and from understanding our standards and our expectations, they form their own version of that for themselves to take out into the world and to use with their own families and friends as they strike out for themselves.

But the important thing is that when they test the boundaries, when they push us and test us – like the rollercoaster, deep down they know that we will not budge and that our boundaries will stick and we will keep them safe.  So even when we are in the midst of the worst of the teenage years, we must hang onto the fact that we are not bad parents, and our kids are doing what they need to do to come through as well-adjusted members of our family and wider society.  We are doing it right and we are helping them to feel safe, when it feels like everything else is around them is changing.

With adopted children things are slightly different.  They will test your boundaries – Mac did that from just a couple of weeks of moving in.  And sometimes it is really hard to keep strong – especially as you don’t really know this new person in your life.  In many cases, although you will have been given some information from social workers and previous carers, it is inevitable that as they feel safer with you they will start to reveal things that they have never revealed to anyone else.  And you need to stay as calm as possible and not seem shocked and try to take all of this in your stride.  The answer is not to go easy – but to make those boundaries clear from the outset and stick with them.

The big difference is that, whereas children who have not had the difficult start that most adopted children have had will instinctively trust you – with our rollercoaster analogy, they know the bar will hold – adopted children expect the safety bar to fail.  Their experience is that when pushed it does fail as that has been their experience up to now.  So, consequently their instinct is not to trust adults as they will have been let down a number of times before.  Their lives will have been turned upside down without fully understanding why and without their prior knowledge or consent.  It’s not surprising that they have learned not to trust.  With adopted children you need to gain their trust first – to prove to them that however much they push, the safety bar will not fail; that you will not let them down. 

Boundaries, and sticking with them, are even more important with adopted kids.  Those boundaries will make them feel safe.

Of course we had that with Mac – he pushed and pushed and we stayed firm.  He would hit out – emotionally and sometimes physically – and we tried our best to roll with it and keep to our promises – our promise never to hurt him.  If we promised we would be somewhere to pick him up at a certain time, we made doubly sure that we would be there on time.  If we promised that we would do something the next day – we would make sure that we did it.  And slowly he learned that we kept our word.  Slowly he learned that we would not let him down.  Slowly he learned that we loved him – and he loved us in return.

Along with the instinct not to trust came other interesting qualities with Mac:

  1. He could eye up a room in a second and see if anything was different – if something was missing or had been moved.  I guess as he moved a number of times he needed to be particularly aware of what was around him.
  2. He had a great sense of direction.  He only needed to do a journey once and he would know how to get somewhere.  Whenever we were near places he had lived before he would always be able to recognise them, even though he might not have been there since he was very young.
  3. His emotional intelligence was high – particularly with adults.  He had learned how to get on with and charm adults with ease – a very necessary step to fit in with new carers.  The same skill was not there with his peers – but I think that was because he was so desperate to make friends that he missed some of the necessary signs.  But as I have said before, as he got older, and less desperate to fit in at all costs, he began to move between different groups of friends, and was often the peacemaker or the person to listen to problems.

I have tried not to have regrets – and I promised myself the day Mac died that regretting things was just a waste of time.  But I do regret not seeing how Mac would have grown even more into the fine young man that he had already become, and I regret not being able to see how he might have put his skills to use.  I was always sure that he would have gone into some sort of caring profession – his ability to care for those more vulnerable than him was always evident. 

But putting those regrets aside, I am intensely proud of the man that he had become and the way that he had embraced the problems from his past and used them to help him grow.

So wherever you are and until we meet again, I want you to know that I will always be proud of you Mac,  love Dad xxxx

Growing up in the village

One of the things that you do when you are going through the adoption approval process is to sit down and map out your support network – it is vitally important that you have people around you who can help you through the transition, especially as first-time parents.  Adopting a child, rather than a baby, means that you go from 0 to 100 immediately!

When we did our mapping, we first of all noted down all of our family – we knew they would be the primary support.  We also had friends with similar aged children who would also be there for advice and help.  As we considered the wider context, we began to realise just how much the village itself was an enormous source of support.  As the proverb goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’  This worked on so many levels.  Not only did we have a wonderful local GP practice that practiced the best family care, but there were all sort of other communities, such as the church and clubs, that were there to support us.  I had moved to village when I was twelve and my parents ran the local pub.  Many of the villagers had seen me grow up.  They knew me and Swee really well, they had lived through our struggle to have a family.  They were now looking forward to supporting us in the next stage.

Having said that, it was a double-edged sword.  As I have mentioned before, some people seemed to think that we would be more open with Mac’s past.  There was nothing to hide, but it was his past to share.  When we didn’t share, all sorts of false assumptions were made.  With a village comes a lack of privacy – it is almost impossible to do anything without someone knowing.  An example of this was when we first moved into our new house and replaced the kitchen (the kitchen window looked out over the main road).  We were at a dinner party when someone told us how much they loved our new kitchen, especially our Smeg fridge – they had not been invited in (we didn’t know them that well), but had clearly had a good look through the window, and were keen to voice their opinion!

All of this meant there was plenty of support for us and for Mac, even if it was next to impossible to work through any issues in private.  On balance I’d rather have it that way.

Mac was generally popular with the adults in the village.  We let Mac have freedom to go to the local shop and the local recreation ground just a five-minute walk away.  The joy of the village was that our children were much safer than they would be in a town.  Mac used to love to get around on his scooter – he was still perfecting the skills he tried to show us when we first met.  He got through many scooters, at least one every birthday and Christmas for a couple of years.  He really was “Scooter Boy”.

Mac also had a number of bikes – BMX and mountain bikes, assuring us that they were needed for different things.  To be fair Mac did use them a lot and didn’t ask for much else, so we were happy to get them for birthday or Christmas presents.

Our village has an annual Flower Show and Fete.  This is a traditional affair, where there is a large marquee put up each year and villagers proudly exhibit their various flowers and vegetables, culinary delicacies and artwork in the hope of winning prizes.  The glory is in the honour, not the prize money which was at most £1.  Swee and I had done our bit over the years.  I had some success with my bread – especially my flavoured Mediterranean loaf, and Swee had won prizes with her photos.   She had less luck with her flower arranging – although they were always beautiful, they were sometimes a little avant-garde for the visiting judges, who knew exactly what they liked.  A comment one year on Swee’s choice of flowers for her posy in a jam jar was,

“Lovely choice of colours, but flowers a little large for a petite.”!

There were also plenty of special children’s classes, so for Mac’s first Flower Show we helped to get involved and enter lots of them.  The best class was for a miniature garden which had its own special cup.  Mac won on his first attempt (only with a little input from Swee).  He actually enjoyed it and did have a good eye. He also won some prizes with his biscuits and photos.

One class was called an edible animal.  The intention was for the kids to make funny animals from misshapen vegetables – but this was not made clear.  So Swee and Mac made a fantastic elephant cake – Mac always baked beautiful tasting cakes.  The judges awarded Mac a begrudging third prize, but did point out it wasn’t really what they had intended.

There was also a fancy-dress competition.  At the last minute, Mac and Emily (my nephew’s step daughter) decided they wanted to enter.  We scrabbled about for bits and pieces and much to our shock they both won.  Mac loved that flower show as well as the money he won, he also had to go up and receive the cup for his miniature garden.  He was very proud.

As Mac grew older, he got involved in a number of village activities.  First of all he started going along to the cricket club.  He enjoyed this as he and Andrew used to go along together.  They would go and practice in nets during the week.  The club was always keen to encourage the younger villagers and were always looking for players for the Sunday team, so the boys would often get a game.  Of course, with the practice and the encouragement, they got better and better.

The village also had an annual duck race down the small river to raise money for the village shop.  Hundreds of numbered yellow plastic ducks would be thrown into the river.  Previously, the ducks would have been sold, and the duck that won the race would win a prize.  Of course, these ducks were used again and again every year, so it was important to be able to retrieve them all.  A couple of people would walk down behind the ducks, encouraging them along and releasing the ones that were caught in the undergrowth.  Mac would then be at the end of the race with a couple of other guys in waders with a large net across the stream to ensure that all of the ducks were caught and accounted for.  We have great pictures of Mac in his waders working away.  It was hard work, but Mac was particularly well suited to it as he was growing so tall.

Mac was probably one of the best customers of our village shop – saving was not a concept that Mac understood and would love to go and spend his pennies on various treats.  Also if we needed anything, he would love to go for us.  However, if I gave him a ten pound note he had an incredible knack of spending the whole thing.  He didn’t like to bring back any change.

So, it was probably inevitable that he started volunteering and working in the shop as he got older, first helping them with the shelves and then working on the till.  He loved working there.  Mac was always positive and friendly, so it gave him the perfect opportunity to meet and chat to people.  Of course, it also kept him nice and close to the sweets and crisps that he could spend his hard-earned pennies on!

Dressing up

I mentioned the pirate costume above, but Mac loved to dress up more generally.  He liked nothing better than to put together a costume and play to his heart’s content.

There were a few fancy-dress parties that we went to.  Mac looked particularly good as a Bugsy Malone gangster for one of those (he had enjoyed a summer holiday club putting on Bugsy Malone in a week the year before).

He also dressed up a few times for World Book Day at school.  He did make a great Harry Potter – he had just the right look.  And one year Swee dressed him up in a toga for Greek Day when they were learning about Ancient Greece.  He also dressed up one year as a Roman Centurion.

He also loved to dress up in suits and ties – he liked nothing better than to be smart (something that was hard to imagine when he came in from school having played muddy football during the breaks).  I can also remember one Christmas as he paraded round in his Union Jack onesie we had just bought him, pretending to show off his muscles like a body builder.

But one costume stands out for me above every other and it was one he put together for himself on a bored afternoon.  We were suspicious because we could hear various noises from his bedroom as he rummaged around looking for the things he wanted (for some reason, Mac never realised that we could hear him making noise from his bedroom which is just above the kitchen – he seemed to think he was in some sound-proofed box!)

When he came down he looked amazing.  He had decided he wanted to look like Harry Potter playing Quidditch.  He had dressed up in a football jersey.  He had put football pads on his arms and legs.  He had a long piece of cardboard as a broom and a ball to throw.  Of course, this was all topped off with his Harry Potter glasses.  He looked great!  He had a great time posing for pictures and pretending to play Quidditch.  He loved to use his imagination so much, and dressing up was always a great outlet.

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The village was, and is, the perfect place to bring up children.  It had the best combination of friendship and companionship and plenty of people to look out for you.  The village really did help to bring Mac up and grow into a wonderful, mature young man.

TV and films

I can’t talk about Mac’s growing up and his interests without mentioning TV and films. 

Like most children, Mac liked to watch TV – when he was younger he would really enjoy the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.  He watched all of the series, particularly ‘Hannah Montana’, ‘Zack and Cody’, ‘Phineas and Ferb’.  His favourite was ‘The Wizards of Waverley Place’, and we often used to sit down and watch it together.  Mac would happily watch the same episode again and again.

We used to watch TV together in the evening.  Swee and Mac used to always watch ‘Eastenders’ together.  Actually we would often find it would bring up useful subjects that we could then discuss with him.  We also loved to watch the typical Saturday evening programmes together, like ‘Merlin’ or ‘Atlantis’ and particularly ‘Doctor Who’ – great family entertainment.

As Mac got older, he watched TV with us less, as he could stream series on his tablet, or watch TV in the kitchen.  But he still loved a series, really enjoying ‘Casualty’ and ‘Holby City’.

But more than TV, I think Mac loved films.  Mac and I would often go to the cinema at the weekend or during the holidays – going to see the latest releases, and enjoying a frozen slush drink and jelly sweets.  We also have loads of DVDs at home.  Of course, we would watch the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films time and time again.  Swee and Mac would often sit down and watch a DVD together if he had done his homework and wasn’t going outside to play. 

I remember fondly a story Swee recounted to me one day when I got home from work.  One of his favourites was the remake of St Trinians – the humour really appealed to him.  After watching it one time, he asked Swee,

“Mum, what’s a Brazilian?”

She knew he wasn’t referring to the nationality!  So, she valiantly explained the finer details of that particular form of hair removal.  He seemed satisfied with the explanation and carried on watching the film. 

Without doubt, Mac’s favourite film was Forrest Gump.  He watched it for the first time on a cruise on a day when the weather wasn’t as nice.  We were snuggled up in the cabin and it was on the film channel.  I have to admit, I had never seen the film either.  Mac was hooked.  Something about the character of Forrest really chimed with Mac.  He watched the film again and again and nearly wore out the CD at home.  He knew it back to front, and did a wonderful impression of Forrest.

Mac knew he wasn’t academic and for that reason particularly liked to use this quote,

“I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment.

Sports

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As Mac’s parents, we wanted to make sure that he had as many opportunities to learn new skills and take part in new activities as he could, and to make up for some of the things he had missed out on in his earlier life.  Academia was never going to be the highlight of Mac’s life, so we wanted to find other areas that he could enjoy and excel in.  Joining clubs outside of school we hoped he would also get the chance to meet new people and find a wider circle of friends.

We knew Mac loved the water, and as I mentioned earlier had learned basic swimming in a week on holiday.  He was very keen to have swimming lessons so we signed him up for lessons at the local pool on Saturday mornings.  In a previous placement Mac had also tried Judo.  Like many boys he loved the idea of martial arts.  We knew there was a fantastic taekwondo club at the same leisure centre as the pool on a Saturday morning, so it looked like we would be able to fit both in. 

So, Saturday mornings became my time with Mac.  I would take him to swimming lessons. He would then be able to change for Taekwondo and join the session after that.  It worked extremely well.  We normally rounded off the morning with having a quick lunch together – sometimes just a sandwich, or if we felt like a real treat, we might pop into the McDonalds drive-thru.

Mac loved both of these activities.  He was a strong swimmer from the beginning.  Once Mac joined us, he began to grow really quickly (as can be seen clearly by the markings on his bedroom wall where we recorded his height).  Mac seemed to have a constant growth spurt – in some way his body knew that he was happy and settled and responded accordingly.  It was impossible to keep him in trousers.  He quickly moved up the classes as he learned the strokes and became stronger and stronger. 

Soon enough, he was moving into learning life-saving.  As he was still young and under sixteen, he could not qualify as a lifeguard.  However, the swimming club ran a ‘rookie lifeguard’ qualification and Mac steamed through this.  He did so well in his swimming that the teachers asked him to stay on to the next lessons so that he could help the younger, weaker swimmers.

We had been keen to look into Taekwondo as we had heard such good things about the club and the black belt who ran it.  He devoted an enormous amount of his time to the club and to nurturing and teaching those who came.  The emphasis was on balance, coordination and discipline – all things that Mac needed to work on.  Just over a year before Mac came to us, he had broken his leg quite badly when his little brother jumped on top of him on a trampoline.  He had to spend a long time in hospital, and although his leg had healed well, it had affected his balance.

Mac loved Taekwondo.  He liked the challenge of the moves (or patterns) that he had to learn to gain the next belt up.  He would proudly stand in the living room showing us what he had learned and needed to practice.  He did gradually work through his belts, and made it to blue belt.  It was hard work, but he did enjoy the time at the club, especially when they spent some time working on sparring. 

When it became too tough, Mac would often take a break for a while.  We never forced him to go – we would encourage, but if Mac had decided there was no point pushing it. In time he would go back after a while and pick up where he left off.  Sometimes I think he just needed a change from the routine.

The best things for me about Saturday mornings was the time that we were able to spend together.  After the class Mac would often say,

“Can we take the long route back home?”

This involved driving further out into the country and then driving back to our village through the valley.  We would normally spend our time together in the car singing to the music we had on our phones which we could play through the car stereo.  We loved to sing together – often singing as loud as we could to the chosen track.  A particular favourite that reminds of those Saturday mornings was a song called JCB by Nizpoli – just playing that now takes me straight back to those Saturday mornings.

We also used to talk in the car.  There is something about sitting side by side, without the direct eye contact that allows you to have a conversation that you might otherwise find too difficult.  These were often the opportunities to find out if anything was particular bothering Mac.  We would also often talk about his birth family and how he was feeling about them.

As Mac grew up, we found that we needed to discuss issues that we thought had been dealt with when he was younger – of course, they had been dealt with appropriately, but as he grew and matured, he needed to deal with them again on a different level.  For example, when he first came to us, when talking about his birth parents, we would say that they hadn’t been able to look after him.  We might say that they had found it difficult to get their priorities right, but that of course they still loved him.

As Mac grew older, he wanted to explore that further.  He wanted more – why couldn’t they put him first, why had they neglected him, how were they now, had they changed?  It was often in the car that these difficult questions would arise.  It caught me off guard at first, but I started to be more prepared to have the conversation.  Of course, sometimes there was no answer, but we were able to discuss in a mature way and help him to process.  Sometimes the questions were triggered by something that had been discussed at school – when drugs were discussed in his PSE classes that inevitably sparked a number of thoughts and questions.  What Swee and I were always keen to do was to make sure that he knew he could come to us with any question and we would not be shocked or phased.  I think we normally managed.

Starting secondary school

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Transition to secondary school

Transitions and change can be really difficult for adopted children. As so many of them have lacked stability and the basic groundwork that children normally have, it is naturally unsettling when another change is forced upon them. It’s another time when they feel they lack control and they are not sure who they can trust.

We knew that the transition to secondary school would be difficult for Mac.  We had thought a lot about which school to send him to – as a formerly looked-after child, he would go to the top of all selection lists, so we did have a choice.  However, the school in catchment was the school that I had been to and was just a short bus journey away on a school bus provided by the county.  It was most convenient and most of Mac’s friends would be going there.  It had also been judged outstanding on its most recent OFSTED review.  We had heard a number of worrying reports about bullying, but on balance it did seem like the best option.

We worked with Mac’s primary school and the educational psychologist to make sure Mac was as ready as he could be.  His new secondary school also worked with us to give him more opportunities to visit the school and be ready for the change.  They also reassured us that there would be plenty of pastoral support – each of the houses that the students belonged to had a pastoral support assistant in addition to the school nurse, and pastoral support through the teaching staff.  As he left primary school, we were sure that the best had been done to help Mac with transition, so we enjoyed the school holidays and our summer holidays.  We had bought his uniform and PE kit – all was ready.

The first day of school was kept just for the oldest and youngest children.  Mac walked to the bus stop in the village, just a short couple of minutes’ walk from our house, and got on the bus ready for his first day.  I had taken the day off work so that I was ready to see him when he came home in the evening and make sure we were both around to support him.

It all seemed to go pretty well.  As with all of the new year-7’s Mac was fairly daunted by having to move around the school to different classrooms for different lessons.  Also, being Mac, he tended to dawdle a bit so was finding it difficult to make it to them in time (I’m not sure he was trying too hard).  But it seemed OK – he knew who to go to for help and support if he needed it.  We made sure early on to meet up with his form tutor and year head and the pastoral assistant.  We also shared with them some of Mac’s story and background so that they would be aware and sensitive to any issues that might crop up over time.

Everything went OK to begin with.  But it seemed that Mac was spending quite a lot of time out of lessons for various reasons.  He was still quite behind with his reading and writing, but he was being given help in class with classroom assistants.  We met regularly with the school to assess progress and to help with issues as they arose.

Mac was obviously struggling with some of the work.  Worst of all was French. Luckily I had been pretty good at French, and could certainly remember enough to do year-7 homework as competently as necessary, but I did begin to wonder if it was really doing either of us any good!!

Of course there were a few incidents as all of the students settled into school, and we did spend a little more time coming into school than some other parents.  But the school was dealing pretty well with Mac’s problems and concerns, and helping him start to feel like it was his school.  Towards the end of the year Mac was starting to complain that he didn’t really like the school and wanted to move.  We didn’t take too much notice – we knew he was finding some aspects of school difficult, but we really wanted him to persevere and stick it out.  He had changed schools so much that we were keen that he had some consistency and didn’t have to change schools again.  We also felt that Mac was just finding things difficult and didn’t want to work as hard as he was going to have to be able to keep up.

On the positive side he had met a good friend who lived nearby called Andrew. Andrew and Mac and they had a huge amount in common.  It was a good friendship and they supported each other.  However, Andrew left the school to be home schooled just before the end of year 7.  As you can imagine, Mac was devastated by this and was clamouring to be home schooled as well, but we knew that was not the answer for us or for Mac.  We got to the end of the year with things going well, but on a bit of a downward trend.  We welcomed the end of term and the start of the school holidays.

Year 8 and onwards

We had a great Summer holiday after year 7.  Mac had a good rest and seemed fairly content to be returning to school.  The increasing boredom of the six weeks off always seemed to help the start of term not seem too bad.

Things had changed at school.  The old head had left and been replaced by one of her assistants a very nice woman who we knew and who knew Mac.  Unfortunately the assistant head who had been in charge of pastoral care had left and been replaced.  He was a great loss as he had a fantastic touch with the children, particularly those who needed a little more care and attention.  It soon became clear to us that pastoral care was slightly in disarray.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t still there – it was more that there seemed to be a lack of leadership.

Mac got back into lessons.  Of course, they were getting more difficult and Mac was starting to struggle more.  He was also having more trouble in the breaks.  Without Andrew, he was struggling to really make other close friends and this made him more of a target.  In hindsight, we can see now that he was being bullied from an early stage – not necessarily physically as Mac was taller and stronger than any of them, but psychologically.  There was lots of name-calling and teasing.  Mac had shared his story unwisely with some of them, and they would use that against him, talking about his birth mum or saying things about us.  Of course children can be very cruel and find vulnerabilities very easily and then use them mercilessly.

There had also been a change to the form structure.  It was now a vertical structure with children from all years from the same house in each form.  Although Mac was nominally assigned to one of these, it had been decided to put him in a special form group.  This was made up of those children with special needs and they met in the house on the grounds where special needs lessons were held.

Mac did come out of some lessons for help with English, but it is fair to say he really hated it.  For Mac, now a teenager and right in the middle of puberty, he wanted to fit in.  He did not want to be singled out and treated differently.  This accorded well with the way that we treated him.  We had always resisted naming problems that Mac might have, always working towards normalising him.  We were pleased to be backed up by the school’s educational psychologist who when working with Mac was clear that there were no real issues to be dealt with.  Yes he had missed a lot of basic early school and so was behind in basic reading and writing, and yes he had suffered significant early neglect and that had left with some remaining anger issues; but he was increasingly a “normal teenager” (whatever that is) and was desperate to be treated that way.

But the school seemed to struggle with some of this.  Swee was increasingly being called in, either to discuss a particular problem or to help out with a difficult incident when after being shouted at (something he hated) he refused to leave the classroom.  Of course, as soon as Swee arrived, he was happy to leave with her.  Their way of dealing with Mac and any issues with his behaviour was to avoid dealing with them and to separate him from the boys he found it difficult to get on with.

Mac was increasingly telling us how much he disliked the school.  But he still would get up in the morning and go, and seemed to have good days.  We wanted him to persevere and see it through as we thought he would feel much better for that.

A number of times I went in to see the head.  I had looked into the other school that was most used by our village – a similar school in Winchester with a great reputation.  They were happy to take him. But on discussing with our head we agreed it would be better for Mac to see things through at his current school with their support.

Some of the confusion we had with our decision was that Mac still seemed to be enjoying himself for some of the time, and lessons were not going too badly.  The particular teacher for a subject always made a huge difference to Mac.  In year 8, Mac suddenly started liking French and really started to progress.  This was all down to his teacher, Mrs Wales.  It was clear that she also liked Mac and the relationship really worked for him.  It just went to show that a good teacher was really able to support him and push him forward when it worked well.  Most of the teachers warmed to Mac – they could see that he was desperate to be “a good boy”.  And the more they helped him to do that and to achieve, then the better he succeeded.

In year 8 there was a French trip to the Loire Valley.  Mac was so excited about going and spent lots of time planning what he wanted to take and imagining what it was going to be like.  He was also excited because when there was a school trip, there was always a special T-shirt and hoody available with a logo for that year’s trip.  Of course, these were great for the teachers on the trip as they were better able to spot their students, but the added bonus was that on Fridays any official school hoody from a trip of from a sports team or club could be worn instead of the usual uniform.  This was Mac’s first opportunity to get one.

Mac had a fantastic time.  Of course their ferry coming back was running extra late, and I remember sitting in the school carpark in the early hours of the morning ready to pick him up.  The kids looked shattered as they got off the coach, but the teachers looked even more so!  Mrs Wales came over to me specially to let me know how well Mac had done and how he had been a great support to some of the other students who were missing home – just as he had when he went on his primary school trips.  He had lots of stories to tell us about going shopping and all of the places they visited and even trying out his French.

Sadly, Mrs Wales left at the end of that year as she was moving to a different part of the country.  She asked to stay in touch with us and Mac to see how he was getting on.  It’s fair to say that his French went downhill drastically after that, and I had a lot more homework to do.

The final years

As Mac moved into year 9 he was able to choose some mini-options getting him ready for when he would decide on his GCSE subjects for years 10 and 11.  Mac made a few sensible choices which meant that he didn’t have such an academic timetable.  It turned out that Mac was remarkably good at needlework and he also enjoyed cooking, so there was the opportunity for him to do more of that.  This also kept him away from some of the boys that were nasty to him.

But the school was also still removing him from situations rather than dealing with them. They would openly agree that Mac was usually not at fault, but seemed unable to be able to deal with what was in front of them.

An example of this was the arrangements for PE.  There were three groups in each year – the boys’ group for the best boys, the girls’ group for the best girls and the mixed group for all of the others.  Mac was put into the mixed group, even though he now stood head and shoulders above the other boys in his year (he was the oldest) and towered over the girls.  He was also becoming a good sportsman as he was going a lot of sport outside school – swimming, Tae Kwon Do and cricket.  He hated being in the mixed group and it meant he didn’t get to try some sports or be considered for school teams.

We complained and were backed up by the ed. Psych., and although the school promised to change things it never seemed to happen.  It also seemed that he was not moved up in sets when he should have been – his maths teacher (again a great teacher and one that really “got” Mac) felt that he was too good to be in the bottom set.  But despite best efforts the move never seemed to happen.

Mac was increasingly being bullied in free time.  There was a group of boys who did their best to wind Mac up at every opportunity.  Mac had become very good at getting himself out of situations, and we were always counselling him just to walk away and ignore them, but it was constant.  The worst times for Mac was on the way to and from lessons.  These were the real opportunities for the boys to know where he would be, and to be able to get at him as he was queuing up waiting to get into his next lesson.  Not surprisingly on a number of occasions Mac blew – somehow he always seemed to get the blame.

Towards the end of year 9, the incidences were increasing.  Mac was telling us all the time that he was very unhappy and wanted to move.  Finally, we could see that a move was becoming inevitable and if we were going to do it, then it was best before he started his GCSE options.

We went to visit the head to talk about the problems as we saw them.  Mac was really upset – he had been in trouble and he broke down when we were in the head’s study.  He was so desperate to be good – he didn’t want to get into trouble as he imagined his older brothers had – but he was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the issues that he was facing.

Swee took him out to the car and I stayed to talk to the head.  We had a really good relationship, but it was clear that she did not have control of a cadre of the boys in the school.  She admitted that she was not sure that she could keep Mac safe and out of trouble.  We reluctantly agreed that a move for Mac now was in his best interests.  We were literally at the end of Summer term, but she promised to help facilitate the transfer to the Winchester school by writing to the head and calling her to assure everything would be OK. 

We were about to go on a cruise and when we were due back the new school would be on holiday and closed.  We all decided Mac did not need to go back to school for the last few days, and we arranged to see the new head when we got back from holiday and just before the new term started.

Once the decision was made, Swee and I were actually quite relieved.  The look on Mac’s face was amazing – we saw all the worry and stress that had become ingrained lift away.

“I did try to tell you it was bad”, he said.

But he did not bear a grudge.  With perfect hindsight, we might have moved him earlier – we will never know if that would have been a better option.  It certainly seemed to be the right decision for us all now.