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.  

A tap on the shoulder

Last week I mentioned that sometimes grief gives you a tap on the shoulder to remind you that it’s there and not to get too complacent that you might be over things.  Well this week, I got a great almighty tap on the shoulder – but this wasn’t sad at all.

I was staying in London and on Thursday night Swee called me to let me know that Mac’s younger brother had left a message and was hoping that we would call back as he wanted to catch up and he had a few questions.  Well this was something of a shock – I had been in touch with his parents over the past few months, just to catch up on his news, and to see that he was OK, but hadn’t expected any contact just yet.  His mum had also sent us a photo, and it was pretty stunning to see how much he had grown up to look like Mac – he was now sixteen, the age that Mac was when he died.

It sounded like he really wanted to talk, so I picked up his number and called.  At first he barely said anything – I wasn’t sure if he was crying or just shocked – probably a mix of the two.  So I just carried on talking, telling how lovely it was to hear from him and how this must be really strange.

He told me that he hadn’t really thought that I would get in touch – so it had been a bit of a shock that I had responded so quickly to his reaching out.  We chatted away for quite a while and agreed to talk again more the next day.  I also asked him to let his parents know that we had spoken (his mum emailed me later to say thanks and to let me know he was glad to be in touch).

It’s difficult to say just how I felt.  Here talking to the person genetically as close to Mac that exists.  And as well as looking similar, their voices were so similar – the same tone, the same slight adolescent crack, the same patterns of speech.  It could have felt strange – but it actually felt comfortable, familiar and normal. 

On Friday we caught up for a good hour – he wanted to know lots about his brother.  He had read the blog, and that had started to fill in the gaps, but it was mundane things that were really important.  We found that there were so many things that were similar about the two of them – similar interests, both a bit clumsy, both loved riding about on their bikes.  It was so nice to talk to this young man that I hadn’t seen for more than four years, and find out how he had grown, and help him know more about his big brother.  If he couldn’t have a relationship with Mac anymore, at least he could have a relationship with us.

It’s a complicated relationship to describe – adoption creates relationships that have no names.  Mac’s brothers are no relationship to me – I am their brother’s father – I’m not an uncle, I’m not a stepfather, I’m not a cousin.  But none of that matters – what I can be is their friend and to help them understand who their brother was.  And in return I get to have a relationship with them – and through them help to keep the memory of Mac alive. So, all-in-all – a great weekend!

Trip to Uganda

Our diocese has a link with the diocese of Mityana in Uganda.  Over many years the local church has built strong connections with the area – many of our villagers have visited helping with various projects – building wells and new school buildings.  We have also welcomed visitors from Uganda to the village.  It has been a very fruitful exercise – we have learned from each other.  Our local primary school is connected with a primary school there and some of teachers have visited and welcomed colleagues back.

Also, many of or teenagers have been lucky enough to visit as well.  It is organised through the church, but most of the teenagers are not regular church goers.  The trip helps them to build greater bonds with their peers in the village and learn a great deal about another country and how they live.  It helps them realise how much we have in the west, and how different their lives might be in a different country.

So, just over 4 years ago, in February 2016, it came to the time when Mac’s group had the opportunity to go, and Mac was very keen to do it.  The agreement was that parents would pay a third of the cost, the individual would raise a third for themselves (e.g. personal fundraising, maybe asking for money for Christmas instead of presents) and a third would be raised together by the group.  This meant we spent a year together as a group raising money to go towards the trip.

Mac raised money from relatives and made lots of cakes and biscuits to sell – with generous relatives, he didn’t find it too hard to raise the money for his third.  There were plenty of group activities that helped to raise the rest of the money, and Mac was always happy to throw himself in.

One of the most lucrative money raisers was packing bags at the local Waitrose.  Waitrose would allocate three days throughout the year when the group could go along and offer to pack bags – the customers would then be asked for a small donation.  The group were great – they had special Mityana T-shirts and hoodies, so they looked really smart.  And they always worked hard and were really polite – it was always a fantastic money spinner.

Another successful money raiser was cleaning out wheelie bins.  one week, most of the group had a Monday off from school for staff training.  This was bin day, so all of the wheelie bins had been emptied and were already out on the road.  The kids would go round and ask if they could clean out the bins for a small donation.  Mac got very involved with our pressure washer (he had done ours a few times before).  They also got very wet, but the village ended up with beautiful clean and sweet-smelling bins.

Some of the parents also got together to lay on a curry night with the kids as waiters and waitresses.  Swee and I offered to cook her dad’s famous potato and lentil curry to add to the chicken curries and vegetable curries that were already planned.  It was a beautiful warm evening, and the food went down really well.  As ever the kids worked very hard and lots of money was raised.

So, everyone had managed to raise the money necessary for their trip and the date was fat approaching.  As well as taking some money for projects over, the group would also take gifts to give away – nice wash kits, colouring and crayons for the younger children they would meet – they also prepared some stories and lessons that they would teach in some of the schools.  There was a great deal to take, so packing was a grand logistical exercise, with many of the cases taken up with small gifts and necessities to give away.  

Finally the day in February came.  From experience in the past, the group would leave together from the village, with us saying goodbye to our children there – rather than all of the parents going along to the airport (and probably making embarrassing nuisances of ourselves as we waved them off for two weeks!).  They were not allowed to take their phones – to be honest they weren’t of much use in any case as lots of the places they would visit had little, if any good mobile signals.  For many of them, the deprivation of their screens was definitely going to be the hardest thing.  They all got into the various cars, we waved them off, and then they were gone.

It’s amazing how empty a house can feel.  It’s silly in so many ways, as Mac was often out of the house, whether at school or out with his friends or just messing about on his bike, but something feels different when you know they’re not coming back,  when you’re know they’re away.  It’s not just the quiet – somehow the house feels different, less alive.

Meanwhile in Uganda, Mac was having the time of his life and having experiences not many fifteen year olds are lucky to have.  During their time they helped in a local primary school, they spent a day at the secondary school with their buddies (someone of a similar age for them to get to know), they visited an orphanage for disabled children and loads more.  They worked on projects painting and building.  Every night they would gather together to discuss and reflect on the day. 

One of the things Mac told me he missed most was music as they did not have their phones or any other electronic equipment.  But they managed to fill this gap by singing together in the minibus when they were driving to the various schools and making their own music.

One thing they were allowed was a camera.  They all came back with the most amazing pictures – pictures of the schools and the children, pictures of their buddies, pictures of the amazing countryside.  They had pictures of them teaching the younger children in school, playing games and football with some of them, and pictures of them travelling along the long, red, dusty roads. 

The second half of the trip was an opportunity to go on safari in Northern Uganda.  After all of the work they had done, it was a chance to kick back a little and to get the experience of seeing some amazing African animals in their natural habitat.  Mac had always enjoyed taking photographs and was actually rather good – I can honestly say that some of his safari pictures are incredible.  They saw giraffe, antelope, hippos, elephants, lions, rhinos and all sorts of birdlife.  All of this against the most amazing backdrop.

They also visited a chimp sanctuary, although Mac did tell me that he found that quite scary as the older chimps were very loud and pretty aggressive.  The babies, on the other hand, were very cute.

Then, at the end of February, my dad and I went to Heathrow to pick him up.  I couldn’t wait to see him, and to hear about all his adventures.  We had group emails sent to us to assure us they were OK, but had no direct contact.

We waited – I could see from my app that the plane had landed – and then suddenly they were there.  I can honestly say that the surge of parental love for my boy was huge – and as I saw him he really looked different.  Of course, he had lost some weight, as the food had not been the usual fare, but he had grown in stature.  Even though he was tired from the trip and the flight, he stood taller, more confident and more self-assured.  In short, he had grown up enormously.  He had really come back as a young man – and with the experiences of a lifetime.

The group all looked different, and you could see how much they had obviously shared, how much they had grown together.  I knew, at that moment, not only that Mac had grown, but that he had made some real friends for life.

Reflections on Grief

Grief is a strange animal.  I’ve read loads of descriptions and poems about grief since Mac died – and in their way, they all describe some of what you find yourself living with.

For me, the one that resonates most is the image of grief as a person walking beside you.  At first the grief is holding onto you, reaching into your heart and constantly there and pulling away at your insides.  Then slowly, bit by bit, grief start to let go his grip on you.  You start to walk a little easier; the hurt is no longer ever present and constant. But from time to time he gets in your way and makes you stumble, he grabs at you and the pain comes back.  These times begin to become less frequent, less intense, until eventually you reach a steady state – grief is walking behind you.  He doesn’t impede your progress any more, but you know he’s there.  Sometimes, he might tap you on the shoulder, just to remind you – but the hurt is less and the memories are good.

I think that is where I am now.  And from time to time, the tap comes.  You can’t always predict what it might be.  I know for me that music is one of my key triggers.  For Children in Need this year, an album of covers was created to raise money.  The songs were all covered by famous actors.  The whole album is fantastic, and for a cause close to our hearts – but two songs particularly resonated with me:

“Yellow – by Jodie Whittaker” and “Never Grow Up by Shaun Dooley”.  “Yellow” was poignant because Jodie dedicated it to her nephew who had died recently.  And “Never Grow Up” has words that I think all parents can relate to as they see their children growing up so fast before their eyes.

Mac and used to listen to music together all the time in the car.  He would gently tease me that he didn’t like my taste, and then later, he would choose to play the song that he knew I liked, and he secretly liked as well. 

I find myself missing those times – but what I really miss is the conversations that we might have today.  I listen to my friends talking about the conversations and relationships they have with their grown-up children and whilst I revel in them and love to hear them – it will always be accompanied by that pang that it is something that I can never have.  There will be no new conversations with Mac – the conversations I have with him in my head will go unanswered.

Being a dad was such a huge part of my identity.  It was hard won, and something that I loved so much (even the really hard bits), and something I think I was good at.  I felt that sense of protection for Mac as soon as he walked through our door and we became a family.

I used to love to join in with conversations with my friends and colleagues about their children, comparing notes, sharing tips, laughing at the latest teenage mishaps.   

And, of course, I can still do that now – but I worry that the stories I share start to feel a bit lame, somewhat past their sell-by date.  And if it’s someone that doesn’t know, how do you answer the question,

“And how old are your children?”

I can tell you, there’s no better way to destroy an atmosphere than to tell someone your child has died!  But I still want to join in, and I do. 

When Mac first died, I remember asking myself, “Am I still a dad?”.  Everyone told me not to be stupid – of course I was.  But I realised that there is no name for what I had become:

  • If you lose your parents, you are an orphan,
  • If you lose you partner you are a widow.

There is no word for a bereaved parent…

Grief walks behind and sometimes taps you on the shoulder.  This weekend has been one of those weekends.  The tragic news of the death of Caroline Flack is awful on so many levels.  And whenever I do hear about someone dying before their time the tap comes on the shoulder. 

  • It makes me think of the things that Mac has missed. 
  • It makes me realise that this year he would be 20, and that seems so hard to imagine. 
  • It makes me think about all of those people affected by Caroline’s death – the ripples in the pond of life – just like all the ripples we felt when we realise how many people had been affected by Mac’s death.

But mostly, I remember that there is another set of parents out there who have lost a child way before their time, and will begin on the journey they never thought they would have to take – and I pray for them.

Mac and church (continued)

Mac’s confirmation and my ordination

As I mentioned, I started my training about a year after Mac came to live with us.  It did take my time, but I was ruthless about how much time I spent away from Swee and Mac as I did not want our building relationship to suffer – I tried to make sure I studied the minimum amount I could and preferably when Mac was out doing other things or in bed.

One of things I had to do was go on a placement to another parish to see how things were in a parish different to our own.  I picked a parish nearby in Newbury, and decided to look particularly at their successful youth work and what I could take from that.  It also seemed like a good opportunity to include Mac in my training as I could take him along and get his views on how the youth club worked and what he thought was good and bad – it would be great to have his perspective and give me the chance to be with him when I was away at this other parish.

The parish is on the edge of Newbury, but had lots of families attending. This is something that they had really worked on and had build up a great Sunday school during and after the main service, for the children of parents that attended the church and others.  They also ran a great youth week during the first week of the Summer holidays when they would work on a topic and do all sort of exciting things – building arks, making costumes and putting on a performance at the end.

So Mac and I went along for a couple of months.  He loved it!  He also met and made friends with another boy a similar age to him.  But there was something about the welcome and the way the children were treated in that church that was impressive.  Actually it also helped realise that the youth work that we did in our own church was pretty good even if we did not have as many families and children as our village was much smaller than the catchment for the church in Newbury.  The best thing was that Mac felt involved in my training – I asked him to write some material for my portfolio – it was good and showed an interesting take on what worked well and what he didn’t like.  As ever he was refreshing honest.

All this training finally led to my ordination, first as a deacon in July 2012 and then as a priest a year later.  Some of my favourite photos are of Swee, Mac and me on those ordinations days.  We all look very happy.  It is also amazing to see how much Mac grew in the year in between the two services.

Just a week or so before my ordination as priest in 2013, Mac was confirmed at our church with the rest of his youth group from church.  It was really funny because Mac liked to make a point that he was being confirmed at much the same time as my ordination and that both of these were done by our bishop.  Mac had got to know our local bishop David, as he had been around a few times to our church as we were in interregnum (the time in between two vicars).

In fact, by the time I was ordained, we already knew who our vicar was going to be.  He was currently one of the canons at Winchester Cathedral and organising the service of ordination.  Mac got to meet him and immediately they got on.

Mac and Michael

Michael came to be our vicar in the October of 2013, a few months after my ordination.  He had started to spend some time in the parish, and as he didn’t have a family of his own we welcomed him into ours.  We all immediately got on, and Mac and Michael particularly hit it off.  Michael was fantastic with children and he never talked down to them.  He had known a number of people that were adopted, and he seemed to innately understand what Mac needed and how to treat him.

Michael had decided that he wanted to have servers at the altar.  He believed that the best way to get children involved in the church was to give them jobs and responsibilities so that they really felt part of what we were doing.  Mac was very keen to be the first server, so we trained him up and got him the appropriate outfit.

Mac was fascinated by all of the clerical outfits, and was always intrigued by my stoles and the fact that we would wear different ones at different times of the year – white for special occasions, green for ordinary Sundays, purple for Advent an Lent and red for certain other festivals.  So to go with his white cassock alb (the long garment with a hood that our servers wore) he had different coloured rope belts to go with the liturgical seasons.  It really appealed to him.  He used to go to church every week to serve, quite independently from me as I had to split my time between the four churches in our group.  Michael taught him well and he became a really good server. 

He loved being in that church as he really felt a part of it.  As well as having a real job to do, he was welcomed and treated well by everyone there.

In February 2014, I got a phone call from my dad one evening to say he had just been called over to the Vicarage because Michael had just dropped dead from a massive heart attack.  It was such a shock because he had been very well, and in fact it had been commented on by his old friends that he looked so much happier and more relaxed since he had left Winchester and moved to our village.

It is testament to the man how much of a hole he left after such a short time with us.  He had really established himself and become integrated with so much of the village already.  For our family it was a particular tragedy as we had become incredibly close very quickly.  Mac was devastated.  He was very upset and angry.

Michael’s funeral service was held at Winchester Cathedral.  It was the most extraordinary service I have been to there, or anywhere.  Of course the place was packed and all of the priests and bishops that had worked with him and known him were sat together in the sanctuary.  The singing was the best I have heard.  The Winchester Cathedral choir were sublime – they had worked with Michael for many years and they paid tribute to him in the only way they knew how.  It might seem fanciful, but I have always believed there are certain times when the gates of heaven are just a little bit open and we get a little taste of that heavenly music – it certainly felt like it that day.  The Dean took the service and Bishop of Winchester censed the coffin and blessed it with holy water.

That afternoon, we held the burial service at our local church as Michael had made it clear that he wanted to be buried in our churchyard.  One of my colleagues led the much quieter service.  He asked if Mac would like to carry the holy water to be sprinkled on the coffin and the grave.  Mac was so pleased to be involved and to do his bit for Michael.

A special place in the graveyard was found for Michael to be buried.  There was a big space behind the church on its own and Michael was laid to rest there.  Mac and I solemnly followed the coffin with the holy water and incense as we recited the words of the Nunc Dimittis.  It was a very moving service.  Mac was amazing although we both hugged each other very upset afterwards.

(Just two and a half years later, we would be repeating that walk as we laid Mac to rest in the space next to Michael).

A couple of weeks later, Michael’s sister and brother-in-law came to visit.  They had been clearing up Michael’s affairs and sorting through his belongings.  They knew that we had become close as a family, that Mac was particularly sad to have lost him.  They presented Mac with Michael’s bibles that he had been given at his ordination.  They also gave Mac a knitted toy in the shape of Michael that one of his parishioners had given him some years before.  Mac was very moved.  The knitted Michael took pride of place in his bedroom and is still there today.

Mac and church

In the information pack that we got about Mac before we met him there was a statement that said “Mac doesn’t do church”.  I thought it was a rather strange comment and didn’t really think anything of it.

When we were going through the adoption approval process, I was also going through the selection process to train as a part-time non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England.  It was a rather odd time going through two processes that were particularly probing and intrusive at the same time.  We did also find sometimes that social services were suspicious of Christians, feeling that for some reason we would force religion on any child that came to live with us.  This was never an issue for us.  I had always gone to church with my dad when I was young, but was never forced to.  Swee had gone when she was very young, but not when she was a little older.  It was very clear to both of us that Mac could come to church if he wanted to – and we would like him to feel comfortable in church as I would be spending so much time there, but he could certainly stay at home with Swee if he didn’t want to.

Once Mac did move in with us, I remember asking him a few questions about Christmas and Easter and he had clearly learned the basics at school or in one of his foster homes as he knew about the birth of Jesus at Christmas and knew that Jesus died on Good Friday.  Fairly early on, we took him to one of the family services as lots of our friends wanted to meet him.  I remember sitting in the pew with him and Swee – he enjoyed looking around at what was going on, and singing along to the hymns he knew.  Of course his reading wasn’t good enough to follow the words of the service although I did try to trace them along with him.  And then it came to the Lord’s Prayer – and he started reciting along with it!  He knew all of the words.

Talking to him later, he said that he learned it at school, but he also used to go along to church quite often with his last foster mum, Sue.  So whenever Swee went to church, he tended to go along with her as well.  he enjoyed going along to the special services like Mother’s Day and Christingle at Christmas.

When Mac moved in, I had just been approved for training, but I decided I would put it off for a year while he settled in as I knew it would take a lot of my spare time.  However I did still get involved in some services and I was in the church choir.

Early on I remember I was going to help with a service of Evensong, and I had just put my cassock on.  Mac hadn’t seen me in this before.  He was in his bedroom and as I walked past from our bedroom I shouted goodbye to him.  He looked at me and said,

“You’re not going out like that!”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  Actually Mac became quite intrigued, and he decided to join the church choir.  He loved to sing and enjoyed being part of the group.  I think he also enjoyed having his own red cassock as part of the choir.  I did sometimes take services in some of our other churches, but Mac would still go along to choir.  Dad was one of the churchwardens, so Mac was able to help out – lighting the candles and putting them out after the service (a particular favourite as he was always a little pyromaniac), handing out books, helping with the collection and counting it afterwards.  It was a great chance for Mac to have some independence and to spend time with my dad.  I think he also loved being part of the church community and being comfortable in the church.  He also had a chance to earn extra money by singing in the choir at weddings – always a special treat!

Mac’s Baptism

Once Mac was adopted, we spoke to him and he agreed with us that he would like to be baptised.   For us it was a great way to give thanks for our family coming together and for Mac to be really welcomed by the village and the church family in a formal way.  We set a date for September 2009, close to my mum’s birthday.

One thing that he was very sure about was that he wanted to have some new clothes and wanted to be really smart.  Mac was starting to enjoy having nice clothes and was becoming a bit of a peacock.  So he and I went shopping.  We thought a suit might be a bit too much, but found him a waistcoat and smart shirt.  He also saw a vivid neon pink tie that he loved – so that topped the outfit off.

Mac also wanted some new shoes.  He always found his school shoes boring.  As any parent of a boy will know school shoes take a lot of damage particularly from plenty of football in the playground during break times.  So Mac’s shoes were suitably comfortable and hard-wearing.  When we were shopping he saw a pointy pair of shoes that he immediately fell in love with.  So, we agreed that he could have them, as long as they were just for church and special occasions, not  to be worn to school. (He agreed although there were one or two occasions when he tried to slip past us with them on for school, claiming his others were too dirty or uncomfortable.)

We decided that we would make it a really big party – and take the opportunity to celebrate with everyone.  We needed to decide who we wanted as Godparents.  There were so many people that were important to us and we wanted to be important in Mac’s life.  We felt he really needed lots of Godparents – so we chose ten!  And where any of those were part of a couple, we stressed that we were really asking all of the family to support us and him.

  • We had my sister Sandra and her two sons (our nephews), Daniel and Richard;
  • We had Swee’s sister Annie and her daughter (our niece), Emily;
  • We had Swee’s brother Andy;
  • We had our friend Adam (and by association his wife and children);
  • We had our friend Jon (and again his wife and children);
  • We had our friend Rebecca (and her husband and children); and
  • We had Sue, Mac’s last and very special foster carer.

Five men and five women.  There wasn’t much space around the font!  The service was lovely and the church was packed with all the people we had invited and plenty of other people as well.  I was worried that Mac might be a little overwhelmed, but he completely took it in his stride.

We had also planned a party afterwards in our local village hall.  This really was to be a celebration of us coming together as a family and to thank everyone for all of the support that they had given.  We decided to have a Harry Potter theme.  All of the tables were named after a Harry Potter character and decorated appropriately.  Mac also had a fantastic Harry Potter cake with the Hogwarts shield and other Harry Potter decorations.  I really think Mac could hardly believe this was all for him.

The village hall was full.  In addition to Mac’s godparents and their families and all of our family, we also had close friends from the village and from work.  These were all people who had been alongside us during the whole of the adoption process and before.  We had organised a hog roast to feed everyone.  The food went down really well, everyone having their fill of pork, stuffing, butcher’s sausages, crackling and great salads.  I had decided that this was the perfect time to make a speech, to mark the occasion and our happiness at becoming a family, and to thank all of the people there for their support and love over the years.  I just about managed to get through the speech without cracking too much.  But the real choker for everyone was about to come.

While we were preparing for the party, and talked Mac through what it would be like, he asked if he could say something.  At first I was a little reticent, because I didn’t want to put him in a position where he wanted to do something and then not be able to manage it.  I was also unsure about what he might say!  But we spoke to my best friend Adam (and now one of Mac’s Godfathers) to ask if he would help him if Mac became too nervous.

As it transpired, Mac was too nervous to make the speech, but he had written it, and in some ways it was all the more powerful with Adam delivering it.  The words were all Mac’s own.  In fact he put a wonderful short speech together – saying how much he had always wanted a family of his own and how happy he was to now be part of our family.

The words of his speech exactly as written by Mac are set out below:

Family

I wanted to be part of a family that looked after me and I had waited for eight and a half years to have a family like this.  Before I came here I stayed with some special people called Sue and Mark and their family.  Chelsea was there and was like me and we loved each other very much and she used to tease me.  I loved to play with Archie who is the child of Sue and Mark’s son Andrew and his wife Claire.

Richard and Swee are the right parents that I have been waiting for a long time to meet and now I am happy to live with them in St Mary Bourne because it is a nice quiet place.

They are nice kind people who care for me and love me.  These are the family I have always wanted.  Now I am going to sing a song.

Mac didn’t sing a song!  But his words did bring a round of applause.   I know Swee and I were in tears – we were not alone.

Contact with birth families

I was always planning to blog about contact this weekend.  And then as I was watching “Call the Midwife” the storyline came up with the adoption of little Mae and her mother appearing from Hong Kong.  Although it did not go into a great deal of detail, it gave some insights into the complications in any adoption balancing the well-being of the child – giving the security of a stable and permanent home and the need to allow knowledge of the birth family and background that the child has come from.

Modern adoption is a very different to the way it was many years ago.  My mother, born in 1936, was adopted.  It was a very familiar story – her birth mother got “into the family way” before she was married when she was seventeen.  She was sent away to relatives to have the baby, who was then taken away from her at just a few weeks old.

Mum was adopted by my wonderful gran and grandad, who had not been lucky enough to have children of their own.  It was organised by their family doctor as was often the case.  My grandparents did not keep this a secret, and told my mum that she was adopted when she was twelve. 

Many years later, after my gran had died, we managed to track down and contact mum’s birth family and we now have a great relationship with them all and a wonderful extended family. As was then the practice, mum did not have a birth certificate, only her adoption certificate.  When she finally decided to track her birth family down, she had to undergo counselling from specialist social workers before she was allowed access to her original birth certificate.  From this we were lucky enough to track the family down to Hull and the US, and also lucky that everything was so amicable.

For many others the story is quite different.  Sometimes they have never been told that they are adopted, and either never find out, or find out very late in life.  Sometimes birth parents do not want to be reminded of such a painful point in their lives – often feeling so guilty that they did not or could not keep their child.  Sometimes it is a painful secret that was never told.  My mother’s story was one of the lucky ones.  But the point is that the practice was that there was a complete break with the birth family at the point of adoption with no ongoing contact with the birth family.

Adoption now is very different.  There are many fewer babies put up for adoption.  Children tend to be older.  And as such, they are likely to have memories of their birth family.  They are often from families with other siblings and half-siblings who are in different homes, either with different parts of the family, in foster care or other adoptive families.  The situation is much more complicated.  Even children that were taken away when very young will know that they are adopted and that they have a birth family, and will have a copy of their birth certificate.  They are also likely to have a “Life Story Book” that will give them information about their birth family – all of this is there to help them come to understand their background and where they have come from.  They are given “ownership” of their own story, something that they can choose in later life to be open with, or to keep as a part of themselves only shared with those they are closest to.   But with this openness comes the vexed question of contact.

It is made very clear to adoptive parents that they are likely to have to maintain contact with birth family in some way.  It is part of the agreement that is made when the adoption is being applied for.  When the child is in foster care, there tends to be more frequent contact with the birth family.  With foster care, the bond is maintained as there is not the same level of permanence that comes with an adoption.  This is then eventually reduced when an adoption order is made.  At this point the adoptive parents are the legal parents with full parental responsibility, and the birth parents lose any of the legal rights that they had.  This increased separation is important for a successful adoption to help the child become properly attached to new parents and family.

I think it’s fair to say that contact is still a difficult issue for many adoptive parents, particularly those that have adopted older children.  During our training we looked at the issues related to contact a great deal.  I could see how important it would be to any child we adopted – although I have to say explaining that to our family and friends was often more difficult.  They really found it hard to understand how contact could be beneficial, and would often say that they thought it might Mac – I think that is a common and understandable position.  In fact, when pushed, some social workers held the same view, even if that wasn’t the officially accepted position. 

But from my experience, the hard truth about contact is that it is all purely theoretical until you have a new child in your home and you begin to understand the family dynamics they have come from.  With that situation, especially as you are also busily adjusting yourself to this wonderful and challenging new role, as you are falling in love with this child and getting to know them better and better, the issues and emotions around contact can become very complicated indeed.

For many adoptions, contact is fairly straightforward.  It might just consist of “letterbox” contact – probably an annual exchange of letters and photos with birth parents.  It’s an opportunity for the birth parents to be given updates on the child and for the child to get updates on their birth parents.  This is all done through social services to maintain anonymity and to keep the address and contact details private.  These letters are valuable for the child as it is important that they understand their parents are well and get up-to-date photos.  It helps them understand that time passes and enables them to prepare for the time when they reach adulthood and will be able to decided for themselves whether they want to have direct contact.  It also helps them understand that their birth parents are growing older, as it can be difficult for them to understand how the passage of time might be affecting them.

Contact arrangements for Mac were more complicated than most.  He was one of four brothers, all sharing a birth mother.  Mac and his younger brother were full brothers and had always lived together – the relationship for Mac was very important.  He tended to worry about his little brother as he had taken a caring role in the past, so knowing that he was happy and well was really important.  So Mac saw his little brother frequently – initially monthly and then during school holidays, so approximately every six weeks or so.

They used to get together for a couple of hours or so at a soft play area and were able to go off and throw themselves around until they were tired.

However the first time we met Mac’s younger brother and his adoptive parents was at one of the annual sessions when Mac got together with all of his brothers.  Mac’s older brothers were a fair bit older than him and were half-siblings.  It had been decided that it was important that the four brothers did keep contact up annually.  To be honest it was always difficult to decide what to do to keep the older and younger boys entertained.  What would they all be interested in doing?

The sessions were facilitated by social services – as Mac’s older brothers were still in contact with their birth mother as they were living with members of their paternal families.  it was important that the older boys should not have direct access to the younger boys addresses and contact details in case these were then shared with the wider birth family.  So the meetings were intermediated by social workers who specialised in these types of contact and who had known all of the boys for a number of years.

The first time we all met, Mac had been with us for a couple of months.  We were all to meet at a bowling alley that was near where the older boys lived as it was more likely that they would come along.  We were particularly nervous, as it was the first time that we were going to meet Mac’s brothers, but it was also going to be the first time that we had met Mac’s younger brother’s adoptive parents – the couple who had adopted Mac’s younger brother, but did not adopt Mac.  We were obviously worried about how Mac might react to seeing them, but also not sure how we would feel when we met them.  After all, we had already fallen in love with Mac – it was difficult to understand why it had not worked for them.

So we all approached the contact with some trepidation.  Mac was always concerned with meetings whenever social workers were involved, and we were not sure how it would be meeting the people who Mac had lived with as potential adopters before.  But for Mac’s sake we knew we needed to go through with this.

As it happens, meeting his brother’s birth parents was fine.  Of course, it was as awkward for them as it was for us, but I think they took some comfort in seeing that Mac was already settling and seemed to be happy.  We spent time with them as the boys went bowling, and got to know them.  They had information that they were able to share with us about Mac from the past, and we were always happy to pick up as much information as possible, as it was by piecing all sorts of information together that we were able to help Mac manage his feelings about all sorts of situations by starting to understand his past.  The contact went well, and after an hour or so, we all got together and went our separate ways.

This was the first of our annual contact with all of the brothers – and it was rare as it was one of only three occasions when all of the brothers made it.  One of Mac’s brothers was less reliable in turning up to contact and it used to upset Mac – after all he only saw him once a year.  A year is a long time in an 8-year old boy’s life –  and if his brother didn’t turn up, he knew it would be yet another year.  This was particularly hard as he had a really close relationship with him as his older brother had looked after him when his parents were not around. 

It was frustrating for those of us who did make the effort, and it seemed that no-one was able to understand why he was not able to come – in hindsight we should have realised.  One year he did send a note to apologise as he had gone on holiday.  Of course, we soon worked out that the holiday was “at her majesty’s pleasure”.  This prevented him from coming to contact a number of times.  Luckily Mac’s oldest brother always made it, often egged on by his grandma, and we were able to form a good relationship with them both.

The contact with Mac’s younger brother was more straightforward.  Social services were happy to leave the arrangements to us, so we would contact his brother’s parents and arrange meetings for half terms and other school holidays.  Mac did find this useful, and although he sometimes wasn’t sure how to play with his younger brother, he always was able to see that he was well and getting on OK.

In addition to the face-to-face contact, Mac also had letterbox contact with his birth parents.  Once a year, normally around August time, we would send a letter with a number of photos and giving some updates on how Mac was doing – how he was getting on at school, new hobbies, if he’d grown – and in return he would receive a letter back to update him on their news.

Mac would look forward to contact, but we began to notice that the week running up to contact Mac’s behaviour would get worse.  He would be distracted, he would behave worse at school, he became more withdrawn and rude.  At the beginning this was particularly the case when social workers were involved.  Mac’s experience of meetings with social workers in the past had often led to him being moved on to a new home – and it was a while before he was confident enough that he was not going to be leaving us.  Once the adoption order went through, he did begin to believe that this was going to be for the long-term.

But Mac was also nervous before contact because he was never sure how things would work out and if all of his brothers would turn up.  The meeting was really important to him, but he also knew that he was quite likely to be disappointed, and he didn’t really know who to blame.  Coming back from contact was often a sad car journey – sometimes quiet, but as time moved on, and Mac began to trust us even more, he would open up about how he felt and that he felt let down.  It was for all of these reasons that we ensured that contact was held during school holidays – at least then it interfered less with his school work.

Modern contact issues

When we adopted Mac, social media was non-existent.  It was not the case that everyone had a smartphone and had constant contact with all sorts of people.  It was just not something to think about.  But as Mac grew up, and got towards moving to secondary school, it became an expectation of most children that they would get a mobile phone – Mac was no different.

So when Mac turned twelve, just before he started at secondary school, he got his first phone.  As he got older, he wanted (needed in his mind!) more and more powerful phones as social media really began to take off.  And being indulgent parents, we normally acceded to his request (although he did tend to get my cast-offs when I upgraded).

Being responsible parents, we tried our best to keep up with the technology so that we could understand what Mac was able to do online, and I would sit down with him as we gave him greater access to things and ensure that we all understood if he was safe or not.  Of course, this is something that all parents have to be aware of these days – the internet can be a dangerous place.  But for parents of adopted children, it can be a place for their children to start trying to contact birth family, and a way for birth family to find ways of contacting your child. 

For our own part, we were fairly sure this would happen at some point.  What we were most keen was that Mac should be honest with us and not keep any of this a secret.   We also didn’t want him to feel guilty.  Eventually Mac did get access to his birth family – his brothers had shared their phone numbers in a contact session and everything grew from there.  Once Mac was on Facebook, the cat was out of the bag.  Of course, we could have insisted that he keep everything private, but we were keen there was no conflict around all of this, and the more we knew then the more we would be able to travel the path with Mac and not be kept out of this part of his life.

It seems to me that the world of social media now means that it is next to impossible to stop birth families from being able to make contact with your adopted children – unless your child has no interest and does not want to be found.  It is an issue that you have to think carefully about and be prepared for.

Mac and I would have quite open conversations about his phone calls with his birth family.  He did not tell them where he lived – it was still important for him to be able to keep that part of his life safe and protected.  But he did talk to them increasingly frequently.  He would normally tell me afterwards.  I would always make sure that I showed no negative reaction to ensure he didn’t clam up in the future (of course part of me was always worried about what could happen from this contact).  What it did do for Mac was enable him to establish a relationship of sorts with his birth parents so that when he was old enough to decide if he wanted to see them again, it was better informed. In fact, it helped him to fill in the gaps.

However difficult contact issues are for the parents involved, it is small compared to the conflicting loyalties that the child is feeling.  It was very interesting to me that Mac would never phone his birth family from our house.  I told him it was OK, and his room was soundproofed enough that we couldn’t hear the conversation, but I think Mac wanted there to be a separation between his home and his birth family.  In his mind, the safety of his home was very much tied up with us and separate from birth family.  This behaviour never changed.

In the end though, I think Mac was able to balance his loyalties and that was so important for his well-being.  He knew that we were his parents, and that we would always stand by him and keep him safe and let him have whatever he needed.  But you should never underestimate the bond with of birth parents, especially on the child adopted at an older age. 

One post on Facebook made me happy that Mac had sorted these things in his own mind.  On Father’s Day 2016, he posted:

“Happy Father’s Day dads, Richard and Paul.”

I think this said it all – and thanks to autocorrect he even got the spelling right!

Primary School (continued)

Mac’s behaviour did improve and we all got better at reading what he was telling us.  About six months after Mac moved in I had to go on a work trip to Japan.  I had been on short trips before, away just for a couple of nights, but this time I was going to be away for a full week – the longest time I had been away from him.

I remember as I said good bye to him, I reassured him that I would talk to him and that I would be back.  He just shrugged – he didn’t really believe me.  After all everyone had left him before.

While I was away, one of Mac’s teachers beckoned Swee over when she came to pick him up – she wondered what might be wrong now.

“We just wanted to check that everything is OK with you husband away.  Mac says that you have been crying every evening.  Is there anything that anyone can do to help?”

Swee looked at her in a rather puzzled manner, and then realised what was happening.  Mac had a habit of putting his own behaviours onto other people.  Actually Swee had been fine without me (of course!) but Mac had been crying and missing me.  His way of telling the teachers was to transfer the emotions to Swee. 

When I did get home, I remember how excited Mac was – part of it was because he realised he was going to get nice exotic presents.  But I think he did realise that I had kept my word and that I had come back as I said I would.  The date was particularly significant – the evening I landed back from Japan was the day that Mac’s official adoption went through.  We would go to court later in June for an official ceremony, but on 14 May 2009, Mac’s adoption order went through.  When I left for Japan Mac was still in the care of the state, but when I landed I was now legally his father and he was legally Macaully Richard George Sutcliffe.

School trips

Mac was lucky to go on a couple of school trips with primary school.  For some children this is quite a young age to be away from parents, but we knew that this was not going to be difficult for Mac as he was used to going to new places and settling in.  He also relished the idea of spending all day and evenings with other children – I think it made him feel a bit like he did when he was living with his brothers.

However, there were still some parents who were uncomfortable about Mac.  As I said earlier, we did not share his story with people – it was his private business and up to him when, and if, he decided to share information about his earlier life.  One of the downsides with a village is it is very easy for a vacuum to be filled with misinformation and to some extent this is what happened.  Also, Mac’s behaviour was improving a great deal, but he had been pretty difficult to start with and that is a label that can be hard to shift.

Again, the school were fantastic.  They made it clear that there was no good reason that Mac should not be allowed to go, and that if they were uncomfortable then they didn’t have to send their own children.

Actually, the trip went extremely well for Mac.  It was a real turning point for him at the school.  He had a great time, but he was also a real comfort to the children who were away from home for the first time and really missing their parents.  Mac had real empathy with those were in pain, and was able to play a “big brother” role.  We noticed a change in him when he came back, and it had certainly helped with his place in the group.

Mac did love to go on all sorts of school trips – I think he enjoyed being out of the school environment, and thrived much more.  He also tended to be good with younger children – this was something we saw again and again.  Mac was always very caring, but he particularly loved to be in the older brother role with younger children – it seemed to be that he was always looking for an opportunity to fill that gap in his life when he was taken away from his little brother.

School performances

At the end of the first term, the school puts on a Christmas Carol Service in our local church.  I can still remember Mac’s first carol service.  He was so fidgety that he was stood next to one of the teaching assistants to make sure he would stand still.  If you had been asked to look for the child that stood out (for the wrong reasons!) you would have immediately pointed Mac out.  In fact in my experience it is common to see that in children that have been in care – they often do find it difficult to concentrate, or are looking around at their surroundings, less able to concentrate.

But as Mac moved on through the school, you could see this behaviour start to change, slowly but surely.    As each performance moved on, he started to look more and more comfortable.

At the end of the Summer term, the older years would put on a school play.  The younger children would be in the chorus, with the speaking parts taken by the year 6 children – their starring roles before they moved onto secondary school.

However, in year 5 Mac was asked by the year 6 teacher if he would like to have a named role in the end of year play Robin Hood.  They needed an extra boy and as he was the oldest in year 5, they wanted him to have the chance of being Will Scarlet.  He was so proud! He got to be the only year 5 with a named part and was able to have rehearsals with those who were correctly his peers.  I can still remember sitting in that hot school hall watching him as he proudly took to the stage with all of the year 6 children.  It was at that stage that I full understood the transformation that had taken place over those years.  Mac no longer stood our for the wring reasons.  He was able to stand side by side with his peers and others.

In his final year – 2012 – the school put on a special play marking Olympic year (London was hosting the Olympics that year).  He was great and really himself.  At last he seemed to be one of the gang.

On the last day of term, one of the other children had a party at his house for all of his class.  Mac had an amazing time.  I remember as I picked him up and drove him home, he burst into tears!

“I didn’t realise how much I loved that school and how much I’m going to miss it all!”

The transformation was complete.  He still was behind his peers in reading and writing, but had come on socially in leaps and bounds – he was as ready as he was ever going to be for the transition to secondary school.

At his leaving assembly, all of the children were given a prize – for something that marked out their time at the school.  Mac was given an award for “finding his writer’s voice”.  Although his spelling was appalling, and never really improved, Mac always loved to write.  It really helped him to express his feeling and to set out his imagination.  From the first notes that he wrote to us and left on our pillow, to poems, songs and stories he used to write in the books that were littered around his very untidy bedroom.  His teacher saw that in him even then.

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Primary School

Mac was very keen to start at school.  For most of us, starting a new school is pretty daunting, but Mac had done this at least four times already in his short life – for him it was just a normal part of the changes he had experienced.  The important thing for him was that it was access to other children and an opportunity to make friends.

He had also made some important decisions for himself.  He had not been adopted at this point so his surname had not legally changed.  He sensibly asked if he could be known as Mac Sutcliffe – he didn’t want to have to change his name later and I think was making a break from his past.

We are very lucky in our village as it has an outstanding village school.  It is big enough to be really viable, but still small enough for all of the children to be known really well by all of the teachers.  There is a really warm family atmosphere and we were very happy that Mac was to become a part of that.  We were also lucky that the school had good experience of “looked-after” children, so Mac was not a novelty.

Before Mac moved in, the teachers from his last school were able to meet up with the Head of our village school.  It was such a good opportunity to be able to make the transfer as successful as possible.  Mac had missed a great deal of school in his early life – he had hardly been at school for 50% of the time in year R and year 1.  This meant that he had really missed out on all of the basics – particularly phonics – so his reading and writing was way behind that of his peers.  Of course, he had also missed out on a great deal of the social learning – learning how to make friends with his peers.  All of this, together with the general level of anger that Mac felt in his life, meant that school was not going to be that easy to start with.  We knew that this was something that we would be tackling together. 

The relationship with the school is crucial as an adoptive parent.  You need to work seamlessly with the school so that issues can be sorted.  But you also need to work as an advocate for your child when you think things are not going in the way that you think they should. 

One thing we were very keen was that Mac should not acquire lots of labels. I have seen some adoptive parents look for explanations for all sorts of behaviours in their children.  Of course, sometimes this is very important – if you need to have you child “statemented” to get the help that they really need or if there are particular issues that need specific help.  But, we didn’t think that saddling Mac with a collection of labels would help him at all.  It was fairly clear to us that Mac’s issues could be tracked back to the fact that he had missed out on some of the real basics early on in life.  There was no developmental delay due to any physical problems – we were keen to work to “normalise” Mac and to help him fill in the gaps.

Mac’s birthday in in August – so he was one of the youngest in his year.  It had been decided that since he had missed so much school, he should be held back a year – it was fairly clear that he would not be able to cope in his “correct” school year.  So Mac was to join Year 3 – after all he was only two weeks older than the oldest in this class.

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His first day came and he happily got dressed in his new uniform and we took him to school.  We took him up to meet the Head.  She greeted us all and then took him off to his classroom and to meet his new classmates and new teacher.  We went home, not really sure what to do with the time, waiting anxiously to pick him up that night and found out how the day had gone.

Of course it is always difficult starting at a new school when the other children are already established.  Although Mac was desperate to make friends, he wasn’t really that good at it.  He had missed out so much on early schooling that he didn’t understand some of the nuances of making friends.  He also hadn’t built up the resistance to falling out with friends – it is a lesson that most had already learned that sometimes even the best of friends do not always get along.

There was a particularly troubled boy in his year.  He behaved badly and Mac and he had a bit of a love / hate relationship.  Very early on, there was an incident in Mac’s classroom.  Someone had crept in and written all over the walls and destroyed some of the other children’s artwork.  Mac had immediately owned up to it.

Of course as new parents, you are still getting to know your child and it is difficult to judge why they do certain things. But something didn’t seem right.  Luckily Mac’s class teacher was very astute and was pretty sure that Mac had nothing to do with the incident.  She pursued the matter over a few days and finally managed to get the other boy admit that it had been him and Mac had nothing to do with it.  Another girl had also been involved and confirmed that it was not Mac.  We were so grateful to Mac’s teachers – they were getting to know him and followed their instincts.  We sat down with and Mac to ask why he had taken the blame.

“Well, I knew that unless someone owned up, the whole class was going to get into trouble.  So I thought it was best for me to own up.  I knew the other boy wouldn’t and I didn’t want everyone else to be told off.”

On some level, he was doing it for the good of the others and to be liked.  I think his self-esteem was still so low that he also deserved to be the one in trouble.

This is not to say that Mac didn’t get into his own share of trouble.  He was still dealing with a lot of his anger issues and was prone to losing his temper from time to time.  Also, as he struggled with a lot of school work, he could often be quite distracting.  When the class first came in in the morning, they were expected to settle down and get in with the task that was written on the board.  Mac could never settle down and would wander round the classroom distracting everyone else.

When he was getting frustrated, particularly during playtime, one of the teaching assistants, Trish, would often walk around with him.  Trish is a great friend of ours – she has children the same age as my nephews and I have known her since I first moved to the village at the age of twelve.  She was so good to Mac, and would often take him off and help him to calm down.  I think she was instrumental in teaching him strategies to help when he did get frustrated in school.

But try as he might, friendships were difficult for Mac.  There was already a tight-knit group of boys in his year.  They were pretty friendly and patient, but Mac could be difficult.  The truth is Mac found it much better to be around adults.  As he moved so much in his life, he was very good at being endearing around adults and getting them to like him – he was charming.  But this behaviour did not translate into making friends with peers. 

He was more successful at making friends with girls.  At his best Mac was really gentle, and I think the girls were interested in this new, good-looking boy that was now amongst them.  Mac often thought that no-one really liked him.  I still remember a good friend of his, Charlotte.  He kept a note from her that she passed him in class when he was feeling everyone was against him. “They like you more than you think”, it said.  Charlotte always tried to cheer him up and they remained good friends.  (They went on to different secondary schools, but always chatted when they met up in the village or saw each other at village events).

However, Mac did make one really good male friend.  His name was Bailey. Bailey was also new to the school and they were kindred spirits in so many ways.  This friendship really helped Mac in so many ways – they learned that you could fall out and still be friends again – such an important lesson for any child.

The Behaviour Book

We worked closely with the school to help Mac with any problems.  Of course, like many children, Mac was not often forthcoming about what happened during the day, so we were not always able to follow issues through if we didn’t know about them.  We were clear that it was not our job to be his teachers – it was most important to build up our relationship as his parents – but we did want to make sure that we were giving consistent messages with the school.  It was easy for Mac to “gloss-over” anything difficult during the day, especially as he did not really want us to know that he had been in trouble.

To begin with the school’s instinct was to try to deal with issues and not to come to us with everything, but we soon realised that what we needed was some form of communication between us so we could see how things were going so that we could praise the positive and help when things weren’t going as well as they might.  So the school gave Mac a “behaviour book”, where they would write in how Mac’s day had gone, and we could follow up with him.  It was also a great way for us to communicate, as we could let them know if anything difficult was going on in home life (for example he might be getting ready for contact with his brothers) which might affect how he was at school.

The book was a great success, until one day it disappeared.  We asked where it was and Mac assured us that his teacher had not written in it.  A few weeks later a new one appeared.  Then at the end of term, the classrooms were being tidied up ready to be decorated over the holiday.  Swee went to pick up Mac from school and had that familiar feeling as Mac came out with his teacher and was beckoned over to the classroom – the sinking feeling that things had gone wrong came back, although Mac’s teacher did have a grin on her face.

It transpired that during the tidying of the room, Mac’s original book had been found in a hatbox that was used for storage in the classroom. He had admitted to hiding it there.

When he got home, I couldn’t help but ask him about it.

“How did you feel when you put the book in the hatbox, Mac?”, I asked.

“Really good, at first,” he said, “but then a bit later I realised that I would get into trouble, so I didn’t feel as good…”

I couldn’t help but smile.  As ever it was a refreshingly honest answer.

Tribute to Mac Sutcliffe – Memorial Service 5/11/16

Following my last blog reflecting on memories, I wanted to share the eulogy I wrote and gave at Mac’s memorial. it remains one of my proudest moments.

14 November 2008 our lives changed for good.  A small, quiet, wan 8 year old, Macaully Clark, moved into our house with a few boxes – all his worldly goods – what was to become the last of the many moves that he had made in his short life.

But that is not where our story starts. Swee and I had been working through the adoption process for a number of years.  Following approval, we had not been lucky enough to be matched until Mac’s name came up.  It is not common for 8 year old boys to be adopted – normally by then permanent foster care becomes the more likely route.  But Mac was determined that he wanted a family of his own – a mum and dad.

So what followed was a number of meetings in what can only be described as bizarre circumstances.  The first time, Mac was brought over one evening after school by his social worker.  He promptly brought his scooter out and stated “Do you want to see my skills?”, as he set out to impress us with his use of his scooter (and he was later to become something of a scooter boy around the village!). 

On another occasion we spent the time together walking the dogs in the worst rain ever (it was thought inappropriate at this stage for him to come to the family home).  I lent him my coat which led to me being soaked through to my underwear!  The evening followed with chips in The George and a game of pool – a treat that he never tired of.

After these initial meetings we were officially matched with Macaully.  Then followed a rather fast process of meetings with him in his foster home, days out and overnight stays at our house.

We remember our visits to Sue and Mark’s house very clearly – there was a small window upstairs where we would see Mac’s little face staring expectantly waiting for us to arrive.  Those visits were so special – playing together, reading together, dressing up for Halloween – getting all of us ready to be a new family.

And so back to 14 November. 

Nothing prepares anyone for parenthood – but to be presented with a fully formed 8 year old, with strong opinions of his own, was a rather daunting prospect.  On that first evening, we sat down to watch “Children in Need” on the TV.  Macaully said,

“That’s a bit like me – I was a “children in need”, but I’m not anymore!”

He knew how to pull at the heartstrings even then.

All the training and preparation we had been through didn’t prepare us for the mundane, practical things.

Swee remembers clearly Mac standing at the top of the stairs wearing nothing but his underpants.

“You want to be my new mum, don’t you?  I need some new pants, these are really tight!”

So Swee rushed off to Asda, to get several sets of pants, not really sure what size or style was appropriate for an 8 year old!!

There is often a honeymoon period when children first move in for adoption – a period to lull you into a false sense of security.  Macaully kept this pretty short.  He was very soon testing every boundary that he could – seeing just how far he could push us – to see if we were really going to stay the distance, to see if we really were going to stick by him whatever, as we had promised.

Looking back Mac had everything planned (just when we thought we did).  He had spent the best part of a year with Sue and Mark – a couple who really made it possible for Macaully to be adopted.  So when he moved in with us, he was pretty sure he knew how he wanted it to be.

From day 2, he decided to call us mum and dad (no longer Richard and Swee as we had been before).  He had also decided that he wanted to be known as “Sutcliffe” at school even though that would not be his legal name until the adoption order went through some 6 months later.  He was also keen to change his name – to become Mac, rather than Macaully.  He was clearly making a positive break from the past and moving forward.

The thing that Mac was most keen to do was to make friends.  Mac had moved so often that he had not had the chance to make and keep real friendships – he was keen to do that in St Mary Bourne. 

And slowly, but surely, Mac became part of this village.  He always found it easy to endear himself to adults – I think this was a necessary skill from his early life of getting to know and settle in with different carers.  It took him longer to make friends with his peers – but he did, and many of them are here today.

St Mary Bourne School was a great place for Mac to begin to make those friends.  I think it’s fair to say that Mac was challenging at first!  He had a book that enabled his teachers to let us know how he had behaved and we could report back to them what was going on at home.  Mac decided that he would hide this in that hatbox at school (later claiming he had lost it!).  It was found some months later, having been replaced.  I asked him,

“How did you feel when you hid it?” expecting he might have felt guilty.

“Great”, he said – he was so often disarmingly honest – “until I realised I’d just have to have another one”.

After St. Mary Bourne, Mac went to Testbourne and finally to Henry Beaufort, and made many friends at both schools.

Mac loved musicals – very early on we went as a family to see “Wicked”.  He was completely enthralled by the whole spectacle and it became a firm favourite.  He loved to sing, and that soundtrack could often be heard blaring out in our house, or when he and I were singing along together in the car.

Mac also loved to watch films.  He had many favourites – Harry Potter, High School Musical.  But I think his absolute favourite had to be “Forrest Gump”.  Mac watched it again and again – and could quote just about any line.  It was a film that he loved in so many ways.

One of the things we were always keen to do as a family was to make good memories – times that we were able to share with each other and those close to us.

We were very lucky to have some great holidays together.  To be honest, as long as there was a swimming pool, Mac was happy.  He was a real water baby and never happier than when he was swimming.  This is something that he and Swee shared – he had a natural affinity for water, and no fear.  On one of our trips to Cornwall, we watched him go from being barely able to swim to being a confident swimmer in just a few days.

At home he motored through swimming lessons and soon became a “rookie lifeguard”.  He was just planning to become a full lifeguard now he had turned 16 – a skill he knew would come in handy if he decided to apply to do Camp America when he was a little older.  He had already used this skill just this summer when he rescued one of his little cousins, Cole, who got into trouble in the pool.  With a couple of strides and those strong arms he was able to shoot across the pool and pull Cole out to safety.

He also spent many an hour swimming with his Uncle Andy – the two of them playing and larking about in the various pools on the holidays we shared.  Mac never liked it better than when he had plenty of his family round him on holiday – aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins – making the most of the time that they gave to him.

But the holidays that stick most in my mind are our times in the US. 

The first time we went as a family to the US was in 2011, when we spent a fortnight in Disneyworld in Florida.  We stayed in the Animal Kingdom Lodge – who needs to go to Africa, when Disney can bring Africa to you!  Giraffes grazing just outside your balcony – African wildlife all around.

Mac enjoyed every minute of that holiday!  He loved every ride that he could go on – even if it did mean he was soaked to the skin.  At Universal studios he was able to get a proper wand at Harry Potter world; and we all got to swim with dolphins and float around Lazy River in Discovery Cove.

He also discovered the joy of the unlimited soda fountain – he would come back with bizarre concoctions of the various flavours of Fanta, Coke and Dr Pepper – and then go back to try something different.

Three years later, Swee, Sandra, Mac and I spent a long weekend in New York.  Again Mac loved being in the US – the chance to get a baseball cap personalised was a highlight.  But Mac also loved our visit to see the musical “On the Town”. 

Mac loved all his relatives – but he did sometimes play them up – even in New York.  Sandra was convinced that she had lost him in the M&M’s shop – she was frantic, but he was much more relaxed, stating “I was able to see you the whole time”.  He had made a habit of this sort of behaviour with Sandra – the first time she babysat for him, he disappeared completely, until she realised he thought it would be funny to hide in his wardrobe.

And then this Summer I was lucky enough to have the most fantastic holiday with him in North Carolina, meeting up with so much of our US family. The USA “agreed” with Mac – I know had he lived longer, he would have spent a lot more time there.

Mac also loved animals.  When he first came to live with us he asked if he could have a pet rat (he actually meant a hamster!).  We duly agreed and spent two years with the least friendly hamster that ever lived.  Lizzie (who later was renamed Les, when it became very clear she was a boy), was not a favourite.

But Mac did love all of our cats and dogs.  He and our cat, Ron, had a special affection.  Ron would come running from wherever he was if Mac called him.  He used to play fetch and I’m sure thought he was a dog.

And then there is Mac’s dog, Stella.  He trained her well and was often seen walking her around the village.  She misses him.

As I have reflected on Mac’s time with us, and read the more than 200 cards and letters we have received, some themes come out.  Many of the same words are used to describe him.

It is clear that Mac had touched so many lives – his easy-going nature with adults, his willingness to talk to anybody and to be polite and engaging comes through in bounds.  Many people remarked how, unusually for one of his age, he was always ready with a kind word for his elders. 

I think there are two reasons for this.

For some reason, Mac was not always confident of his relationships with his peers.  He was not always sure that he had friends or was liked.  He tended to stick with one or two close friends.  But it is so clear that this was not the case.  I think he was beginning to realise this over the last 6 months or so, when he was the happiest that I have known him.

The second reason is that Mac was always out in the village.  The great thing about a place like St Mary Bourne is that you can let you children out to play.  Mac was never really a “lock yourself in your bedroom to play XBOX and never go out in the light” teenager.  He was never happier than when he was out and about in the fresh air – whether on his scooter when he was younger, his BMX, his mountain bike or most recently his motorbike.  All these vehicles were Mac’s ticket to freedom, and he was already planning what car he was going to get next year.

He did a lot in the village – singing in the choir, playing for the cricket team, helping in the shop, helping in the annual duck race.  Mac was always ready to lend a hand.

Mac was very happy.  His relationship with his girlfriend, Amy made him happier than I have ever seen him.  They were truly a very well matched couple.  He was also very happy at Henry Beaufort school – Mac was no academic, and I’m glad to say had not wasted any of his life on revising for his GCSE exams in a few months’ time – but he enjoyed his time at the school, learning about music, making things in engineering, becoming a more accomplished sportsman and discussing all sorts of issues in RE.

A number of people have remarked how much he had changed in the last year.  First of all, physically – he was over 6 foot 3 when he died and very proud that he had overtaken me and was the tallest in the family!

But he had also matured.  I have to say many things contributed to this – but there was a definite change after his time in Mityana in Uganda with Dodie and group of his peers.  To say that he came back from there a man might seem trite, but the change was profound and changed his attitude to all sorts of aspects of his life.

Mac came such a long way in 8 years!  We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for him and for our family since he died.  People have complemented us on what we did for him, and the better life that we gave him.

But as I stand here, I have to say that it was a job shared with Mac.  His determination to be happy and part of a family was part of what made this work.   We may have helped Mac grow and mature in to the fine young man that he had become, but much of it was also down to him.  I can say that Swee and I are insanely proud to be his parents.

But I can also say that I have learned so much by being Mac’s dad – I am more tolerant, more patient, more understanding.  Being Mac’s dad has made me a better person and for that I will always be thankful.

I’m sure we have heard the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child – in Mac’s case that was true in spades.  On 14 October, our village stood still.

We can all agree that it was a life too short. But Mac burned bright in all of our lives and lived it well.

Mac Richard George Sutcliffe – may he Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory!