Let me tell you about Ben. Not in a “we need to talk about Kevin” way, but rather, “let me tell you about my lovely and ever-so-slightly strange eldest son”. Ben’s had a wobbly nine and half years, what with parental breakups, and house moves, and step parents and new siblings, but he’s come out of his first decade relatively unscathed, with only a minimum of psychological intervention and intensive therapy. Don’t worry gang, he’s okay. (Note to my parents: HE’S OKAY. YOU CAN STOP BUYING HIM SHIT NOW.)
Ben’s defining personality trait is his attraction to the underdog. (And his propensity to breathe through his mouth. And kick shit. And drop shit. And refuse to do what he’s told. All stories for another day.) But: if you belong to a minority group, then you’ve got a friend in Ben. Kept alive by oxygen tanks and a drip? Ben’s your man! Don’t speak the native tongue? Not to worry; Ben speaks the language of the minorities and the misunderstood. We’ve seen them all, over the years. We’ve welcomed them in, overlooked their afflictions and administered their EpiPens.
I mean, we’re in no position to judge. I’ve had my fair share of phonecalls from worried mums telling me that Ben’s right eye has swollen up to comedic proportions and he’s wheezing like an asthmatic smoker, and was there perhaps an allergy I forgot to mention? And I crack up laughing – because Ben’s little-eye allergic reaction is nothing if not hilarious – and ask if perhaps they’ve got a dog or a cat or a gerbil or a rabbit or a carpet or curtains or indeed anything from the 21st century – and they inevitably say yes, so I tell them to just hit him up with some antihistamine and carry on with the one-eyed play date. So no, I’m in no position to judge.
But JESUS, the kids we’ve seen over the years. There was the kid whose mother forgot him. And when I asked him, as darkness fell, whether he knew his mum’s phone number or where he lived, shook his head sadly and asked to borrow Ben’s pyjamas. I ended up driving him around our suburb until he spotted a familiar landmark (his mum). My favourite, however – and the one I go on and on about, because I still can’t believe it happened – was the kid who came with an empty rucksack and left with a full one. He stole most of Ben’s possessions that day, and graffitied Paul’s work bench (with his name, duh) in the process. The next day, I was working in my office when his mum pulled up outside in her car. The kid came to the door with his bulging rucksack, pushed past me, and delivered the contraband back into Ben’s room. We exchanged no words.
He’s a funny kid, is Ben, and ridiculously good at spelling, too, and apart from a fiery little temper and a refusal to sleep past dawn, didn’t give us too much cause for concern until a couple of years ago, when he suddenly got a bit sad. He’d come out of school with his shoulders slumped, and a blank refusal to tell us what’d gone on that day. That started in year three. His teacher said he was lazy. I suggested he might be bored, and in need of a gentle push. She rolled her eyes and said: “I’ve got 24 other children to look after, I haven’t got time to push each and every one.” Alarm bells much?
By the time year four rolled around, and MacBooks were introduced for each and every student, it kind of felt like we’d lost him. He forgot how to talk, and write, and use his brain for anything other than illegally downloading inappropriate computer programmes. He stopped making eye contact, and couldn’t think about anything – ANYTHING – other than the shiny silver box on his desk and in his school bag. If you asked him what he’d learned at school, he’d grunt “geography” and go back to scratching his arse and sulking. I mean, I’m all for puberty, but not at NINE.
A few months ago, on the way to football training, he said: “Mummy! We learned grammar today!” And I was like DUDE, that’s my area of expertise! Tell me more! Tell me what you learned! “Well, you know when you’ve got 52, and you take away 10, that’s GRAMMAR!” And my grammar-pedant heart shattered into a million pieces, and I knew our days at that school were numbered.
So YEP, we moved house, in order to move school. Let me tell you about Ben’s new school. Let me tell you about the new Ben. He’s changed! In nine short school days, he’s changed. He comes out of school smiling – NAY, BEAMING – and asks: “Can I tell you what I learned today?” And I (pretend to) listen intently as he LOOKS ME IN THE EYE and tells me about seed dispersal, and climate factors, and long division, and – um – Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter. It’s quite the transformation.
Believe me when I tell you, we didn’t take the decision to move schools lightly. Moving a sensitive, highly strung nine-year-old boy in term 4 of year 4 is a big deal. We both felt sick on his first morning, holding hands tightly as we were shown to the classroom.
But then the teacher came to us and said: “Hi Ben, we’ve been expecting you! Now I know you’re into reading, writing and football, so I’ve sat you next to Charlie, who I think you’ll get along well with!” And I wanted to cuddle the dear woman. For her to know Ben’s name, let alone his hobbies, was such a fucking relief that I got goosebumps and nearly cried. Okay, I did cry – on my way back to the car. And in the car. And the whole drive home. And when I got home. I basically didn’t stop crying all day, and when I picked Ben up from school and he said: “IT’S BRILLIANT! IT’S LIKE THAT SCHOOL IS MADE FOR ME!” I cried all over again. It was a very soggy day.
You just want your kids to be happy, don’t you? (And eat with their mouth shut, but again, that’s a story for another day.) And, while we’ve still got a long road ahead of us, and some serious paternal bullshit to deal with over the next couple of weeks, Ben’s on the right track. I reckon, with the help of this remarkable new school, we’ll fix him … just in time for puberty.