Summer 2010. I’m sitting in a stuffy office for my last ever annual review meeting. My Form Tutor, Keyworker and the Special Educational Needs Coordinator are in attendance. My Mum is sitting next to me. They discuss “the transition in September” and my predicted A Level grades.
“It all looks very promising for Megan going to university,” Mum says.
My mouth is dry.
“Perhaps this is a good time for Megan to talk about her trip to Germany,” says my Keyworker.
I enthuse about how much I’ve enjoyed the German exchange: making friends, visiting a German school, speaking the language every day, and the food is something else!
I swallow to get rid of the dryness in my throat. “When I was there, I asked to speak to the Headmaster.”
I explain how he interviewed me in German, and how I had said that I wanted to live there for a year. “I’d like to spend a gap year teaching English. He’s looking into it for me.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” says my Keyworker.
“It’ll be a wonderful opportunity for you,” adds my Form Tutor.
It’s a relief to get the talking out of the way but I feel guilty. When I’d returned from Germany the day before, I’d told everyone about my exciting plans. I told my friends, my teachers … in fact, the only thing stopping me from putting it on Facebook was that Mum didn’t know. I’d spoken to her on the phone that day, telling her about my week and what fun I’d had. All the while, I’d been working up to telling her. So why hadn’t I? Perhaps she’d dismiss my idea as ridiculous, thinking I’d arranged my gap year on a whim. She’d worry about the help I’d need to live abroad as a blind person. What if she refused to let me go? The closest I got to talking about my meeting with the Headmaster was to say: “I’d love to go and live in Germany.”
Unlike everyone else in that annual review meeting, Mum had just heard about my gap year plans for the first time.
The hot little office seems very quiet as The SEN Coordinator turns to my Mum. “What do you think?”
“Megan, I know you liked Germany,” she says, “But do you really want to live there for a year?”
To be a parent of a visually impaired child – indeed to be any good parent – you have to remain unphased when your child presents you with the unexpected. It seems we’re destined to give our parents constant surprises: our first words, the talents we develop as we grow, the things we get up to when they’re not around, asking if we can go on a gap year that they know nothing about. However, sometimes our parents surprise us too.
I hated secondary school. I found the work difficult and with no friends to brighten my day, school seemed an unendurably miserable place.
“I hate school,” I’d say each morning, “I’m not going.”
“You can’t stay off school just because you don’t like it,” Mum would say, and off to school I was sent.
I remember one of my particularly awful days: double Maths, Physics, lots of homework and no one to talk to. At break time, I went and hid in a toilet cubicle to check my phone. I had a voicemail.
“I’ve told school you have a dentist appointment this afternoon,” said Mum’s voice. “I’m taking you out for lunch.”
I’ll never forget how Mum did something I hadn’t expected her to. She made my day.
Of course, surprises aren’t just limited to Mums. I could tell you several stories about when my Dad has surprised me but we’ll stick with this one for now.
I have three siblings, all of whom are younger than me. Once my sister and I were safely settled in school, Mum decided to start a toddler group at home. It was great for my sister and brother to have their little friends to play whilst the Mums had a good gossip. I hated toddler group days. I’d come home to find my toys in a mess and sticky fingerprints on my cassettes.
“It’s not fair!” I would shout, “They shouldn’t be in my room. Can’t I lock my door?”
Mum was firm. “You’re not having a lock on your door. You could lock yourself in and that’s dangerous.”
I’m sure she did her best to keep the little people out of my space but the mess went on. The final straw was when they painted my window sill with silver nail varnish.
That night, Dad waited until Mum was out at her aerobics class before he came upstairs. I lay in bed, listening to him banging and crashing on my door. After a while, he came in.
“I’ve fitted a lock,” he said, “And I’ve got the key here.”
He gave it to me and I felt the weight of the small metal object in my palm.
Dad showed me how he’d attached a hook high up on the door. “You can reach that but the toddlers can’t. When you go to school, lock your door and hang the key on this hook so me and Mum can get in if we need to.”
“Wow. Thanks, Dad,” I grinned.
“If I ever see you locking yourself in here or if I see that the key isn’t on that hook, I’ll take that lock straight off your door.”
He had surprised me by going over Mum’s head and allowing me to lock my door. However in giving me a key, he was teaching me about responsibility and trust.
In times when the unexpected occurs, we learn the most. Whether your parents are breaking a rule or two to teach you something about yourself or they’re simply trying to cheer you up, our parents know better than most of us how those surprising moments can be the most challenging in a child’s upbringing. Any good parent’s ambition is to raise a child who is confident, kind, capable and who will one day grow to be independent of them. As the parent of a visually impaired child, you also want to instill resilience, advocacy, and all the skills that will ensure your child succeeds in spite of the barriers society may place before them. But what about when your child surprises you? With years of practice, the good parent knows how to be one step ahead.
It’s been a few weeks since my annual review meeting. Mum and I are in the garden, drinking tea in the sun.
“I had an email from the Headmaster today,” I tell her. “He’s made all the arrangements for me to go over there in September. He’s found me a flat and he says I can eat lunches in the school canteen.”
Mum doesn’t say anything.
“So, can I go?”
She takes a sip of tea. “Of course you can go. I’d never stop my children from doing something they really wanted.”