At age seven, my son was diagnosed with ADHD. Like so many ADHD kids, he was very intelligent, he just wasn’t able to thrive in a “read these three chapters and write a report” kind of classroom. So, I switched him to a "school with no walls," where children were encouraged to explore books, pursue crafts, build models, and basically do whatever interested them.
They did have some structured classes but the tricky part of ADHD is that these kids, while not being able to conform to a structured curriculum, do need boundaries. And therein lies the conundrum.
We tried medication but he became listless and robotic: just going through the motions of school and life. There was no joy in his eyes. I took him off of it and while the joy returned, with it and a few more years came some very troubling times for us both.
I remember the exact day things changed. I came home from work and he was with some friends. He was 14 now, back in public school and just barely scraping by. I walked in his room and didn’t recognize a single face staring back at me. I greeted them all and other than a few shoulder shrugs would never have known these were living, breathing human beings. Who were these kids?
I have never been one to blame my son’s behavior on his friends. “He’s just in with the wrong group of kids and they’re a bad influence on him!” my sister would balk. I knew from my own experience when I was a teen that kids gravitate towards those who make them feel part of a group, part of a family, part of anything.
If we moved 1000 miles away he would still gravitate toward and find like-minded kids to hang around with. It wasn’t the kids he was associating with; it was his need to associate with those kids that needed to be addressed.
Our home life was far from ideal. My husband – my son's stepfather – worked long hours and had little to do with my son or his brother. He was very impatient and only gave my son negative attention.
His biological father had abandoned us when my son was three months old, so on top of abandonment issues, stepfather issues, and the normal challenges that face all teens, looking back I’m not surprised he turned his attention to other kids who had taken to the streets and gangs to find a "home."
I asked him later that evening who the kids were, where they were from. All of his friends prior to this had been neighborhood kids I knew well. He told me these were kids he’d met outside of school through a mutual friend.
I told him I was concerned, they were not very polite and they seemed high. He shrugged it off and assured me they weren’t high and they were all "cool." He liked them. I could see he felt a true sense of belonging. However, I also observed a lot of delinquent behavior: cussing in front of me, referring to police as "pigs," and an overwhelming disdain for any authority figures, including me. It had only been two weeks and I no longer recognized my son.
At 15 he was out of control. This group he had adopted and pledged his fidelity to were now stealing cars, breaking into homes, and as I originally suspected, doing a lot of drugs. I tried everything I knew to reach him. Talking calmly, relating my own past experiences to him in hopes he would see I wasn’t judging him – that I could relate to the angst and restlessness he felt inside. Nothing worked. He was gone more than he was home.
Finding the police at my door or cruising our neighborhoods was no longer a surprise. The change in him and the destruction it caused was like an out of control wildfire. I couldn’t stop it; I had no control of the situation.
I ascertained he was gang affiliated but not completely embedded at this point. Many gangs, once you’re in won’t let you leave without dire consequences: being beaten within an inch of your life, being branded a traitor, even death.
I did a lot of research and decided enough was enough.
I sent him to a military boarding school about an hour and a half from our home. I was not allowed any contact with him for the first six weeks. No calls, no cards – nothing. It was torture as a mother; I had no idea how he was. I was sickened at the realization he would now add me to the top of his list of people he loved who had abandoned him. I cried for my son. I cried for myself. And then I cried some more.
Finally, the day came when parents of new students were allowed their first visit. We were to arrive at noon, check in, and proceed to the bleachers on the football field. All the parents there were anxious to see their sons, wondering what it was we would see.
Then it happened. Marching band music filled the air along with great anticipation of what was to follow. Every parent simultaneously gasped when 150 uniformed boys marched onto that field in the blistering heat, heads held high. As they passed, they uniformly turned their heads toward us and saluted.
Their heads snapped front once again as they continued their march. They lined up in military formation and displayed their rifle handling skills, then standing at attention awaiting the order, “At Ease." I can still hear the sound of their rifle butts hitting the ground by their feet.
Every parent there dissolved into tears. Some tears fell in relief, relief their child was safe, being taken care of, still alive. Other tears fell in mourning, saddened our sons had been broken of their fierce, rebellious character. Although their rebellion is what landed them here in the first place, it was also an admirable trait.
When the ceremony was over, we were allowed to visit. I barely recognized my son. His hair was gone, he donned a military cut now. He stood up straight and proud. My heart was so full already and then he flashed a smile at me, one I hadn’t seen in years. He was so proud of himself and all he had accomplished in this short six-week period. He was thriving.
He only stayed that one year. We couldn’t afford another one and felt he was ready to come back home, strong and self confident enough to stand on his own two feet. He had been almost self-sufficient for an entire year now and done well at it.
I wish I could say everything changed when he got home and provide you with a happy ending but life doesn’t work that way. He had several more transitions to make into manhood and there were battles fought for freedom, trust, and independence.
We as parents teach our children to fly. When their wings are strong, they want to use them, take flight. But they have no experience and often crash land back home, or in some cases, into the streets. Letting them fly on their own while trying to protect them from themselves at the same time is difficult balance to strike. Eventually, we have to just let go and hope they survive.
I've often wondered if I made the right decision sending him off to fend for himself in a new, strange, and very challenging environment cut off from all those he knew and loved. And then one day, a few years ago, speaking as a man in his early 30s, he looked at me and said, “Yeah, I would definitely send my kid to military school for at least a year. It makes you grow up and there’s no way a boy can do that in public school.”
Of course lots of kids thrive in public schools. What he meant to say was there’s no way a boy like him could do that in public school without the skills he had acquired while away. I was relieved to hear him say this as it gave me some comfort in knowing he never felt abandoned and was now wise enough to know he needed it: the discipline and clear boundaries military school provided.
I still smile to myself when I glance in his closet and see his hangers spaced exactly one inch apart, shirts facing the same way, shoes lined up neatly on the floor, and his entire room in order. He doesn’t even realize he does it, but he does. He is now a very logical thinker, “It’s all in the math,” he says when solving a problem.
He isn’t married and has no children so by society’s measure he’s "behind." But by my measure, he’s right on track – his own track. He works full-time at a job he enjoys. He taught himself to read music and plays a mean blues guitar.
I’m happy to see he's taken the road less followed. He feels no need to conform to society’s measure of a man and thankfully, those stereotypes are changing. I guess in the end, he was never broken, never saddled and is happy galloping through his life.