Ben is now at school full time. He goes to the special primary school in our borough so we have to drive him there which takes 20-30mins.
Most children who go to the school get the school bus. I spoke to various people about this before the summer and was given the impression that the school bus is all or nothing – every morning and afternoon or not at all. I was grumpy about it on a day when I happened to be interviewed for a film about parenting children with special educational needs. I grumbled at length about the inflexibility of such systems.
I applied for transport assistance, thinking that I’d see what happened and we didn’t have to take it if we didn’t want to. I was told we could pretend we had physio every afternoon so Ben couldn’t get the bus. A woman who works for the transport bit of the council then came to visit us and assess Ben’s needs. She was really friendly, confirmed Ben would be offered a place on the bus due to his disability, and said it was totally up to us how often and when he used it. All of the scare stories about the inflexibility of the bus were totally unfounded!
We then couldn’t decide what to do because Ben is so young and time to fit in his breakfast in the morning is already limited (the bus arrives half an hour earlier than if I drive him straight there). I enjoyed taking and collecting him when he had gone to school 2.5 days a week last year and it meant I got to know the staff and kids at the school. But doing the school run for an hour every morning and afternoon five days a week is a lot of time – time that could be spent with my other child, or working, or making a dent on the Ben-admin/washing/massive piles of lego in my sitting room.
We came up with a complicated rota of Ben getting the bus on various mornings and afternoons after an initial few weeks of me driving him. Everyone nodded when I told them, looking kindly at me like I was nuts. We realised that no-one, including us and more importantly Ben, would be able to keep track, so we settled on Ben getting the bus each morning and being collected every afternoon.
On the first morning, we were ready at the front window looking for the bus – we had been given strict instructions that the bus would wait for 3 minutes from our allotted pick-up time but no more. We’d told Ben what was happening and he was totally fine. He was smiley and relaxed.
While waiting, James and I had some small misunderstanding about something and I burst in to tears. I found the whole thing so emotional – my little boy going all on his own on the bus with people he’d never met before. And Ben’s school bus is, by definition, full of disabled children. Happy, friendly, lovely kids, but there’s no getting away from your child being disabled in that context.
Non-disabled four year olds don’t get buses to school, they potter round the corner to the local primary. In fact hardly any British city kids get organised buses to school; there is no culture of school buses like I have seen in American films. (Aside: construction companies in Qatar buy old American school buses, so when we lived in Doha you would often be waiting at traffic lights next to big yellow buses with SPRINGTOWN HIGH SCHOOL written on the side, which were full of adult migrant labourers being driven to work.)
Then the bus arrived and we met Omar, the driver. Ben got lifted up on a platform on the back of a bus, and was all smiles as his wheelchair was secured. Then he was gone. Of course I called the school mid-morning and they said he had arrived happy.
That routine lasted three days.
On the fourth day we repeated everything as normal, Ben smiled at Omar, and then his bottom lip appeared in direct correlation to the height of the wheelchair lift. Ben’s bottom lip is legendary – he has used it to great effect ever since he was a little baby. By the time he was in the bus he was crying and wouldn’t open his eyes to say goodbye to me. ‘Ben’s very sad’, said Max.
So now each morning Ben is happy while we all wait for the bus. The bus arrives and Ben smiles at Omar. Then he sticks his bottom lip out as he gets in to the bus and cries as it leaves. Unless the lady who accompanies the children sings to him, in which case he allows himself to open his eyes a tiny bit and marginally retract his lip. As soon as she stops, off he goes again with the tears. It’s all heartbreaking.
I keep asking the bus staff how he was during the journey and each day they say he stopped crying as soon as they turned the corner. Every day each child is greeted by the headteacher or deputy head on their way in to school, and every morning they say he was happy. We collect him each afternoon and his class teacher says he was cheerful.
So I guess he’s okay and we all carry on until he gets used to the idea of leaving us on the bus. But in the meantime my heartstrings are taut and in danger of snapping.