The car is pointed south and doing 80 down I-65. My new husband and I are headed to the beach for a few days. I want to open the passenger door and hurl myself out of the car and onto the hard, gritty pavement, and into the oncoming traffic... instead, I continue to flip through the pages of InStyle magazine. I am not reading it. I only brought the stupid magazine to distract myself on the trip. You see, earlier this morning we left our home in Huntsville, Alabama with another passenger. We made a pit stop in Opelika to abandon my 12-year old son at his new school, a military boarding school. My son will start the 7th grade at Lyman Ward Military Academy. His name is Tyler. I left Tyler with those wolves and I am now headed to the beach.
Now, I know what you are thinking. I get it all the time when I tell people that my son is away at military school. You all get a horrified expression and ask, “Oh my, what did he do that was so terrible where you felt you had to send him to military school?” I know that you expect me to tell you that he did drugs, or stole a car, or constantly skipped school or some other form of juvenile delinquent or criminal behavior. The fact is Tyler was 12 years old at the time. He had not yet done anything to warrant sending him away. So why did I do it? Why did I send him away to military school?
In June of 2005, Michael, my husband and the father of my two children, suddenly passed away. Until that moment, I was a stay at home mom and housewife. Yes, two children. The girl is 18 months older than Tyler and seems to have adjusted to our new life without too many bumps in the road. Tyler, it seems, would not be as pliable.
Before getting married I served 5 years in the United States Navy and had worked in the corporate world. So, while the death of my husband was quite shocking, I also knew I had a job to do. There were two children that needed my attention. I had to get busy with what life decided to bestow upon me. Doesn’t that sound nice and tidy? Well, I was a wreck. I had no clue what the hell I was doing. I was scared out of my mind. I was all alone, responsible for two human beings. I knew the type of person that resided deep down inside of me and I had never managed to summon up the courage to confront her. I was a failure at everything. Was I now pretending to be a mother? My parenting skills were lacking. My kids suffered. It is not their fault.
That first year after Michael’s death was a nightmare. I do not remember parenting my kids. It was a dark time. I feel sick to my stomach recalling that time in my life. How did my kids manage? They lived like orphans that first year. I was not present in their lives or any form or fashion during that first year. Then my feet managed to find ground again. I landed a decent job and, as time moved on, life started again.
Cary and I met several years back. We were just friends for the longest time. Cary even knew my Michael. We all ran around with the same circle of friends. He was a true gentleman to me after Mike’s death. In fact, he was the only one I felt safe with whenever all of the friends would get together. The safety turned into affection and in November of 2008 we married. I still say to this day that Cary is a saint because he decided to take us on with no prior experience.
Our lives began to lift off but we discovered that Tyler had forgotten to buckle up for the ride. He began to get attention at school and not in the good way either. His grades began to suffer. Remember, I told you earlier that he had done nothing bad in order to land himself at a military school, but now I could see the path that he was headed down. I knew I had to throw up a detour sign for him but I had no clue what I was doing either.
We decided to seek out family counseling. Maybe I had not handled their father’s death the right way. I did not know how to help the kids at the time so I did nothing. I just tried my best to keep moving forward. Was I paying the price for it now?
After many months of wasted dollars, with no real tangible result, I remembered that one of Tyler’s preschool teachers tried to tell me that my son displayed ADHD behavior. Tyler was 3 years old at the time and this non-qualified preschool teacher was trying to tell me my son had ADHD? He was 3 years old for crying out loud, he was a normal boy, just doing his thing. I ignored her. I decided, as a last ditch effort, to have my son tested for ADHD when he was 12 years old. He scored high in the impulsivity category. This explained so many things. I was now armed with something real, an explanation of sorts. Now everything will be OK, I told myself. But it was not. While having my child on medication was not my ideal way to deal with the ADHD, it did seem to help a little, but Tyler needed something else. He needed something I could not give him. He needed structure and routine. Try as I might, I failed again and again when it came to structure and routine. I could not do it. I had to find an alternative to save my son. I mean it when I say “save my son,” because the path he was on was leading to nothing but heartache fast.
I had to come to a point of surrender. I could not help my child. I had to call upon strangers– the military school. I did not want to do this, not one single bit. I would be a failure as mother, I thought, if I could not get a grip and solve this myself. Finally, a good friend of mine stopped me one day in the middle of one of my rambling, whiny monologues and said, “Carol, this is not about you. This is about what’s best for Tyler.” My friend had just switched on the light switch.
While the light bulb came on for me, it was still not an easy decision. I knew I had to send him to military school. I knew it with every ounce of life in my body, but my heart was still holding out. I had made so many bad decisions in the past with my own life that I was paralyzed with fear to make a decision that concerned my son. What if I make the wrong decision? What makes me so sure this is the right one for my son?
No one could help me with this decision. I had to make this one by myself. I had always sought validation from others about my life choices. My husband could not make this decision for me, my friends could not make this decision for me, and even God seemed to remain quiet on this one. I have always felt alone in this world but this was pure silent torture.
I decided to make the initial phone call to Lyman Ward Military School. Good God, even the name of the school sounded like a prison. I was only calling to get general information but the lady on the phone was nice to me, much to my surprise, and recommended that we come down for a tour. A tour? Is this how it works? I feel I have betrayed my son with just a simple phone call. Cary and I set a date to go down and take a tour of the campus, meet the faculty, observe current cadets, and get a feel for the campus life.
The first person we are introduced to is Major Joe Watson, the Dean at Lyman Ward Military School. He is a tall gray-headed, good-looking man with a mustache. This told me right away he was not a real military man. No one wore a mustache when I was in the Navy, it wasn’t allowed. Major Watson wore a uniform anyway. He has a kind and friendly face, not what I expected to find at this school. He even smiled, a lot. It turns out he is an Auburn graduate with a major in music, another unexpected piece of information. Major Watson’s office was inviting and decorated with humor. He sat behind his desk while we sat in two cushioned chairs facing him. Major Watson told us about the school and its history. He also told us that the boys get open weekends where they are allowed to go home if their behavior warrants the time off. At this piece of information, my heart falls to the bottom of my stomach and I think to myself, “Oh please, Tyler, be good.” It turns out that Major Watson was a great sales man. He sold us on the school.
I began to wonder what it was going to be like to tell my son he was no longer going to be living with us, that he was going away to a boarding school, a military school. This was even harder than making the decision itself. How will he react? Will he hate me? Will he think that I do not want him anymore? Will he cry and throw himself at my feet, grabbing my legs begging me, “Please Mommy, I’ll be good! Don’t send me away!” Or will he get so pissed off that he threatens to run way, refusing to go? I waited until it was the middle of July when I tell him. We were at the dinner table when I blurt it out, “Tyler, remember how we once talked about sending you to private school? Possibly, a military school?” Tyler stops chewing his food, puts his fork down, he folds his hands in his lap, not even swallowing his food as he awaits the blowing news. I continue, “Well, you’re going, we’ve decided to send you to a military school, it’s 3.5 hours away from our home which means you will be staying down there. School starts August 17th.” I pick up my glass of tea and take a sip, trying to seem normal. I look at my son over the rim of my tea glass, and then glance at my husband, trying to get a feel for what is about to happen. I return my tea glass to the table, pick up my fork and take a stab a piece of meat on my plate. Tyler slowly finishes chewing is food. I take this for a good sign. He swallows his food and asks, “Can I go now?” This was followed by a whole slew of other questions, as his excitement escalated, his eyes big with curiosity. I cannot believe this; he is actually excited. This cannot be right. Wait, he is a 12-year-old boy, and what does he know about going away to military school? He does not realize this will not be anything like summer camp.
August 17th makes its debut and we load up the car with his bag full of plain white tee shirts, underwear, black socks, white socks, tennis shoes, and toiletries. What we do not pack is his Xbox and games, iPod, or any sort of regular street clothes. He will not need them.
The drive is 3.5 hours south of our home. I expected to see a ton of parents with their boys trying to check in but it is only the three of us. We start the check in process right away. The staff greets us with smiles and calm demeanor. They direct us from one place to another. First check-in is the administration building where my husband writes his first of many checks to the school. Next we go see the doctor and check in with medications, forms, and insurance information. After the short visit with the medical staff we are then escorted downstairs and out the back to the supply office. Everything is going smoothly and I am starting to feel a little okay with my decision. It is funny how the Colonel is always at the next station waiting to greet us. How does he do that anyway? We walk into the supply office and right away a nice grandmotherly sort of woman welcomes us and directs Tyler to the back to try on his first set of Lyman Ward Military attire; a physical training uniform that consists of a bright yellow tee shirt and blue shorts, emblazoned with the school logo on the front. The uniform lady escorts Tyler back out to the waiting area where she promptly hands me a Wal-Mart bag that contains my son’s street clothes; the clothes that he was wearing just minutes ago. In some sort of natural reaction, I take the bag from her but I am almost having an out of body experience. I can see myself taking the Wal-Mart bag from her, the Wal-Mart bag that contain my son’s regular clothes, but my head and heart were just catapulted, in a matter of seconds, to an unknown place. What the hell was I doing? My poor little baby boy, what have I done? He stands there looking at me with a half-smile on his face but I can see the fear. He is a trooper and acts the part of big boy. Before I can react to any of this, the Colonel escorts us quickly out of the supply office and onto the next place – the barracks.
Sgt. Davis awaits us at the barracks and takes us all up to Tyler’s room. It is a small square room about the size of a prison cell. It is set up to house two boys. There are twin beds, one on each side of the room. There is one desk that is up against the far wall separating the beds. The room has windows at the top of the wall that face out to the parking lot. There are two big closets located at the end of each twin bed where the boys will stow their belongings in neat little stacks of folded underwear, tee shirts, and socks. The walls are cinder block and painted off-white with the bottom portion being painted in a light sky blue color. There is no air conditioning. Sgt. Davis gives us the run-down of what his role will be for Tyler. Sgt. Davis is in charge of Echo Company and he will be the point of contact for everything.
There is nothing more left for us to do but leave. We walk Tyler outside and stand on the sidewalk. The Colonel and Sgt. Davis walk off a few feet and let us say our good byes. I have to make it short and quick before I break down in front of my child. I give Tyler a big but short hug. I tell him I love him and we will see him in three weeks at his orientation graduation. They call all of the new boys; “Scrubs” and they have to go through an orientation the first three weeks to learn the ins and outs of the school system and this new military life. I know what orientation really is; I have been in the Navy. My first eight weeks of being in the Navy was called “Boot Camp.” I have done the best I can to explain to Tyler what this orientation is all about. Cary shakes Tyler’s hand and gives him a little hug too. We turn away from Tyler and head to our car. I plaster the best smile I possibly can across my face until we get inside the vehicle and drive off of campus. I do not look back. I cannot. I have to be strong.
The first few minutes after leaving the campus I make small talk about how long it will take to get to the beach, what route we are going to take, and hoping the weather will be good. I take out my InStyle magazine. We get to Montgomery and I have finished flipping through every single page in the magazine. I sit in silence letting the scenery whiz past. I have no other choice.
My husband reassures me this would be the ideal time to go to the beach. I can use the time to process what just happened. I have abandoned my son at military school. Four years earlier my son’s real father died. I am now remarried and I have just left my son at military school. I’m headed to the beach with my new husband. What kind of mother takes this sort of action? I am a horrid mother. I am a horrid person. Breathe, just breathe Carol, in and out; deep breaths. I cannot breathe. Any second now my heart is going to explode. I wish it would explode. I look over at my husband who looks calm and serene, almost relieved. Is he happy that we just dumped Tyler off at this military school?
Oh sure, we did our research on the school. We interviewed the staff weeks in advance of making this stupid asinine decision. What on earth was I thinking? It is too late now to turn the car around and go back to get him. We have paid the first few months’ tuition. If my life were a movie it would not be too late. The heroic mother would make her husband put the brakes on, turn the car around, go speeding back to the school and bust in to break her son out. But nope, I am weak and say nothing, allowing my husband to continue in the direction of the beach. “What do you think Tyler is doing right now?” I ask my husband and trying to sound like a sane person. “Oh, he’s probably being issued his bedding, being shown around the campus, waiting and hanging around for other boys to show up and process in.” His reply is empty. My husband is a mere man, a man who does not have children himself, and so he does not understand anything about what I am going through right now. I am a mother!
Three weeks until I can see my son. We are not allowed any sort of communication with him during these three weeks. I can call Sgt. Davis and check in with him, but this is little comfort to me. Still, I hold on to it for dear life.
We spend our couple of days at the beach. I cannot remember much about that beach trip. We return home and I find that I cannot concentrate on anything. I go to set the dinner table and bring out four plates and four forks and then I remember there will only be three of us. This reminds me of when Mike died and I kept expecting him to walk through the door any minute or to call me on his way home from work asking if we needed a gallon of milk or anything from the grocery. Three weeks of torture. Yes, I called and emailed Sgt. Davis many times and he told me Tyler is doing fine. Of course he is going to tell me Tyler is doing fine.
I will be able to tell if Tyler hates me when I see him at the Scrub graduation, in three weeks. I will see it in his face. But will they have brainwashed him so that he will not recognize me?
At night, I lay in bed and cry silently thinking of what Tyler might be going through. Is he all huddled up in a ball on his bed, crying and wanting to come home? Are they yelling at him or beating him? Yes, I realize these are irrational thoughts, but it is what runs through my head.
The day arrives for us to go down for Scrub graduation. I am a ball of nerves, full of worry; I do not know how I made it through three weeks of pure hell. Other parents are at the graduation too. The other parents seem like pros at this. They are all cool and calm, mingling with the staff and other parents. I have never had a panic attack before but this must be what one feels like. My heart is racing. I cannot catch my breath. I keep looking and looking in a sea of shaved heads for Tyler. I cannot find him but see his name is on the program so I know he must be here. I do not get a glimpse of him until they call his name and he walks on stage. The parents are allowed to go up on stage to pin the boys’ new military rank insignia on their shirt collar. My eyes are targeted on Tyler as I walk up to the stage, climb the steps, and then I am in front of Tyler. I hold my breath. He is bent down on one knee while I take the golden chevron pin from the company commander to pin on Tyler’s collar. Now I am face to face with my son, our eyes are only inches apart. He cuts his eyes over at me and I see that all too familiar comical smirk that only Tyler can display cross his face. In an instance I know he is OK and that everything is fine and will be fine from here on out. He is still my boy.Bio:
Update on The Boy: My son, who just turned 15 a few days go, is still at the military school and thriving. In fact, when he started high school, he wanted to come home and attend public school. We agreed and I relished in the fact he would be home again. However, just three weeks into the gigantic, over-crowded public school system, my son came to me and asked if he could return to military school where he excels in the structure, routine, and a smaller class room. I am proud of him.