"There's no Place for me Here"

"There's no Place for me Here"

Tobi Blake

I will never forget that day in April so many years ago. Nineteen weeks pregnant and positive it was a girl, we couldn’t wait to see our first baby on the ultrasound. We’d been dreaming about this day and it was finally here.

She would be the most loved little one on the planet. I had read all the books, taken the classes, started the scrapbooks, and daydreamed endlessly about holding her close and protecting her from the ugliness in the world.
I walked into that hospital knowing it all. I walked out of it lost, scared, and helpless.
Our baby was in fact a boy. And he was going to be faced with more challenges than I could have ever seen coming. He was to be born with a severe bilateral cleft lip and palate. I went home and researched the condition. I was beside myself.
I couldn’t bear the thought of my little boy having to suffer. Surgeries would be painful and recoveries would be long. Would other children make fun of him? Would he know he is as special and beautiful as the children who were not born with a birth defect?

As his mother, I knew there was not a lot I could do to protect my boy from the physical pain he would inevitably endure. But I made a promise to myself that day that I would do everything in my power to protect him from the emotional pain this defect might cause.

The big day came. Seven hours of labor and my precious boy arrived.
He was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen.

Life for Chandler did not prove easy from the beginning. At six weeks old, the first of many surgeries would begin. Shortly after returning home from the hospital, he stopped breathing. More surgeries followed. The hospital became our second home.

To date, Chandler has had twenty-one surgeries. They’ve taken bone from both hips, cartilage from his ribs, and pieced together his mouth and nose in all kinds of painful and difficult ways.
Through his childhood, Chandler didn’t let the physical pain he experienced prevent him from being a happy and confident little boy. He was loved by all, excelled in school, skipped fourth grade, and felt confident and happy with himself.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and surgery after excruciating surgery, Chandler’s infectious smile continued to light up a room.
Preparing for a move to Arizona, our number one priority in choosing a home was ensuring our children were in excellent schools where they would be safe, protected, and have a positive educational experience.

We made the difficult decision to move from our large home in Utah into a small three-bedroom apartment, the only home we could afford in the area, in order for our children to attend the A+ rated schools in Scottsdale.

Chandler worried about beginning seventh grade at a new school. Sad to leave his friends behind, he wondered if he would be able to find new friends in Scottsdale. I assured him that this was one of the very best schools in the state and I was positive it would be a great experience for him.

I was wrong.
A few weeks ago, Chandler walked in the door from school and fell to his knees in pain. He couldn't speak. I held him and wept with him. I had no idea what was happening but I could tell he was hurting emotionally just as severely as he was physically and everything in me longed to take it all away. After several minutes of trying to gain control, he eventually got out the words, "I think my hand is broken." 
An older and larger boy, annoyed with Chandler's dancing down the aisle of the bus, reached out and grabbed his hand, twisted it around and said "next time I'll break it!"
We took him to the doctor. It was broken.
I held him as he wept some more. "There's no place for me here Mom."
That sentence tore me apart. I promised to protect him so long ago. I had failed.
Was he right? Is there no place for a child who looks different in this affluent neighborhood in Scottsdale, Arizona? 
By the time a bone was broken, bullying had become an every day occurrence for Chandler. His nickname on the bus was "Cleft Palate." One day, a kid told him repeatedly how ugly his face was. This kid was relentless. When Chandler got off the bus, the boy followed him, throwing rocks at him as he walked home. He was bullied in the PE locker room for his body, his red hair and freckles, and his underwear that were the wrong brand. A group of girls followed him around at lunch telling him he looks like a rabbit because of the scars on his lip.  He was laughed at for wearing Old Navy clothes and the wrong brand of shoes. He was told many times by many kids that gingers are demons and that each soul they eat earns them another freckle. 
One particularly difficult day, I sat him down in The Bubble. He told me a lot of these stories he had been keeping inside. I told him we needed to do something. He replied, "It's fine Mom. I'm used to it."
My heart sunk. "Chandler. Nobody should ever have to get used to being treated this way."
He broke down crying.
Chandler was adamant that I did not go to the school. He was positive it would make the bullying worse. Against his wishes, I spoke to the Vice Principal and each one of his teachers about the situation. I told them he was being bullied. I outlined specific incidents. I asked them to please look out for him. I was met with an astounding lack of compassion and an obscene level of apathy.
This is a much bigger problem than my son’s broken bone. This goes much deeper.
Where is the compassion for the bullied in this community? Where is the empathy? And why is it happening in the first place?
The boy who broke my child’s bone was given a one day suspension.
One. Day. 
I wrote a long and heartfelt letter to the superintendent, her assistant, the principal and the vice principal. I have not heard back from any of them. Not a word. 
That boy was back at school on Monday morning without any further discipline. There is a place for him at this Scottsdale school, but not a place for my son because he has the wrong color of hair, freckles, and two scars on his lip.

Why?

I removed Chandler from the school immediately for the rest of the year.  We are relocating next month in order for Chandler to attend a small charter school, one that prides itself on teaching empathy and compassion and preventing this kind of hellish experience for their students.
I am heartbroken and saddened for my boy. They did so much more than break his bone. They broke his spirit. He is hardened. He is sad. He has lost so much of the light he once had. And judging by the apathy shown by the school, I fear Chandler is right. There is no place for him here.

We sacrificed so much to live in Scottsdale for the A+ rated schools, and we are now moving away because of them. A+ standardized testing scores are worthless to the child who's bullied for not fitting in.
With a cast on his hand, Chandler’s physical healing has begun. But he needs to emotionally recover too. I am hopeful that a more caring school next year will contribute to his healing. 
Chandler needs to be built up again. He needs to recover from the feeling that there is no place for him here. I need to see that light hearted smile again. And I need to figure out how to stop seeing red.
In the meantime, Chandler is preparing to attend a study abroad in Guatemala this summer.  While there, Chandler will live in local neighborhoods, attend great classes (Spanish, yoga, art, etc), assist at a medical clinic, volunteer in an orphanage, work on a farm, visit the ocean, walk on a black sand beach, enjoy museums, explore ruins, hike a volcano, help students practice their English, and many more adventures. This experience could not come at a better time and I hope it's one that resets his outlook on life and restores some of the peace and happiness he's lost. If you'd like to contribute to his trip, we would appreciate it more than you know. You can learn more and donate here.
My mommy heart is aching. I need to feel like something good has come from this. I need to know that awareness was created, and others were prevented from having a similar experience. 
Please spend the summer talking to your kids about this problem. Maybe they're the bullied. Maybe they're the bully. Let's make it a priority to teach our children empathy and compassion for those that don't "fit the mold." Let's teach them to seek out the lonely, to put their arm around the different, and to love everyone. Let's show them through our own example that everyone is special. Everyone is wanted. And that there is a place here for everyone.

Tobi Blake