Ten years ago, completing school was a distant dream for Alexia Russell's son, Jackson. His autism seemed certain to see him labelled a problem child. But the family struck gold in a small Auckland school and thanks to the teachers there found dignity, hope and power. Today, Jackson's proud mum tells his story.
There were tears, there was champagne, and congratulations poured in from all sides when my son got his NCEA level 3 this year.
He managed it with maximum economy — exactly the right number of credits, and no merit or excellence endorsements.
If his school hadn't put him through a forklift driver's licence for a tidy 14 credits, there would have been tears of another kind.
But a pass is a pass.
And 10 years ago, when a dyspraxia expert told us to just get him to school-leaving age and life would improve, I never imagined the joy of this day.
Teachers, wonderful teachers, made the difference. They worked a system that gets bagged on a regular basis but that works extremely well for the many, many New Zealand children who learn outside normal expectations.
Autism Spectrum Disorder they call it now, since all those strands of different thinking get caught up in their own descriptions and trip people up.
Dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, Asperger's — tick, tick, tick, tick.
In my son it is manifested, among other things, as a sprinkling of hilarious oddness, a determination to do things along his own prescribed pathway, an inability to write, a weird diet, extraordinary strength and high pain tolerance.
The most difficult "gift" it gave him, however, was a processing problem, including short-term memory issues.
Since school learning is based on this — you must understand this concept, you must calculate numbers in this order, you must copy this information down from the board — life at school has been a struggle.
Such square pegs put in so much effort to do what comes naturally to the round pegs that by 3pm they are exhausted. (Goodbye, homework.)
And most of the children in this category are not considered "bad" enough to get official help or funding for special needs teachers. That's when you need your school on your side.
Birkenhead College in Auckland is one of the North Shore's smaller secondary schools and there's no clamour to get in its gates.
It's a bus ride away from the more glamorous twin Westlake institutions, and nearby Northcote seems a little more upmarket.
But Birkenhead has a community feel, and teachers pretty much know all the students by name. The first XV is in and out of the first division — players are likely to be taking part in a bunch of other sports and activities as well. There is no sense they're being groomed for stardom.
The uniform is affordable and the (outstanding) music groups are not jetting off to Spain for competitions.
When I say we "chose" it, I mean Jackson wouldn't get on a bus so he had to go to the nearest school. Also, he fit his brother's old uniform.
I realise now that I struck gold.
Jackson was assessed, his particular problems looked at and a plan of action was embarked upon.
We got him an iPad (thanks, Grandma) so he could take photos of the classroom board instead of trying to write down the notes, and he was introduced to LBS — Learning, Behaviour and Support — where he got breathing space and help.
He got a writer for exams. This was all done in such a matter-of-fact and forthright manner that he never suffered socially. Jackson's differences were celebrated.
I'm sure other schools do this, too, but having talked to other ASD parents I'm not sure they all do.
Schools have to be brave if they're going to give every single child the attention they deserve.
Why spend $750 for a special needs assessment when it's just going to tell you this student needs help, but not enough to qualify for Ministry of Education cash?
Then you're landed with an obligation to do something without the means to do it. Maybe the money would be better spent on a new set of sports uniforms, which would advertise the wealth of the school on a wider stage and attract pupils.
Tuck that problem child under the carpet and cut them loose at 16. Or funnel them into "easy" subjects and hope they tot up enough credits to pass, which looks good on the stats.
Yes, my son got a boost from his forklifting activities, but he wasn't stopped from taking physics, economics and maths, even though the outcome of attempting those subjects was uncertain.
He was unlikely to be able to translate his understanding to marks on an exam paper, but that's what he wanted to do.
When people criticise NCEA for it "picking up rubbish" credits they're often speaking from the lofty world of high-achieving offspring, with the view that "my child worked hard for this, why should this lesser pupil come up with the same result for less effort?"
Actually, that's not how it works. My son's level 3 achievement won't get him into university — an option that was never on the cards anyway.
But it gives him dignity, hope and power. It says this wasn't a wasted year. It tells prospective employers he persisted against the odds.
And from what we've seen in the real world so far, that forklift licence is the key to getting him a job.
Maybe the NCEA system does need tweaking. But it's basically a good system. It is aligned with the university system, having unit standards. University students can pick and choose their areas of study, and so can college kids. Why shouldn't they? Our children are diverse and we should celebrate that.
Why are we trying to herd all our children into identical boxes, get them over the same measuring tape?
It also makes sure students are engaged all year, and work consistently, and isn't that what we want? Kids who understand what they're learning?
As for the much-maligned second-chance resubmissions, my son needed a lot of them, but if he was prepared to put in the work to do an assignment twice, why would you begrudge him that?
It is true Jackson had "advantages" in his disadvantages.
He wasn't talking at 3½, a fairly obvious red flag. His kindy teachers pounced, and by the time he got to primary school, systems were in place.
We've had battles, but his teachers have always been behind him.
Jackson also had traits that made people want to help him. He could pour on the charm when necessary; he tried hard and refused to give up. He never lost his sense of humour.
I worked morning shifts and turned up on the primary school doorstep every day to ask how things had gone. He was good at sport, which also gave him something special to hang on to when his work never appeared on the classroom walls.
And he twigged early that sitting next to the smartest girl in class reaped benefits.
But mostly, he had teachers who wanted him to succeed. Every teacher, not just a couple. This is what teachers do — when they're not distracted by compiling National Standards or trying to remember the correct protocol for breaking up fights in the classroom.
So, thank you to all of my son's teachers throughout the years.
Thanks for caring. Thanks for being on our team. Thanks for every way you worked the system to give my child his best start in adult life.
And please don't give up, in spite of the horrors of the job.
Other Jacksons need you.