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At School, It’s Back to Square One

This month, Sam finds herself a teary mess facing an uncertain future. Why? Her son’s food-allergy aware principal is leaving his job.

Readers who’ve been with me since the start of this blog may remember when it was still referred to in ancient journalistic terms as a column (back in the dark ages of 2006).

How fortunate I am as an allergic parent and journalist to have this cathartic outlet for my allergy angst, advice, experience and musings; and even more, to have such an amazing conduit to reach all of you.

Excuse me for waxing nostalgic, but ever since my kids’ beloved principal announced his retirement in early March, then took a leave for a hip replacement three weeks later, I’ve been plummeted backward in time, straight to the early years of my first-born son’s school life.

It seemed like Lucas was the first anaphylactic kid at his school, which gave me new trails to blaze back in 2005 when he was entering junior kindergarten. (Note: in Canada we start kindergarten a year earlier than in the U.S.).

I was a mess. His first teacher was assuring and accessible to begin with, but only willing to go so far in terms of food accommodation or flexibility in her classroom. At some point in our preliminary meetings, she actually suggested home schooling. That just about did me in.

But the principal at the time seemed to better grasp the need to keep Lucas safe from his allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, egg, shellfish, kiwi, poppy, mustard and other) at school.

She understood the brand new (and groundbreaking) Sabrina’s Law, but she up and quit the profession by end of November, leaving us with a series of retired principals to take her place for the remainder of the year. And leaving me to start over and over again.

But with each new acting principal that school year came new ideas, better solutions, greater sensitivity and an ease of communication. I was no longer scared to return to the principal’s office to revise a plan that didn’t seem to be working (like dealing with supply teachers and field trips).

And it wasn’t long before I realized that our Allergy Action Plan could include having me lead the school staff through bi-annual allergy sessions, having EpiPens getting placed throughout the school, the establishment of allergy-awareness policies and communication for the whole school (not just Lucas’ classroom), and so much more.

That was the good part. But Year One was also a treadmill of meetings as issues arose and new principals came in. It was emotionally draining, confusing and beyond time consuming.

Then it came. May 2006. The phone call that changed everything.

Next: A Principal with Anaphylaxis? Great! Er, I mean…

Mrs. Acting Principal, who was well aware of my mounting stress called to deliver the news. “Well Samantha,” she said. “Lucas’s new principal and new teacher for next year are both anaphylactic! What do you think of that?”

Frozen in astonishment, the only movement in the entire universe was the involuntary tears of joy running down my face. “Omigod Omigod Omigod” was all I could muster.
Then: “I won the lottery.”
“You did.”
“You said that.”
“I know. But it’s just too good to be true. I mean, not for them of course, but .…”

She seemed almost as happy for me as I was for myself (and for Lucas, but let’s face it, this was really my crowning moment).

It turned out that Mr. Hunt, our new principal, was anaphylactic to bees (OK, so it wasn’t food, but he’s an EpiPen carrier and a big allergy advocate). What’s more, in his spare time he’s a beekeeper, which may be a big no-no according to most allergists, but for Lucas (and me) he is living proof that with proper vigilance, allergies don’t have to get in the way of doing and enjoying everything you want in life.

He was Lucas’ first and most important allergic role model, which was more than we could have ever hoped for in a principal (though, thankfully Lucas has no peanut-butter-making aspirations).

Lucas’s new teacher was nut allergic and her allergy-positive approach to life seemed to mirror that of her new boss.

Both she and Mr. Hunt were open to change and highly proactive about keeping Lucas safe without making me feel like I was asking them to move mountains (which I wasn’t). Their attitude and experience gave me more confidence than any plan or policy ever could.  And I was the happiest mother in all of Canada.

Fast forward to the week before March break 2011.

There I am, tying up all my loose ends with work and the kids before we head off for Miami, when up pops the retirement/hip-replacement e-mail from our principal that slapped me right across the face.

This announcement says Mr. Hunt will be gone just days after we return from break. “Omigod, Omigod, Omigod.”

After all the trials, the errors, the turnover and honed procedures, you’d think I’d be ready for this. And intelligently, I just may be, since today, the school is way better equipped to handle the varying needs of allergic students.

Sabrina’s Law is far better understood, the public is way more aware, our school community is definitely more sensitive and my son, who is now 8 1/2 and nearing the end of Grade 3, is a lot more responsible for his allergies (although far from entirely responsible) than he was five years ago when we got started.

Yet, the stress that marked Year One of school has returned with a vengeance. Emotionally, I’m drifting right back to that place where the fear of the unknown undercuts the confidence and strength I’ve gained through my years of experience and support within the food-allergy community.

Most of the time I choose denial, but when the moms get talking in the parking lot and I get writing about it here, I can’t stop the flood of tears.

It maybe human nature to respond fearfully to the unknown, especially when it comes to our children’s health and safety, but I think what’s at the heart of my regressed state is the knowledge that even the best policy is only as good as the people who are there to enforce it – that “getting it” goes well beyond understanding the law.

For we allergy parents, it is the sensitivity of the people – the teachers, principals, coaches, friends, parents of friends, nannies, counselors, program directors – that make or break our ability to feel safe when we kiss our young, anaphylactic children goodbye.

And so despite legislative triumphs, the spread of allergy awareness and what feels like a lifetime of lessons learned, I’m right back to square one – teary-eyed at my computer trying to find closure to a story with an unknown ending.

Then I’m reminded of a comment my role model made to me many years ago, as I was freaking out about sending Lucas to day camp for the first time and entrusting his safety to a bunch of horny 17-year-olds. She said, “50 per cent of this is vigilance and 50 per cent is holding your breath and praying for the best.”

The only difference between now and then is that I know she’s right.