Matilda In The Middle by Katy Lironi – Chapter 7
The Blue Trees
Dugald has been an enchanting presence in our lives for over 20 years now and he is mellowing a bit in young adult years. For a long time, Dugald wreaked havoc and left disaster in his wake. He was an angelic looking boy, with long blonde hair and huge, pixie like blue eyes. He looked like he was from another planet and I think he often felt like that too. With the benefit once more of hindsight and a bit more knowledge of kids and how they tick, I might have recognised something in Dugald that has always eluded me. As it was, he wasn’t the easiest child to parent. A miniature tornado, unique, out of control and beautiful. Something you couldn’t ever pin down.
He famously stood at the bottom of the garden one day when we eventually moved from the one bedroomed flat to a country cottage in rural south Lanarkshire. He was 2 years old, frantically waving his fishing net around at the trees bordering the garden.
“What are you doing Dugald?”
“Catching my mind.”
Amelia interjected – “He’s just trying to catch his mind!”
Of course, you idiots! Unsaid but hanging in the after waves of her ‘Do-I-have-to-explain-everything-to-you-old-people?’ utterance.
Ah yes, of course. It’s been an ongoing project. (The day I am writing this he has just returned from his first music festival. He’s one of those teenagers who had the bad timing to turn 18 just before lockdown, so he’d been cooped up, ready and waiting to be released on the world. After a panicked phone call from the train where he told me he couldn’t breathe, I collected him from EK station and drove straight to A and E, where he spent the next 5 hours hooked up to an IV drip. No lasting damage and why would I expect anything different?)
As a baby even, he had a mesmerising energy, an inability to be still, his hands moved constantly and he flipped over in his crib, terrifying me as he snuggled down on his tummy. Babies were not allowed to sleep on their tummies in the early 2000s. Breast feeding, so easy with Amelia was a bloody, soul destroying, aching chore with this boy just 19 months later. And the guilt, because of course this was all somehow my fault, began to settle itself comfortably around my exhausted shoulders.
I cannot even explain what it was about Dugald that was so enervating. It appears so inconsequential when written down, but it was constant. As a toddler he perpetually popped non-food items in his mouth, so you could never let your guard down. Our wee cottage had a shared drive way covered in red stone chips, a favourite snack of his, and he was forever outdoors, just like a puppy. The tin of fancy teaspoons I’d inherited from my Granny was the back door stop and Dugald’s other favourite toy. Shiny, noisy bits of metal that could be banged, sorted and chewed. He crawled before he could sit and walked and ran before he had the sense not to collide with things. He fell from a chute far too high for him just before his second birthday as I struggled, pregnant with Matilda, to run and grab him.
He would eventually draw mesmerising pictures and write surreal stories in his messy, left handed scrawl. I have a drawing he made of the inside of his head with things exploding out of it and the words, I am sorry mum, that he made me after one upsetting episode, aged eight. He got angry a lot. His primary head teacher gave him some one-to-one time to talk about his anger and explosive tendencies. That was his favourite part of school, sitting in the head teacher’s quiet office, just being listened to.
I often wish educational professionals had highlighted something more to me. Instead he was just in trouble a lot. From the time his swimming instructor conducted a lesson with three-year old Dugald clamped under his arm, then told me he couldn’t teach him anymore, to when he eventually left school at sixteen. He heard a lot of shouting, both from me and from school teachers. Douglas coped by engaging him in football. It was never easy. He struggled to socialise with the other boys and would be cajoled, persuaded and dragged to football, which he actually loved when he was on the pitch, until his teenage years.
I took him to audiology because he seemed not to hear me. He had acute hearing. But I realised years later, as I shouted myself hoarse at the teenager lying in bed, that he was hearing me without hearing me. He definitely processed things differently. He was an anomaly, unknown even to himself. Arriving home from high school with shredded cuffs where he chewed through his jumpers, ink stained fingers from the countless biros he broke, the frustrated yells of teachers ringing in his ears as he left another pile of broken in half-pencils in his wake. When asked if he did it to wind his teachers up, he told me he wasn’t even aware he was doing it.
He literally couldn’t keep his hands to himself. He couldn’t see one of his siblings without reaching out and poking them. Exhausting. Provocative. Constant. Not till the last meeting before he left school did a teacher suggest that perhaps the school wasn’t equipped to offer the sort of support he needed. Telling me that five years earlier might have helped everyone, but most especially him.
On starting secondary education we’d had him referred to the educational psychologist, CHAMS, and the school befriending service. He disengaged from them all, was diagnosed mainly as a likeable nuisance, and discharged from all extra input. In his last year of school he was taken under the wing of a semi-retired local teacher who had encountered Dugald when he was back teaching across the curriculum. He contacted us out of the blue and offered to mentor Dugald and provide him with some work experience at his own farm and home. He told us that in his thirty-year teaching career he had only done this one other time and he was doing it out of love. It was so un-teachery, and the total opposite of what we had come to expect from educational professionals. Someone who could see through Dugald and understand what he needed. In the end, Dugald didn’t go into any of the professions that he gained work experience in with this mentor, but he gained hugely in self-esteem and we are forever grateful that someone took the time to support us and our unique son. If it was obvious to him that Dugald was struggling and needed input, why wasn’t it obvious to anyone else? Why wasn’t it at the school’s disposal to help him? This teacher had to wait until he was out of contract to offer the personalised support he gave Dugald, and it made all the difference in the world.
Now, with school a distant memory, finding himself in the right kitchen at the right time with the right chef, has been the making of him. Dugald is respected for what he does best. He’s paid to keep his hands busy. He went to college to study to become a professional chef after school, and came back from the induction day beaming – “The lecturer said I was the best at chopping!” He’d never been told he was the best at anything. That bit of praise was all it took to set him on the right road