Open Letter to the Principal of Churchill Alternative School (and other educators)

Megan Egerton, Principal
Churchill Alternative School
Ottawa, Ontario

June 7, 2011

Dear Ms Egerton.

I would have preferred to speak with you in person but I was denied that opportunity. Instead, I have reluctantly decided to communicate with you in this way. It may be public, but it seems my only choice.

Kids. They’ll break your heart. Kids with broken hearts, well…they’ll make you wish you had a heart of stone, because the tears keep coming. But you know what will break you down until you feel you can’t fight the good fight anymore? That dubious honour belongs to those in the public school system who insist on making parents jump through hoops in order to have their child’s learning needs met.

My husband and I have two wonderful sons together, aged eight and five. One of them has freckles and the other has half a heart. Literally. His condition is called tricuspid atresia with atrial septal defect and ventricular septal defect. Sounds complicated? It is. Deadly? Yeah, that too.

Isaac’s life expectancy is an unknown, but it is certainly much lower than average. Despite having had three open-heart surgeries before the age of three (not to mention a bowel dissection, due to a mistake in the ICU, subsequent resection, and half dozen or so minor surgeries) he has a 50/50 chance of his current condition (which is good but not excellent) to start degrading and complications to arise at around 10 years post-last surgery. That’ll bring him to the ripe old age of 13. If things go south in a significant way, he’ll need a heart transplant- the only option left to him. A new heart, despite the hope it promises, does NOT fill me with hope. The prospect fills me with dread.

Isaac’s spirit, by contrast, is well known. He feels things in extremes. Joy and sadness walk side by side with him. His experience of fear is something nobody should live through, but that’s what early trauma, several cardiac arrests and scary hospital sights and sounds will do to the young, PTSD-susceptible brain. As I’ve mentioned, hearts of stone are called for.

I don’t have one of those.

Isaac’s beautiful brain seems to work OK, albeit with a few quirks. But it’s those quirks that are causing him difficulty. Either because he takes after his excessively brilliant, quirky father or because his experiences have shaped him that way, Isaac learns in ways that are more tactile and experiential. His first year of school was a frustrating one and he began to fall behind.

And because of this, there is no place for him in the public school system at this time. Or so it would seem from my dealings with the school of which you are in charge.

We’re looking at a private school for him next year but I also wanted to check out an alternative school- YOUR alternative school- we’re lucky enough in Ottawa to have.

What. A. Mistake.

Not only was I unable to speak with you, the actual principal, the receptionist was rude and incredibly dismissive. I could hear in her voice that her job was to “protect” her principal from these people who dare to think their children somehow “deserve” an education that might fit them better than that of a regular school. Because we don’t live in the school’s zone (catchment area), she said we were out of luck. End of story. Good-bye-and-I-really-don’t-care-that-your-sick-kid-will-fall-through-the-cracks. It’s not my problem.

What bothered me most is that I found myself feeling apologetic for making the call. I bought right into her mistreatment and said not a word in protest. I felt badly for bothering her and for so stupidly assuming that I had a right to speak to someone as busy as an elementary school principal about a topic as irrelevant as my son actually, you know…attending said-same elementary school!

I hung up. I blinked a few times. Then I awoke from my stupor.

I called back.

I spoke with the same woman and told her to what extent she had crossed the line and that I hoped she would not treat others that way; that I was merely trying to find a workable education solution for my son, who has problems. She placated me, but I’m not convinced she was sincere.

Then I bawled my eyes out. Bitter, bitter tears, they were.

I didn’t speak to you, the principal.  I want to know what you intend to do about this gate-keeper mentality that is completely and utterly inappropriate in a publicly-funded educational institution.

I want to know why I couldn’t even speak with you. As a leader of a place that has solutions for children like Isaac, I’d like to hear what you might suggest as possible other alternatives.

I wanted a conversation. I wanted help. What I got was dismissal.

Isaac got NOTHING.

Q: How is this OK?

A: It’s not.

Q: I mean if alternative schools don’t exist for children like Isaac, who are they there for?

A: Beats me.

Q: And where does that leave Isaac?


His life will be short and it will be filled with frustration that comes  from physical and academic marginalization. The latter for no other reason than some people can’t be bothered to help despite it being their job to do so.

Yours in sincere  frustration,

Jeanette Doucet