On my way out, I peeked through the window – he looked so cute and grown up. I cried again. It was exciting and scary and sad, all at the same time. My boy was growing up.

I watched the clock all morning, drinking gallons of coffee and pacing the house. God, what a long day. Mom and I barely spoke. We didn’t have to. We knew. Three more hours… two more hours…

We gave in eventually and arrived to fetch him a ridiculous forty-five minutes early, waiting outside and feeling sheepish, but we didn’t care. Do you know how long forty-five minutes is? We waited a decade or two, then I hurried inside, only to find his classroom empty.

Nobody in sight. God! Oh God, where have they taken him? It’s crazy how many thoughts can go through your head in ten seconds.

Then I heard it – the sound of Steven (and a dozen other children) crying inconsolably. I followed the sound to the lunchroom, which was in chaos. Miss Timid was holding Steven and absently jiggling him on her hip, while trying to control twenty other, sobbing, fighting, food-throwing darlings. I was shocked. Surely, this wasn’t how it’s supposed to be?

I should have taken him away, there and then, never to come back. He seemed traumatised the whole afternoon and didn’t want to talk about his day. I wanted to hear about sandpits and finger painting and story circles. I needed to hear that he was okay, that I hadn’t made a dreadful mistake. Instead, I realised he’d spent the whole day crying in the corner. He hated me for abandoning him, I just knew it.

The second day was much, much worse. He knew what would happen when I said goodbye. I felt like the worst mother in the world, peeling him off me and walking away. Jeez. I must have been loony. I wish I could be one of those bossy, overbearing parents who pushed everyone around and annoy teachers with their demands. I’m just too nice, too much of a wuss.

Only much later did I come to know what the teachers there were really like and how they’d lied straight to my face when telling me how the school was run. Christian values, indeed. They seemed to favour all the best bits of the Old Testament, if you ask me. Lots of sparing-the-rod-and-spoiling-the-child type advice.

The school was run by Tweedle-Dumb, the principal, and her best friend, Tweedle-Dumber. Both were nasty, small-minded and ignorant, with a pair of giant egos to match. Neither seemed to like children much. But boy, could they act! Academy Awards all round for their roles as caring, intelligent human beings.

Miss Timid was a bit of an outsider. She was sweeter than the two Tweedles, who ganged up on her. Much later, I heard them undermining her in front of the children and complaining about her to the parents. In the early days, of course, I didn’t know any of this. I was completely fooled. I thought they cared. I confided in them about My Situation. They seemed sympathetic and asked a lot of questions. Including, of course, “Where is his father?” I believed they were interested and concerned for Steven. I didn’t realise I was only giving them ammunition.

I’d been told that Steven would settle in and get used to the routine soon enough. He never did. He cried every morning for months. So did I. At home. At the school. At first the Evil Twins seemed kind and patient. They said they understood how hard it was for me to see him sad. But, they said, I wasn’t to worry. They could handle him and he was fine, really.

“He stops crying as soon as you leave,” Tweedle-Dumb kept telling me. Bullshit. She was just saying it to shut me up. After a while, her patience began to wear thin and she started using words like Manipulation, Firm Hand, Spoilt.

The brainwashing commenced. They managed to convince me that Steven was the problem – that he was playing me, just being naughty. And, dammit, I believed them. They were the teachers, after all. I was just, well, a little girl. It’s ridiculous the way I always buckle to any sort of authority figure. All it took was a sharp word in a firm voice, and I’d be doubting myself, bending over backwards to be the good girl. I put my child through trauma, because somebody with an opinion and a loud voice told me I should. I wish I could say I’m different now, but nah… I’d be lying. Great, big, giant chicken – that’s what I am. Cluck, cluck.

Steven never misbehaved at school. He tried hard to do as he was told, to fit in. He was a quiet boy, quick to learn, but shy and reluctant to participate in group activities. They tried to force him, and he hated it. The more he cried, the harsher they became. They simply didn’t like him.

Mom had warned me. She hated the place and we fought about it often. She thought I was being cruel, and I told her she was being too soft. I’m sorry, Ma. You were right. I should have listened. All my instincts told me I was crazy. But no, I was determined to see it through. If I gave up now and took him out of the school, what kind of spineless mother was I?

My heart said, “I know my son. He’s a good boy. He would only behave this way if he was really unhappy.”

My head said, “What do you know? You’re a lousy teenage mother. Shut up and listen.”

All the other children seemed fine. Only my child had a problem. It was a horrible thought – had I been bringing him up wrong all along? Had I really been spoiling him, as the teachers had been telling me? Maybe this was my fault, and what he needed was a stronger, stricter mother. How had I managed to get it all so wrong, when I’d been trying so hard to get it right?