089: How I Handled A Devastating Piece of News?

A Terrible News

If you receive a devastating piece of news from the school, what would you have done?

Several weeks ago, on the day that my sixteen-year-old son, Cairn, was supposed to attend his school graduation ceremony, he was abruptly removed from the list of graduates! Instead of receiving his certificate in robes like the other graduating students on the stage, Cairn was told to sit among the audience to applaud the achievement of others.

Out of concern for Cairn’s feelings, his class teacher kept a close watch on him and assured me that he was unaffected. I was told Cairn cheered enthusiastically for his friends who went up the stage.

“Class of 2020” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

When Cairn arrived home from school, all I got from him was a sealed envelope containing a letter that said his application for admission to a senior high school for students with special needs was unsuccessful.

The rejection letter carried big implications. Cairn would remain in his current high school, and make another attempt for admission to the senior high school the next year. But if he were to be rejected again, his special school education would end the next year in the current school as eighteen is the cut-off age. That is tantamount to an off-the-cliff ending to his adult education.

“Off the Cliff” (WordPress Photography)

The biggest headache at hand was we were clueless about the reasons for rejection. By all measures, Cairn had always been held as an exemplary student in his junior high school. We were under the impression from both schools that Cairn would certainly be accepted because he had met all the stipulated requirements. Without knowing the reason, we would not know what could be done to improve his chances in the next shot.

I felt indignant for my son as unpleasant memories surfaced. All the these years, Cairn had put in so much effort in everything he did. But not all his efforts paid off. For instance, last year, Cairn won his first swimming competition, but was bizarrely disqualified. The ridiculous reason was he swam a lot faster than the timing submitted before the race. In the spirit of participation, we cast aside our disappointment and did not pursue the matter further. But this time, the issue is more than dealing with disappointment, Cairn couldn’t graduate despite his good performance at school!

“Touching The Wall First!” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

I lamented to my wife, “Just when we thought that everything is moving smoothly for him at last, this has to happen!”

My wife was visibly upset as she spoke, “They gave us hope, then took it away! ”

I told her with resolve, “I’ll settle this.”

“An angry fist” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Take Thoughtful Actions

I thought hard about the content of my appeal letter to the school principal of the new school. After I drafted the letter, I showed to my wife and fourteen-year-old son, Conan.

My wife seemed pleased that I had backed up my appeal with strong arguments and proof. Conan, however, remarked, “Dad, shouldn’t you preface with some niceties? After all, you want to work with the new principal.”

I took his advice and edited the letter accordingly.

Dear Principal,

Sorry to take up your precious time. I need to consult you regarding school admission criteria. I am also writing to appeal for my son, Cairn Tan on the following grounds:

Cairn has met the two key criteria for school admission: the WPLN ( Work Place Literacy and Numeracy) Assessment and the independent traveling requirement.

Moreover, Cairn was graded “excellent” in Housekeeping. In addition, Cairn has actual retail work experience. On a daily basis, he has been operating his snack vending machine for nearly a year since December 2019. The operation includes the checking and replenishment of stock; and changing the prices and items. Cairn can do all that independently.

“Tending To A Vending Machine” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Cairn also knows how to key in data of inventories and keep account of daily sales in excel spreadsheets. In addition, he is also responsible for proper packing of goods ordered from our e-commerce website, for delivery to respective customers.

“Packaging his merchandise” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Recently, we even discovered that Cairn can memorize the value of pi up to 20 places, and do square roots and indices of two and three-digit numbers mentally! That shows the boy has much more potential than we imagined!

“Solve square roots of 4 digit-figures mentally” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

To prepare Cairn for the transition, we have also trained Cairn to travel independently to and from your school. See attached pictures.

“Taking a bus ride myself” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

During the admission interview, we were told for certain that Cairn will be offered a place in your school because he meets the admission requirements. The only purpose of the interview was to find out which vocation is most suited for him.

Even his current school was under the impression that Cairn will be moving on. That was why they had him participate in the graduation ceremony rehearsal. But only today, we were told that he had been taken off the list of graduates and denied his spot at the graduation ceremony. Despite working hard to qualify for your vocational programme, Cairn will be retained for another year!

As a parent yourself, can you imagine the big disappointment to our family to receive the rejection letter? As the reason for rejection is not stated, I have no choice but to seek help directly from you.

“Help me!” (WordPress Photography)

I believe that as a respected school leader, you will help us in this matter. We have been looking forward to Cairn starting a new chapter at your school. And we are very supportive of school efforts and are most willing to work with you. Please call me to arrange a meeting ASAP.

William WK Tan

Shortly after, the principal replied with warm and encouraging words, expressing delight to receive updated information about Cairn’s ability to travel independently. A week later, the good news came. Cairn’s appeal was successful!

Immediately, I wrote another heartfelt letter to Cairn’s current school’s principal. A few days later, Cairn’s class teacher called me up cheerily to inform me of the school principal’s decision to arrange a make-up graduation ceremony for Cairn! I felt so thankful to the school leaders and teachers in both schools.

All things ended well at last.

“I have graduated!” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Parents, what’s your takeaway from this story? If anything, I hope you pick up the following steps about how to be an effective advocate for your child:

Be An Effective Advocate For Your Child

Step 1: Do not get emotional. Think about the real issue you want to solve.

Step 2: Know your child’s rights and strengths.

Step 3: Organise your thoughts with supporting evidence.

Step 4: Seek support from stakeholders.

Step 5: Show appreciation and a strong intention to work together.

Children with special needs are often incapable of speaking up for themselves. They need their parents to be their voice. Therefore, we need to learn how to speak up on their behalf, rationally and passionately. Don’t you agree?

“Be An Effective Voice!” (WordPress Photography)

William WK Tan

28 December 2020

080 The Untold Story: How To Help My Son Earn His Own Keep?

I did not tell the full story behind my absence from blogging in the previous few months. Something else had kept me busy. A friend HP who knew the insider story, asked, “Why didn’t you write about your vending machine endeavour for your son?”

That is indeed the biggest story I have yet to tell. Simply told, it’s a story about a father who bought a snack vending machine for his adolescent autistic son in the hope that he will be able to earn his own keep one day. 

The big question is, did things work out just like the way the father had imagined?

Bringing the family together on a mission 

Originally, I had my eyes on buying two vending machines. After some negotiations, I went ahead with only one. And my proposal for machine placement was timely approved just a few days before Christmas day last year. It became a Christmas day gift.

Source: My son’s snack machine.

In the presence of my wife and children, I pointed to the machine and said to my elder son excitedly, “Cairn, this is your machine. You are now the owner! And you have a job to do!”

We changed Kyan’s name last year to “Cairn”, pronounced as “can”– another story that I might tell on a separate occasion. 

Then, turning to my younger son, Conan, I said, “The machine is your brother’s. He will have to learn how to run the daily operation like replenishing the snacks and so on. But he cannot run the business alone. Your brother needs you. So do I.”

A baffled expression surfaced on Conan’s face as he wondered what his old man had up his sleeves this time. 

I explained,

“You learn things a lot faster than anyone in the family.”

Conan nodded as I continued, 

“I need you to learn everything about the machine and the business quickly so that we can help your brother make a living.”

“This is also a great opportunity for you to pick up some business skills,” I added with a chuckle, “Let’s see if you have the making of a good Chief Executive Officer (CEO).”

“CEO”: Picture taken from WordPress Free

“CEO?” Conan and my wife laughed at my suggestion while Cairn watched on, half-comprehending what was going on, though he was grinning as he examined the machine.

Adding to their laughter, I went on, “That’s it! Cairn is the owner of our first machine. Conan will be the CEO. Mom will be the financial controller. As for me, I’ll be the…” I stumbled for words. In a split moment, however, I found my words and cracked a joke, “I’ll be the founder! That means it’s my job to find things for everyone to do!’ 

My wife rolled her eyes in dismay.

“Hey, take it easy,” I said reassuringly, “I’ll do everything and take care of all expenses incurred. That makes me the number one worker and also the investor.”

Then I explained my idea, “However, I think my most important role is to be Cairn’s job coach. There’ll be a lot of tasks that I need your help to organise so that Cairn can work independently. And we’ll have to coach him at every step of the way. Just imagine the day Cairn can check the stock, refill the snacks and collect his earning. Wouldn’t that be great? ”

True enough, Cairn rose to the occasion on the tasks he was given.

Cairn replenishes his snack machine daily.

He enjoys his work so much that he reminds me every evening after dinner, “Papa, let’s go to the vending machine now!”

One day, I feigned ignorance and asked him, “To do what?”

Cairn replied with a big grin, “To refill snacks!” 

I told him, “Tell your mom before you go down.”

Cairn literally bellowed, “Mama, I am going to the vending machine now!”

I urged Cairn to say more, “And to?”

“Refill snacks!” He said aloud, beaming in confidence.

Mom was busy with household chores and did not seem to hear him.

I whispered into Cairn’s ear and he repeated my words aloud, “Mama, I am going to make money! See you later!’

Cairn’s words made my wife reply with laughter and enthusiasm, “You are going to make money? Okay! See you later!”

Five Principles for Job Creation

I did not plan to start a business, but had to register a business entity to get things done. On hindsight, I have started the Caresons Social Enterprise for a simple mission — to enable disadvantaged people like Cairn lead a productive life.

The employment prospect for people with special needs is bleak. The Straits Times estimated that only 5% of people with special needs are employed in Singapore, the lowest among developed countries. 

The Straits Times, 11 Feb 2019

In contrast, nearly 20% of people with disabilities in the US and Japan have employment. And the percentage goes up to 40% in Australia, Britain and Germany. It’s an irony that the people of Singapore enjoy full-employment and the economy creates more than 1 million jobs that attract foreign workers and talents to work here. Yet, her most vulnerable people like those with special needs find it so hard to get a job.

The stark difference could not be that people with special needs in Singapore are less employable than their counterparts elsewhere. The answer is probably in a lack of societal acceptance and support.

I concluded that the best way forward is neither job-hunting nor job-matching, but in creating the right jobs.

But I am just a regular salaried-person who has worked for the same company for 22 years. Creating jobs is not my forte. For many months, I spoke to many people in different trades for ideas and thought hard. In the end, I figured out five principles for job-creation where Cairn is concerned:

–       Create a job that plays on his strengths.

–       Compensate his limitations with the help of technology and knowledge.

–       Level the playing field for him with small capital investment.

–       Find something that he can do for others in his neighbourhood.

–       Keep making improvements to make the business work

These principles have worked beautifully for my son so far. I will share more about our endeavour in this blog if you are keen to know more.

For now, I am sharing with you these principles in the hope that they will also help others. Help me spread the kindness to those families you care.

William W K Tan

15 March 2020