Last week was our final school prize giving. I admit it – I might have wiped away a stray tear or two, especially in the first part of the evening which takes place in the classroom. Here, each child receives a ‘character award’. Being a Christian school, this is an area valued as much—if not more than—the academic side. I like that in a school. A lot.

Then it was into the hall, packed with high school students, teachers and parents, to honour the academic and sports achievements of the learners. And there something remarkable happened. Ashlyn was awarded a silver academics badge and then went on to win two subject trophies (Computer Applications Technology and IT).

My youngest daughter, whose schooling—and childhood—has been marked by a struggle with mental health issues including Asperger’s, anxiety and depression marched onto that stage, beaming proudly. This somewhat belied the ‘humility’ part of her earlier character award, but nobody was holding it against her. Most of the teachers there and many of her peers knew the long journey she’s been on.

Reflecting back on that moment, I realise that what I felt was far more than parental pride. That moment on the stage wasn’t just a great academic achievement. It was a victory.

A victory over the world’s definition of normal

Ashlyn is wonderfully unique. The way she thinks and perceives and interacts with the world has often made her an outsider, but it also means she excels at lengthy, lonely problem solving, making her a natural at computer programming. Parenting Ashlyn has taught me to delight in uniqueness, instead of quenching it. This is something we all need to keep doing – embracing and celebrating those in our lives (especially the children) who don’t ‘fit into the box’.

A victory over mental illness

October is the month where we shine a light on mental health issues. For those who haven’t been personally impacted by depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders and other mental illnesses, these can be difficult to understand. They elicit apprehension or maybe even derision. “Pull yourself together,” might have been my attitude before my life was impacted by Ashlyn’s diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. For others caught in the darkness of one of these illnesses, there may be a sense of hopelessness.
That’s why that particular moment, Ashlyn beaming proudly on the stage, was such a victory. It says, as no words can – it is possible to rise above mental illness.

A victory in partnership and compassion

Ashlyn did not get to this point alone. We, as parents, played our role of course, as did Nicole, who is a significant and supportive part of Ashlyn’s life. There have been empathetic doctors, psychologists and counsellors. Her classmates, as they matured, became kinder and made the way easier for her. And there were teachers—remarkable, caring teachers, who poured themselves into her life, who were open to learning about Asperger’s and adapting their teaching styles to accommodate her, who dealt gently with her anxiety. That moment on the stage was a victory for them too. Every teacher that has worked with Ashlyn, from preschool all the way to high school, has played a part in this achievement. And my child is just one of the hundreds (maybe for the older teachers, thousands!) of lives these teachers have impacted.

A victory in prayer

A number of years ago Ashlyn’s play therapist—who walked many years alongside us—suggested I write a prayer for Ashlyn, including scripture promises. I handed this prayer to people who cared about her – grandparents, her godmother, my close friends and teachers. When I look back at that prayer, God answered every aspect of it. I see His hand in directing us to the right people at the right time, in the selection of a school, in the impact of Godly teachers, in guidance on how to parent and support her and in the way He drew her into a relationship with Him.
He is, after all, the Mighty Counsellor, the One the Psalmist describes:

You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.
Psalm 56:8

Next year Ashlyn starts a whole new life chapter as she heads to Pretoria University to study (you guessed it) computer programming. She moves out of home and into res, leaving behind her support system for the challenge of independence.

To be honest, I have moments of trepidation (read…abject terror). Then I remind myself of God’s past faithfulness and his promise that He goes with us and never leaves or forsakes us (Deut. 31:6).

I believe that for Ashlyn more victories await.

To end, here’s a tribute to Ashlyn’s remarkable teachers. I didn’t have photos of them all, but this is for every teacher that has built into Ashlyn’s life these last 16 years. Thank you.