The tour of the Puzzle Box Academy facilities would have only taken 10 minutes tops had the school not been open yet. As it was, we were an hour or so into the school day, and everyone needed Pam’s attention.
“Pam, we’ve got a new ad-blocker set up on the computers, school-wide.”
“Pam, I can’t wait to tell you about the interviewee from last week.”
“Miss Pam, look at my shirt!”
“Should I make extra lunches for you and your guest?”
“The last Facebook post got 50 likes already!”
“How was your morning?”
“How was your weekend?”
“Who’s your friend?”
(Questions about me were delayed, if asked at all. My dear friend and owner of the Puzzle Box Academy schools, Pamela Holz is the Queen Bee, and I was perfectly content to be a fly on the wall.)
Many of the interruptions had no sound at all, and those got the most attention. A mid-sentence stop to examine a successful sticker chart. A thought to be continued after motor skills dance party. Many words dropped as eyes turned to one child or another edging toward a door, a glass of water, a stack of papers, a chair. The child edged back to their work and sometimes the sentences, thoughts, and words resumed, other times the train was left to derail.
The prestigious Morningside Academy had just finished up four weeks of highly intensive teacher training, and a small meeting of the schools’ lead pedagogical instructors was being held near the back. It was here we spent the bulk of our time. There was no end to the information these highly educated professionals wished to impart upon Pam. With a new computer system, new employee, and the training they had gone through, she could have sat with them for 10 hours and still gone home to a few “I forgot to mention…” emails.
But 10 hours in that meeting is 10 hours she’s not in any of the other dozens of places she needs to be.
We finish up the horseshoe-shaped tour, and it’s already time to discuss lunch. Further meetings have been scheduled, catch ups planned, and the typical number of school lunches are being prepared. We sneak out the back and it’s onto the next campus.
The Early Intervention Center works with the younger children in smaller numbers, but that in no way lessens the amount of information that absolutely must pass by Pam’s eyes or into her ears. There is a calmer feel to this location. Perhaps it was the lower student to teacher ratios, perhaps it was the mixture of personalities, or perhaps it was the curving, flowing layout of the building that made this tour feel less like a tour and more like dropping by to check in.
All roads lead to Pam. It’s not because she’s an owner -- there are plenty of ineffective founders, CEOs, and other titled leaders in business. She is the heart and soul of the business, and everyone knows it, down to the palm trees lining the entrances. In times of calm, she is the sense of zen, an ever-goal. When things turn toward chaos, as they inevitably will in a young business aiming to blaze trails, she is the eye of the hurricane, and she takes any resulting destruction (even if -- and especially when -- it’s not actually her fault) very personally, very deeply.
It’s a few days later before we sit to talk. I’ve seen her school, I’ve lived with her in her home like an unusually quiet vagrant for not the first time. I’ve never interviewed someone before, but I’m not concerned at all about the quality and quantity of information I’m about to receive. Truthfully, I was grateful that a good deal of it wasn’t new to me.
I met Pam in 2009. We had signed up for a Wicca 101 class at a small metaphysical shop in Orlando. We started with a little more than half a dozen of us, but by the end of the course, only four remained. Pam and I became fast friends because she was willing to ask questions that many people weren’t. This wasn’t my first Wicca rodeo, but I would become a serial 101 class taker if only for the opportunity to meet other potentially like-minded people. I knew the lore and many of the variations. I knew the wheel of the year and how people generally assigned spellcasting to various phases of the moon. I also knew the shortcomings of Wicca, the inconsistencies, and the rather gaping, problematic holes in the community.
I also knew people didn’t tend to question any of that for a long while, if ever. And yet here was Pam. A vibrant redhead who refused to leave that room until she understood, but was willing to listen. What I loved the most, what I still love about her, is that sometimes the answer is “I don’t know,” and she can accept that, that sometimes people might preach something they don’t fully understand, and as long as they’re willing to be vulnerable in their honesty, she will accept that. And then she’ll go find the answer somewhere else.
We took what we learned in that class, subsequent classes, books, and hand-me-down tips, and we made it our own. For the first time in my life, I felt a physical certainty that there was more to life than what I could comprehend. I wasn’t as good at questioning things as she was, so I let it be at that, but secretly loved hearing how she went nose to nose with even her personifications of a higher power.
Our friendship lasted through me moving back home to Texas in late 2009. There was a blip in 2010, a moment where our own individual stressors butted heads and caused a rift, but months later we were both able to recognize the issue and mend and move on.
I am eternally grateful for this, because only a few months later, I found out I was pregnant. Most of my adult and nearly-adult years, I knew with certainty I would have a girl. She’d look just like me only smaller. She’d be precocious and probably more extraverted than I am, and it would exhaust and thrill me. Then Pam told me with finality over the phone, mid-first trimester, that it would be a boy. I remember thinking to myself, Do I trust my intuition, or do I trust Pam?
My son Stark was born in June of 2011, and a couple of months before that, I was informed that he had a neurological disorder known as Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum. The intricacies of this disorder are due a book of its own, but it led to many doctor’s visits and therapists in the home and tests after tests after tests. He would later be diagnosed with autism as well, and the whole of my experience with the spectrum had been with Pam and her son, Loki. I pictured the “dance” that five year old Loki would do during his game time, and how he promised me from his carseat in the back that he’d buy me a pink diamond as we picked him up from school during one of my stays with them.
When Pam asked me if I could recommend someone to write her memoirs with her, I told her I would do some research, but if she was open to a relative amateur (I have a Masters in creative writing, but had yet to venture into creative non-fiction), I would love the opportunity. Turns out, she was hoping I would say that.
Coupled with my history with Pam and my experience raising a son with autism, I set up my phone to record and hoped to whatever cared to listen that I’d take good enough notes and ask good enough questions, because in the short time I knew her, Pam had commandeered her life, demanded happiness, and created an oasis of support for families of a child with autism.
She starts by telling me what prompted this book idea in the first place. She had been sitting in a meeting with her executive team, and they urged her for not the first time to get her story out. At the very least, it would be an entertaining read to follow the path of a woman who had been an insurance negotiator, owned a restaurant, worked for an orthodontist, ran a preschool, studied various manifestations of spirituality, then had a son with autism that inspired her to create a business to help others in a similar situation. If that’s the least reason, the most hope is that her story will reach other parents.
“To me, it's just me. My life is not a big deal,” she says. “Just everyone goes through a tough time, some kind of mental upheaval. That's the only reason I've got you writing this book, because if I can help one mom feel like she’s not alone or crazy, that's the mission, the purpose. If I can inspire one mom that has a vision or a dream that thinks she can't do it, or one dad that feels defeated, then I want to be able to help.”
Devin Overman is a screenwriter, author, and freelance writer. Her first screenplay, Immaculate, advanced at the Austin Film Festival in 2015, where she went on to consult in 2016 and 2017. Her newest project, Falling Into the Sound (Korean title: 음에 천천히 떨어지다), has been optioned by Little Studio Films in association with Nite Lite Pictures. She’s been interviewed and quoted by MTV on the cross-over between music and literature.