Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not Done Yet

“Are you done?” a friend recently asked me.

It took me a little longer than it should have to realize she meant “Done having babies.” To which the answer is simply “yes.” The good folks at Paragard are helping me see to that.

But when she first asked the question, before I knew what she meant, my first thought was “No. Not even close.”

School ended on Tuesday. By Thursday, I found myself luxuriating on our crummy old beach blanket with a fresh pedicure, watching The Boy and Mr. Black build a sandcastle while Little Girl made up a story with a pair of plastic shovels. It was a rare peaceful moment, complete with the sparkling, crashing waves of the Oregon Coast Pacific in the background.

Nine months ago we were right here on this very beach, enjoying one last adventure before the start of school. I can’t help but sit back and marvel at all that’s transpired between then and now.

First freaking grade. Who would have thought? I guess on some level, I’d known we were in for a wild ride of a school year. I’d already scaled back my volunteer duties at Little Girl’s preschool in preparation. I’d been warned by The Boy’s awesome kindergarten teacher that first grade is a whole different ballgame. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I had a vague, foreboding sense that a huge pain in the ass was in store.

The last time we sat on this beach, I had no idea The Boy had Aspergers. But I knew something was up with him, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to fix it before school started. At that point, I was still kind of hoping it would somehow fix itself. Well…it didn’t.

The amazing thing is how incredibly positive I’ve been feeling about this crazy year. And not just because we’re sitting on a beach. Even before we left I was elated, on the phone with my mother trying to explain that no, really, it was a good year! A growing year! Look at how far we’ve come:

We have a diagnosis. We have an IEP. We won over his classroom teacher – who started out the year disgruntled and overwhelmed – and watched her really learn and start to get him as the year went on, patching things together with common sense and empathy even before there was an IEP in place. We stood up to kids who picked on him and parents who didn’t want their kids to associate with him. We got him out of a disastrous reading group and watched his behavior improve dramatically as a result. We got him reassigned to a school that routinely serves students on the autism spectrum, where he’ll have the professional attention and understanding he’s needed all along. Let’s face it, people: We kicked ass!

And no…we’re not done. But it’s awfully nice, after all that, to just sit by the ocean again.

Watching my happy little nuclear family on the beach reminds me of another Oregon Coast trip a few years back. The Boy was two, and I was pregnant with Little Girl. So pregnant, in fact, that I wore one of those dreadful maternity belts under my tank top so that I could walk on the beach without being sabotaged by preggo-related sciatica.

But I was so joyful the whole time. The baby-to-be kicked merrily when her brother-to-be ran around the hotel room, as if she couldn’t wait to get out and join the party. I watched other families with multiple school-aged children, imagining ourselves in that place in a few years. There was this blissful sense of “Soon Our Family Will Be Complete.” Or something less cheesy than that. I don’t know.

And now, here we are. Brother and sister, Aspergian and neurotypical, Legos and stuffed animals. Complete.

But not done.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Shuffling into a crowded Barnes & Noble today with Little Girl, I caught sight of two bookish, endearingly young guys standing by the door. They were about to part ways, feet pointing in different directions, but their eyes were absolutely locked in the sweetest twitterpated gaze. Earnest smiles, avid nodding. One described his job and co-workers to the other, both of them speaking and listening with far more fascination than the subject matter warranted.

They don’t know it yet, I thought, smiling as my girl tugged me into the store. But they’re just on the cusp of realizing. Maybe they’re realizing it at this very moment. Or maybe they’ll both lie awake tonight mystified and intrigued, wondering if they imagined that flicker in the other’s eyes. So obvious to the passer-by, but it eludes them because the very notion seems to defy the law of gravity: Mutual! The guy you adore adores you, too. Impossible.

I miss that. It’s one of the few things I truly don’t have anymore, that I probably will never experience again. That innocent moment when a gaze lasts just a little longer, when you can’t quite break eye contact; when the corners of your mouths creep up inanely while you talk about bus schedules or whatever mundane topic you’d been discussing.

I’m not talking about flirtation. Flirtation is contrived, often insincere, and kind of annoying, frankly. I’m talking about spark – a connection that happens in spite of your best manners or even your best interests. Like the old cupid’s arrow thing in cartoons, eyeballs turning into hearts and so forth.

I know, I know. Thanks to reality dating shows, the word “connection” has been rendered even more meaningless and silly than the eyeball/heart thing. But seeing those innocently enamored guys today makes me remember that it’s real. It just doesn’t happen as often as pop culture wants us to believe.

Spark was always my favorite, even in the single days. Especially in the single days, when more often than not, spark was as good as it got. It was that one simple, perfect moment before you learn that the guy’s allergic to telephones. Or mean to his ex-girlfriends. Or kisses entirely with his tongue, no lips at all. It’s that one lovely impression of bliss before the awkward mechanics of actually disrobing and attempting orgasm with another sweaty human being. Or, Zod help you, attempting a relationship with someone whose compatibility falls far short of spark’s initial promise.

Come to think of it, spark is a pretty lousy predictor. It’s mostly just projection, really. You think you’re seeing this incredible connection, but really you’re just seeing mutual physical attraction and wild, careless hope. Even under the best of circumstances, there’s nowhere to go but down. It’s either a failed relationship or the arduous, pioneering work of a successful one.

But spark for spark’s sake? Is that even possible? Can you have a mutually recognized attraction that goes unfulfilled? Or does that only exist in fairy tales like Lost in Translation?

Gaah…love that movie. Love. It.

Anyway. I wish those guys from Barnes & Noble the best. I kind of hope they didn’t realize the mutual attraction today. I hope they get at least a week or two to savor the anticipation, search for clues in conversations and glances, blissfully agonize about it over drinks with friends, feel just on the verge of that spark, but not quite there just yet. It’s the best part, guys. Enjoy it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lost and Found

I met my parents at the King of Prussia mall and borrowed my old car back from them, carless as I was in those days. It was dark by the time I hit the road. I had no plans. Not one. I just started driving north, because north.

I made it as far as New Paltz that night. The next day I decided to spend the rest of my vacation in the Adirondacks. Drive a little, hike. Drive a little, swim in a lake. Drive a little, find a motel for the night. Wake up, put on a sports bra, and go for a real hike.

This woman on the trail reminded me of Ingrid. Even her voice had that same lilt to it, and that joyful enthusiasm. Insistent. The trail was flooded, but she knew another way. Come on! Funny how you can fall into your old role with a completely new person, just like that. I followed her. She had a compass and a trail map. She seemed so sure of the way.

The real Ingrid was gone, of course. Never came back to work from her vacation, cleared out her apartment, took her last paycheck and disappeared. It was all so surreal. I kept remembering how our strange little girl-crush friendship unraveled over the summer. She went from adoring me to being aggressively distant, to being just plain irritated with me…well, irritated and distant with all of us, really. I knew it wasn’t about me, but still. I wondered. I hypothesized. I went back over past conversations, searching for clues.

Mostly, though, I just missed her so much. Walking through the city at night, I’d stare up at the glittering office windows against the dusky sky feeling as if she had just evaporated up there somewhere. It was even more perplexing than the “what happens when you die” question, because she wasn’t dead. She was somewhere, not wanting to be found.

And now, I was getting lost in the woods with some woman who reminded me of her. She became less and less certain, but no less enthusiastic. It’s this way! And we’d charge up a hillside, whacking branches out of our way. No, wait, it was actually that way! Charge, whack, etc.

And then she just stopped. She didn’t know anymore. Panic! She took out a whistle and blew and blew. Nothing. She called shrill, terrified calls for help. Nothing. It was so quiet.

I was every bit as lost as she was, but somehow I felt completely calm. “I’m going to have some water,” I said, keeping my voice low and reassuring. “Would you like some water, too?” She nodded, we sipped. I don’t remember what I said after that. I just kept speaking with composure and certainty, even though I had no freaking idea where we were or how to get us back to the trail.

But it worked. She picked up her map again, and together we retraced our steps back to the point where we’d gone off the trail. Her boyfriend was there. She stayed with him while I followed the official detour around the flooded trail.

Soon I was back on the trail, taking long, delicious strides up the side of the mountain, thinking about not much at all. Sun. Pine needles. Boots. Sky. I was happier than I’d been all summer. Traveling alone is so intensely free. You can just drift with your own whims, explore your senses uninterrupted.

At the same time, I’d never felt so grounded. All that summer I’d been so lonely and tense and sad, uncertain about whether to stay at my job or even whether to stay in Philadelphia. Somehow, Ingrid’s leaving made me realize I was already entrenched; more stable than I ever could have known.

Just like that stranger on the trail. I’d followed her, trusted her, believed that I needed her. But in the end, I was the one who had to lead. And I could find my own way pretty well, it turned out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Drinking the Skool Aid

The worst part is, I knew better.

It’s written all over the notebook I brought with me on the kindergarten tour. I’d been skeptical when they trotted out the panel of meticulously multiracial 5th graders. I’d been embarrassed when the panel’s only white boy did all the talking, and rather amused by the touring parents who eagerly asked these 10-year-olds question after question. I sat out the excited murmuring when they mentioned 3rd grade Shakespeare plays and 8th grade homeless role-play “empathy building” activities. Even the gorgeous library rubbed me the wrong way.

I tried to explain it to Mr. Black afterwards, but he takes everything so damn literally. Gorgeous library, Shakespeare plays, great test scores. What’s not to like?

“You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “Everyone was so happy there. So self-satisfied. Like nothing could ever go wrong there.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s good if it works for you,” I said. “But what if it doesn’t? What if your kid is in the midst of all this feel-good Shakespearian high-test-score empathy building and he still has problems and doesn’t fit in? How do they treat people who aren’t happy?”

Back then I didn’t know The Boy had Aspergers. In fact, the first therapist who evaluated him assured me that he didn’t. I didn’t know he was academically gifted, either, although I had my suspicions. Mostly, I just knew we were having a truly horrendous final year of preschool. The teacher didn’t get him. Some of the other parents didn’t even like him. There were serious looks of concern when I’d mention he was headed for kindergarten in the fall.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That’s why I was so determined to send him to the Absolute 100% Best of All Possible Public Schools. Of course, none of the schools we toured fit that description. How could they? It’s like looking for Mr. Right. There’s no such thing. But I’d pinned all my hopes for The Boy on this notion of the Right School. I guess it stood to reason that, sooner or later, I’d have to start believing the hype.

I wasn’t expecting to get into that super-nice school with the Shakespearian 3rd graders. It’s hugely popular, open to the whole city by lottery alone. Everyone warned me not to get my hopes up. No one gets in.

Except…we got in.

I didn’t realize how much I’d wanted it until it was right there in front of me on the school assignment letter. I actually dropped the letter in shock. Everyone was amazed and delighted for us. Even our preschool friends who got into the coveted foreign language immersion school were impressed. You’d think the kid had won a full scholarship to Yale or something. But it felt so good to have people happy for us for a change. I felt vindicated, somehow.

And then…I kind of started to lose sight of reality. Somehow, I conflated all the praise and congratulations with The Boy’s actual state of well-being – which, let’s face it, hadn’t changed just because we’d lucked into a prestigious elementary school. But I couldn’t make myself slow down and see that.

There’s a lot to like about that school, for sure. It sits on a woodsy hillside overlooking Lake Union. The kindergarten was nurturing and fun. He sang in a coffee house holiday concert, performed in a shadow puppet show, participated in a salmon migration parade, sang in the chorus of a Shel Silverstein musical revue. He made good friends. He learned some sign language. He was happy and proud to be there.

But the tension was never very far below the surface. Poor little guy. It’s hard work to have Aspergers when none of the adults in your life know or understand. He didn’t need a gorgeous library or a salmon migration parade. He didn’t even need “empathy building.” He needed teachers and a staff who’d seen kids like him in action before and knew what the heck to do with it. Or, in school district lingo, he needed a “more intensive service model.” He was more than halfway through 1st grade before I finally figured that out.

Of course, these “service models” typically aren’t offered at the fancier, more prestigious public schools like Empathy Building Central, here. Coincidence? Are these schools considered “good” in the first place because there’s conveniently no room for kids like mine?

If you believe the rumors in the special ed community, a previous administration did all it could to keep special ed students out of this school. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but it would certainly go a long way toward explaining some of the cluelessness we’ve encountered there. Kind, well-intentioned cluelessness. How would you know what to do with Aspergers if you’ve never seen it in your classroom before?

Next year, he’ll attend a school that’s walking distance from our house. They have a special ed inclusion program that’s taught by an award-winning teacher. He might even be able to participate in gifted classes. If I hadn’t been so stuck on finding him the Best of All Possible Public Schools two years ago, we could have just sent him there in the first place. But our new school, for whatever reason, is not very highly regarded by parents. And again: coincidence? Is it considered “not good” because there is room for kids like mine?

Well, we’ll see. Meanwhile, at the risk of pouring myself a new flavor of Kool Aid, I have to admit that I’m pretty excited about the new school. The Boy’s excited about it, too. And yes, we know by now that there’s no such thing as the Right School. This isn’t going to fix anything. It’s part of the process, not a happy ending.

Although…gosh. After all we’ve been through, maybe for now I’d like to just imagine that it is.

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