Thursday, January 12, 2012

It Takes a Village, People

I’m shivering on the concrete steps, huddling in the last winter afternoon sunbeams. Halfway across the school playground is The Boy, playing an impromptu game of soccer with a dozen other boys and girls from his class. They organize themselves into teams and positions. They kick and run, argue and resolve. There are parents all around, but we’re on the sidelines – chatting, reading, or just trying to stay warm. The kids are a little society unto themselves, Peanuts-style.

I’m on the edge of my seat, of course, knowing The Boy could lose it at any moment. The other team scores and scores again. He breaks a rule he didn’t understand and a girl loudly corrects him. A little sister runs amok through the game, throwing everything off course. I brace myself. But he stays calm and keeps playing. Later, they organize themselves into a kickball game.

An ordinary scene, but it feels like a small miracle. These kids accept him. And he accepts them. He even follows their lead, acquiesces to their rules, high-fives a teammate who scores. He plays until most of the other kids have gone home, and his good mood lasts for the rest of the day. When I think about it, I realize that his meltdowns are getting fewer and farther between. And when they do happen, they’re much more easily managed.

I know we’re just going through a good patch right now and I shouldn’t get too cocky. There’s no “cure” for Aspergers, after all. One doesn’t outgrow it. I know the moods and meltdowns are lurking not very far beneath the surface. But I want to stop and give this good phase the same attention I’ve given to the rough spots. I want to go ahead and be proud of him, and proud of myself. And I want to recognize that while I did a lot (a lot!) to get us to this point…I didn’t do this myself. Not even close. Meet the village:

Parent Advocate Pioneers
Other special ed families’ struggles make ours look like a trip to Hawaii. There’s a parent at our school who’s been a particularly fierce advocate in the face of some pretty extreme adversity. But she managed to convince them that her son needs and deserves to participate in an advanced learning class with special ed support.

By the time we were reassigned to this school, I was too exhausted to fight for advanced learning placement. I was ready to back down and not push for it if they said no. But because this parent paved the way, all I had to do was ask the principal about it once and she said yes. And what an incredibly positive difference it’s made for The Boy to be in a class that truly challenges him. He’s reading classic children’s literature instead of those dry committee-generated readers. He’s learning the multiplication tables and long division. And he’s in a classroom full of kids who are psyched about math and science. (And Harry Potter. Holy moley do those kids love Harry Potter.)

I wouldn’t have fought for any of this. But another parent did, so we get to reap the benefits. I’ll remember that the next time I’m tempted to back down.

Of course, the credit for this particular class goes to The Boy’s excellent classroom teacher. He’s the kind of teacher who calls after the kids as they’re heading for the buses “Don’t forget to watch the lunar eclipse tonight!” He genuinely likes them, and they like him right back. They have this incredible energy together.

He’s been very flexible and understanding with The Boy, and he’s been welcoming and open to feedback from me. But the really wonderful thing this teacher has done – the thing I absolutely couldn’t have done myself – is hold very high expectations. Not in a mean, Tiger Mom-ish way. Just simple and firm. “He can do this.” And most of the time he can. He’s so proud of himself. And I’m learning how to gently, kindly, set the bar a little higher for The Boy than I used to.

Special Ed Support
Words fail. These people make it possible at all. The teacher’s aide who helped The Boy through those first terrifying weeks at his new school. The special ed teacher who talks him through his meltdowns and bouts of crippling perfectionism; who gives him unbridled encouragement when he tries something new; who called me at home on the first day of school to tell me he’s having a great day. The teacher’s aide who researches topics he’s interested in so they can have conversations about it. The resource room teacher at our old school who was The Boy’s sole advocate, who wrote him a great IEP and helped us get him to a school that was a better fit. Their depth and breadth of knowledge, their empathy, their infinite patience. Where would we be without them?

Viewers Like You
I owe my relative sanity and overall well-being to every friend, family member, and reader who’s ever listened to me talk or who’s read and shared my writing about all this. So many of you have given me such generous room to vent, ponder, cry, head down a completely wrong path and backtrack to square one, worry, and ponder some more. You’ve given advice, offered resources, validated my feelings, challenged my perspective, helped me feel strong and capable. Thank you.

School…When it Works
We had a “Getting Ready for Kindergarten” parent meeting at Little Girl’s preschool earlier this week. Our parent educator asked those of us with children in elementary school to talk a little about our experiences. I don’t think any of us intended to scare the pants off the first-timers. We all love our schools, and the kids are having a great year. But it took some of us a while to get here.

We had to stand up to teachers and systems that misunderstood or undervalued our children. We had to improvise solutions. We had to teach our children even stronger coping skills, and deal with our own disappointment. It wasn’t easy. But I believe that every single one of us came out of it stronger and smarter from the experience. You don’t always get it right the first time. But human beings are incredibly resilient.

Yesterday afternoon, we gathered in the elementary school library for cupcakes and popcorn to honor the teachers who are doing special ed inclusion in their classrooms this year. The special ed teacher had prepared one of those “You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings” Powerpoint slide shows, featuring heartwarming photos of the students all working, learning, and being part of the group under the gentle guidance of these teachers.

My favorite part, by far, was watching the audience’s reactions. Some of the teachers looked close to tears. Some had the biggest smiles on their faces. The Boy was delighted to see a slide of himself, hard at work writing a story at his desk. At the end of the slide show, the principal did a mock collapse, showing how incredibly touched and proud she felt.

School isn’t perfect. Life isn’t perfect. I know there are challenging times ahead, maybe even later today. But at this moment, I’m feeling so happy for simple moments like that after-school soccer game, and so grateful to everyone who’s helped us get here.


Murray said...

I enjoyed reading that! Sounds like you are a very proud mother! Great to see The Boy interacting with the other kids :)

Aunt Annie said...

Oh how I love to hear good news from you, having read so much of your journey on the ASD roller coaster. Consider this a virtual high-five. May it continue!!

Teacher Tom said...

Don't forget to include yourself in the congratulations for this "phase." Words can't express my admiration for you and my gratitude for what you're teaching.

caroline hansen kleban said...

Finally read this, toby. I'm so happy for you. It is just plain awesome to watch the kids from afar, cringing within, but having it turn out ok more often than it used to.

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