November 19, 2010
After a long, long day and too much caffeine (if that’s possible), it’s finally the conclusion of Back-to-School-Night number two for me. Even though I’m driving slowly and carefully through the back streets of central Jersey I know I’m mere minutes away from being strongly berated by my bitchy GPS for screwing up that damn circle once again, the tedious confluence of roads I hope I’ll master by the time Justin graduates. I’ve driven back from DC today, I’m tired, but hopeful I’ll make it home before Modern Family starts since I have yet to master my DVR, and despite multiple sticky notes I have yet to ask Jeff to do it either.
Hell, who am I kidding. Now I can’t even remember to reference my sticky notes.
But despite my imminent path to Alzheimer’s I’ve managed to retain various key elements from tonight’s event, a few facts that surprised me, and a few that simply validated what I’ve known about my son for a very long time. First, I listened enraptured as the school’s director discussed all of the exciting things about to transpire in the facility’s fifth decade. I watched her fight back tears as she attributed so much of the school’s progress to both the faculty and parents, particularly those who fought so valiantly forty years ago to create a safe haven for students with autism in the first place.
I was touched to hear that numerous teachers gave up time on a precious weekend to scrub the school’s newest acquisition, an elderly building recently acquired on adjacent property that will eventually afford autistic adults the opportunity to learn life and employment skills. I eagerly hung on every word that Justin’s teacher shared with me when we dispersed to our children’s respective classrooms, words that comprised such phrases as “eager to learn”, “mostly compliant”, and “extremely affectionate”, half-sentences I surely would not have been graced with concerning him even a year ago. I soaked up every word of the principal’s and teacher’s speeches, yet again so grateful to have found such a perfect academic and behavioral fit for my son. At the end of the night however, one comment from his educator stood out amongst all the rest, no ginkgo biloba required to retain it.
My oldest son has a friend in school.
This is not the first time I have been graced with such wonderful news. At Justin’s first out-of-district placement a little boy in a nearby class took him under his wing for a year, teaching him the ropes, keeping him out of trouble, persuading him to return to his classroom rather than chase after pretty pre-school girls (autism or not, he’s still social). When we eventually brought him back to district for kindergarten, he was fortunate enough to have an older neurotypical buddy for the two consecutive years he attended that particular school. The few times we ran into her in the hallway I could see exactly how thrilled he was to see her, what those thirty minutes five times a week truly meant to him. I recall having to hold back my emotions so I wouldn’t scare off a ten-year-old girl with my effusive gratitude. There are times we all have to rein in the crazy.
But this time, because this friend is with him all day in his classroom, the situation is different. I had the great fortune to meet him when we had our tour of the school, and although I won’t ask the teacher his name, it’s clear who’s “adopted” my child. Six weeks ago I was struck by this student’s facility with language, the minimal prompting required to extend a greeting to me and my mother, his obvious joy that we learned his name. I am told that he is Justin’s self-appointed buddy, that they walk together in line, break bread with each other daily, and are inseparable on field trips (don’t ever try to divorce Justin from his chosen pumpkin). This boy, this kind child with his own struggles to surmount, looks out for my son, protects him, encourages him to participate in activities which I am certain hold zero interest for Justin. He is the much younger and male version of Annie Sullivan for autism. I could not be more pleased.
As I wend my way through another of Jersey’s masterful mazes (and as I guessed, incorrectly the first time), I have to smile, because this issue of friendship has always been so important to me, and for once I’ve had absolutely no part in orchestrating it. I’ve yet to solve Justin’s other pending problems, how his parents will manage to support him to his death, what he’ll do to occupy his time after he turns twenty-one, where he’ll reside as his increasingly aging parents (and his increasingly forgetful mother) find themselves unable to care for him. I will need to unsheathe my sword for numerous battles to come.
But for now, and for at least a few more months, my son has a real, bona fide friend in school. And for once, I reshelve my other worries for another day, and simply revel in the fact that in this one instance, this one example, he gets to be just like any other kid.