May 25, 2011
I’ve mentioned this before in my writing- when it comes to my children’s education, I have two very fortunate offspring. My youngest is thriving in his local public school, entertaining himself almost weekly with fossil digs, and “bear hunts”. Most recently, his joy was compounded by singing exuberantly in a choir of a hundred pre-school children (how a music teacher can convince that many three-to-five-year-olds not only to mimic her hand movements but learn (most) of the songs’ lyrics as well, is beyond my comprehension). He loves his friends, the paras, his teacher (trust me, many of his sentences at home begin with “but Miss Liz says”), and is almost as eager to see that school bus arrive each morning as his mother is. In ABA terms, school, for Zach, is a primary reinforcer.
And then, there’s Justin.
My eldest child has always adored learning, easily surpassing my computer skills by the age of two (I know, that’s not saying much), and often flinging books at me over the years to read to him until I taught him to hand them to me (it’s tough to read the work of Eric Carle with double vision). That early love of literature has fortunately flourished into his own ability to read, a skill he possesses for which I am eternally grateful. He’s not big on math (neither was his mother), but I’m certain he would have been a killer contestant in a spelling bee. He’s formed a friendship with one of the students in his class who has technically adopted Justin as his little brother, and I’m told he now moves rather easily from task to task, location to location, with little angst.
And trust me, I’m grateful for that too.
Ms. Hillary Clinton once stated that it takes a village to raise a child, and I can assure you it takes an entire planet to raise one with autism. His progress to this point has been a culmination of the efforts of his teachers from his last two placements, as well as his current one. Justin has benefited from dedicated staff at all five of the schools he’s attended up to this point, educational facilities spanning two different states. His father and I are thankful for the compassion and caring he’s received from all of his centers of learning.
I simply must say however that his current school is different, and I was reminded just how special it is when I learned about its history this past weekend at the Search Day Annual Dinner Dance, where we celebrated the school’s fortieth anniversary.
The Search Day Program is unique in part because it was the very first twelve month specialized school for autism, the brain child of a very dedicated group of parents in the sixties who recognized a need for a different type of learning environment for their children, and stopped at nothing to achieve it. Some of these early founders went on to establish Autism New Jersey (formerly known as COSAC), a state organization which provides support and advocacy for parents of children with autism. I’m a proponent of putting things into context, and I can assure you that what these parents achieved in that time period, while IDEA was in its nascent stages, prior to the internet, and before any widespread knowledge of autism (or compassion for those who have it), is nothing short of miraculous. I’m forever indebted to their advocacy and determination, and I’d just like to thank these pioneers for providing a venue that has helped so many children, and their families, reach their full potential.
Due to the collective efforts of various teachers, parents, and corporate sponsors such as Home Depot, TD Bank, Foodtown and Wegman’s, Search Day has expanded from classrooms situated in the rented space of a church basement, to the excellent facilities it is comprised of today. Search’s campus now includes three buildings and thirteen acres of land, on which the various school programs, a Career and Life Center, and a Campus Store, are located. Through the efforts of those who helped raise funds for various projects a new playground has been constructed and a swimming pool installed, the latter in which I’m hoping my eldest will learn to paddle just long enough to save his life if necessary.
And while it also takes an entire planet to create a school of such caliber dedicated specifically to the advancement of those with autism, none of it would take place without the dedication of a brilliant, and highly motivated staff.
On a recent Friday night, after indulging happily in our two free drinks and cornering the market on the plentiful mini-quiches and pigs-in-a-blanket floating around the room, Jeff and I joined the other hundred-plus parents, educators, and sponsors who attended the gala at the English Manor in Wanamassa, in the large and beautifully furnished dining room where I was happy to be served a fine meal I neither had to cook nor clean up. We listened to a passionate and rousing speech by the school’s director, Kathy Solana, who almost made it to the end without crying. Jeff and I couldn’t help but revel in the rousing cheers, particularly from the teachers, for every single child featured in the moving slide show presentation (the one of our son seated next to Santa with a “why the hell am I doing this look” was particularly priceless).
The truth is, I could ramble on about the obvious commitment of the staff, some of whom have worked there for decades. I could describe the overwhelming compassion for not only the children, but for their parents as well, as evidenced in every conversation I had with Justin’s teacher, his aides, and his speech instructors that night. I could share with you that I wondered when these people ever sleep, that their sheer willingness to go above and beyond for their students on a day-to-day basis is what renders this school unique.
But the real reason this school is special is simply due to the staff’s palpable joy in working there.
I was an educator (well, will always be an educator), for thirteen years, starting as an aide at a school for emotionally challenged children in New Jersey, and eventually ending up at a magnet school in a public school district in northern Virginia. I’ve been fortunate during the span of my career to know phenomenal teachers, true visionaries in their fields. Some of them, to my never-ending gratitude, have worked with my children. Truly, I’m no stranger to amazing educators, whom we in the field often refer to as “lifers”.
I must admit however, that I have rarely encountered a school where every single faculty member I’ve met has resided in this exclusive club.
As Jeff and I eventually left the gala, total losers in the raffle and the 50/50 but happy to have gotten out of the house, the director took ten minutes of her time to escort us to the door and chat with us about Justin’s progress, and her vision for the school’s future. I admit I was a bit teary as we exited the premises (with my ramped-up crying these days I think Jeff’s worried I’ll be going through the “change” soon, and is concerned his prospects for a happy future are rapidly diminishing), but I pulled it together enough to convey to my husband how fortunate we were to have landed on this particular square, in the lifetime chess game of autism. The truth is, I may not ever be able to give my boy actual words, or the intimacy of a lifelong friend. I won’t dance with him at his wedding, or watch him drive off into the sunset with his lifetime love. He won’t make me insane with his incessant and unreasonable demands as a teenager (maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all).
But with a lot of hard work and the support of his incomparable grandma, his father and I were able to give him this school, this education, this pathway to progress, and that is no small thing. To the staff and supporters of Search Day School, and Justin’s home district who made it possible for him to attend, we would just like to say we are so deeply appreciative.