September 5, 2012
I lurch to the left as I try to reestablish my balance, almost bowled over by my youngest son as he wraps his body around my lower torso. Zach and I are on line to gain entrance to his new school for orientation day, and although we visited both of his teachers and their classrooms in the spring, I can tell he’s experiencing a high level of anxiety at the moment. I reach down and gently peel him off of me while grabbing his hand to comfort him, and tell him in a few minutes we’ll be inside. I remind him he’s already met his teachers and most of the other children haven’t, and he smiles at this opportunity to be “first”, which is always so important to him. His death grip on me relaxes a bit, and I see a small smile flash across his face at this knowledge, and know I said the right thing.
My last child will be attending kindergarten tomorrow.
A few minutes later we are allowed inside, and we promptly cycle through the day’s activities. We begin our adventure in the classroom where he’ll hopefully be mainstreaming first thing every morning, and I can tell he’s completely overwhelmed by the experience from his absolute silence. He’ll be with nineteen other kids (which is a huge class size for him), one regular education teacher, and one special educator. Both teachers are exceedingly warm and welcoming to him, and after a brief spiel about his upcoming year we are dismissed to the general assembly. I look down at Zach in his small chair which I know he will soon outgrow. I see my son being uncharacteristically still, taking everything in very seriously, with occasional glances across the room at the one child he knows from pre-school.
In both the regular ed class and the self-contained he has a friend, and she’s wonderful. For that, this mother is eternally grateful.
Eventually we make it through the almost hour-long assembly throughout which Zach paid vigilant attention, and we conclude our visit by dropping by his self-contained classroom, where he will go every day after his mainstream experience. Once again, his teacher and aide put him at ease and engage him immediately, and soon he is immersed in an art project, glancing now and then at the students around him, then returning to the task at hand. Throughout the morning he plays nicely with the other students, and cleans up when asked without protest (!). Each time I prompt him to say thank-you to one of his excellent educators he does so willingly, and grants them one of his rare bear hugs which his mother so covets.
He’s nervous, and a bit shy around the other kids. But I can tell he’s excited too, and with Zach, that’s more than half the battle.
I give both teachers a small “dossier” on Zach, things I think will help him acclimate, details I would have wanted to know about a student when I was a teacher. It’s still strange for me sometimes to be on the parent side of the table, but this position also comes with invaluable insight, and I remain grateful for my educational experiences as they’ve helped me to be a better parent.
Most of the information I’ve shared is practical. Zach is on a special diet. His impulsivity and ability to contain his emotional responses to situations will be his biggest challenges. I also try to convey in words how loving he is, how his first instincts in any social situation are to befriend someone, and to help whenever he can. These facts are just the bare bones of what makes my boy special.
I know I could never completely explain how brave he is, how his willingness to try new experiences this summer, mostly without incident, have amazed me. He soared at his new camp, so much so that the instructors have given me the green light to try sending him next year without a shadow. He conquered his fear of the ocean this summer with his boogie board, braving bigger and bigger waves as the season waned. He even briefly tried a vegetable, which did not lead to a repeat experience, but there’s hope.
Truly, there’s just so much hope.
Eventually the day concludes, and I lead my small-but-growing-up son back out to the parking lot, his hand clasped firmly in mine. He tries to remove it but I insist as cars start to pass us by, and he relents. I know this is only the beginning of the many “pulling-aways” we’ll experience, and I’m grateful for the moments we still have, for the fact he told me the night before that he was scared, that he can articulate his feelings with me. He seems at once so old and so young to me, and I am certain I will experience this feeling many times in the years to come. At this moment I’ve never been more proud of him.
My last child is going to kindergarten.
August 26, 2012
Zach bounds ahead of his shadow through the parking lot to my waiting car, and she quickly reigns him in to protect him from the path of any oncoming vehicles. He clambers exuberantly into the backseat of my SUV, full of stories about splash fights in the pool, art projects he can’t wait to display to me, how much snack he ate. My youngest boy tells me he LOVES camp, and wishes he could stay all day long.
Since his parents are still paying for an aide to be with him, that’s not quite financially feasible at this time.
I smile to myself however because I know that time could come, perhaps as soon as next summer. Zach’s camp has worked diligently to let his shadow fade from activities, allowing him to make more and more behavioral choices on his own. There have, of course, been a few bumps on the road, where his impulsivity has superceded rational choice and adults have had to pull him back. Again, he’s five, and that can happen to any kid. The beautiful part however is that as we talk about these incidences, he’s now not only able to articulate what went wrong, but has offered alternative paths he could have taken.
Really, what more could I ask for?
I’m hoping this newfound consciousness translates to other areas of his life, impending firsts that I am so excited to offer him. He’ll be starting karate in the fall (I’ll try anything to tire him out), and a sibling support group to discuss what it’s like to have a brother with autism. I’ve signed him up for Sunday School (given my lack of religious affiliation my husband was a bit surprised by this move, but Zach should be able to make his own choices about what he believes), so we’re giving church a go.
Then, of course, there’s kindergarten looming on the horizon, where on the very first day of school he will disembark from his bus and proceed immediately to a mainstream setting, without his own aid, and just a special education teacher he will share with seven other children. I’m excited, scared, and more than a little curious as to how all this will proceed.
Trust me, you’ll be hearing all about it soon.
I admit, as I pull out of the horseshoe-shaped parking lot I feel hopeful, because the key with Zach (and almost any child for that matter) is motivation, and this is a child who truly wants to belong, to have friends, to exchange ideas and knowledge with his peers. If kindergarten challenges and excites him, as I am confident after having met his future educators that it will, he will do fine.
Correction. I think he will soar.
And as summer wanes down to its inevitable conclusion and autumn begins to make its presence felt, I know both of us have so much to look forward to.
June 17, 2012
We’re almost running late, and since it’s the first time Zach will be meeting his potential kindergarten teachers, I’m silently begging the lights to remain green. It was a bit of a struggle to get him out of the house, no different than many that have occurred over the last week or so. I’m pretty certain his departure in behavior is due to the impending finale of pre-school, a place where he’s laughed and learned with the same incredible staff for two-and-a-half years (at least I hope that closure is the reason). While I sympathize with him, this “tour” that we’re about to take is important, will give him the lay of the land so to speak of a new facility, and will hopefully endear him to his new educators. He needs to get it together.
After all, first impressions are everything.
I arrive in the parking lot with a minute to spare, rush into the building, and am relieved to know we have a few minutes before the “event” begins. Zach’s case manager is wonderful, and has graciously offered to continue attending to his needs next year, a decision for which I am grateful. Since he’s going to have to readjust to an entirely new set of staff this fall, it will be lovely for him to see a familiar face.
It will be lovely for his mommy too.
Eventually our fabulous child study team member comes to collect us, and Zach eagerly takes her proffered hand, and I smile. We start the tour on a high note (the science room, where my son has the opportunity to witness tadpoles and frogs in action), a locale which I quickly see ignites a spark of longing in him, a desire to return.
In quick succession we check out the auditorium, the mainstream classroom and teacher where he’ll hopefully spend his entire morning, and the educator of the self-contained classroom in which he’ll conclude his day. Everyone is so welcoming, and so clearly excited to meet their prospective student. I watch Zach soak up their warmth like strong rays of sun on his skin, and I see the dawning in his eyes of an exciting future. He can’t wait to attend this school.
And although part of me is scared for him, I can’t wait for him to attend it either.
All too soon our roaming ends, with a trip to the boys’ bathroom acting as our finale. Due to our case manager’s thoughtfulness Zach even receives a parting gift of goodies, which he eagerly explores and wants to play with immediately. I temper his enthusiasm a bit by promising him access in the car, thank our tour guide, and offer him my hand.
My appendage is resoundingly rejected. Zach is, after all, going to kindergarten this fall.
I know it will be only one of a thousand ways in which he’ll slowly leave, will exert the subtle shift from dependence to independence that an entire team of people have worked so diligently towards for four consecutive years. He does permit me to grasp his fingers as we enter the parking lot, and I listen as he chatters on enthusiastically about what he’s seen. He’s already spinning me a story about the amphibians he’s obviously taken to heart, one with woods and an evil witch who thankfully doesn’t sound anything like the teachers he’s just met.
When asked, he says he loves his new teachers. Thank God.
I’ve barely strapped him into his car seat when he asks for his “goody bag”, and I retrieve it for him from the front seat, reminding him not to lose the little pieces anywhere. He promises to be good and take care of them, and again I smile, because I know he will do his best, as he does in so many other areas of his life. I squeeze his hand and lean in for a kiss, one which he dutifully bestows upon his mommy, then turns back to his newfound treasure. I release his fingers reluctantly as I ponder how much more difficult this will be in September. Zach gives me his trademark glorious smile, and I close his door, knowing a new one will open for him soon.
It’s time to let go, and watch him fly.
May 2, 2012
The wind whips over our clasped hands as we navigate the obstacle course of cars in the parking lot, washing over our windbreaker-sheathed arms like so many ripples on the sea. We’re braving the gusts because my youngest son Zachary, who has mild autism, has begged me to come to the park today. Against my better judgment (because it’s cold as hell out) I’ve conceded, mostly because he asked so nicely, and with such enthusiasm. I glance down at him as we run and ask him what he wants to do first, i.e. the equipment, or just jog around the park and exhaust his mom. He smiles up at me and says “Mommy, the stage first, and you will tell me a play.”
A story’s not good enough for this kid. He wants action. I’d better deliver.
We approach the tiny amphitheatre quickly, and I watch as my small son takes the stairs two at a time, with his mother following at a more age-appropriate pace. I’ve been conjuring up plots in the few minutes I’ve been afforded to “get creative”, and for some reason Ali Baba is stuck in my mind, and I know I’ll build the story line around him. Zach instructs me where to stand and shows me the place from where he’ll be watching, a random spot too close to the lip of the stage for my comfort. I gain his attention, and ask him to adjust. I begin to spin a story of a brother with six sisters who try fruitlessly to render their sibling more like them, and how our protagonist rebels in protest. An evil crone is thrown into the mix, spells are cast, a renewed sense of appreciation for those who are different is discovered.
I know, it’s a running theme with us. Nothing like a good cross-over tale.
At first Zach is striding pell-mell across unforgiving concrete, straying close enough to the edge to be cause for concern, until I instruct him that the rest of the play mush be conducted while he’s stationary. At one point the plot I’ve constructed no longer requires movement, and we end up reclining within feet of one another, Zach rapt with attention, his mother cold but animated in the telling. Minutes pass, and I realize as I reach our fairy tale’s denouement that my son has inched his small frame ever closer to my larger one. Eventually his arms are draped around my shoulders, his face nestled in the crook of my neck as he leans into me. He is secure in that sacred spot where both of my children always seem to fit, no matter what their age.
I conclude my little spiel, one with heroes forged from frailty, and wickedness banished to the farthest realms of a kingdom. Zach remains still and silent for a few minutes longer, cuddled in my embrace. Although I watch the wind whip up dust in the eyes of moms, toddlers and dogs attempting to traverse the park, we are protected he and I, left undisturbed by this structure meant for performance. It hits me that these afternoon interludes are numbered, as he’ll most likely enter a full-day kindergarten program in the fall.
I pull him a little closer.
It also occurs to me how far he’s come in the almost four years since that terrible autumn, a period in which my husband and I witnessed him losing most of his words, watched his gut become a battleground, saw the spark leave his eyes. I would give anything to be able to go back in time and tell those devastated parents of the leaps and bounds he would make, the milestones that would be conquered. I’d inform them that eventually those coveted words would resume, with “why” predominant among his ever-increasing vocabulary. I’d say that his inner spark for life would return in full force, an undeniable fire that cannot be quenched. I’d share that his creativity continues to astonish us, that there will be hard work for him ahead, but no limits on what he can do. Most importantly, I’d reassure those parents that he’d once again be happy, would revel in his childhood, which is all I’ve ever wanted for my sons.
Then, I’d give both of us a really big hug.
Fairly soon the moment concludes, with my child offering his hands once again to be warmed, his extremities in complete opposition to the content of his heart. Soon we will rise and descend those stairs to unyielding tarmac, but for a few moments more, we are content. My son whispers in my ear “thank you Mommy”, and I squeeze him more tightly, conveying my message with sinew and strength, not words.
Zachary, my love, all the world is your stage.