September 12, 2011

School, Glorious School

Posted in Life's Little Moments tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:41 am by autismmommytherapist

Last week, for four consecutive days, for a brilliant three hours at a time, I “rediscovered” my life again. Gone was my youngest, who spent the last hundred or so hours of the summer complaining he was bored. This was despite having access to a pool, the beach, three amusement parks, and what amounted to approximately a gazillion playdates, whose scheduling alone made me question my sanity. Vacated was my eldest, who has yet to completely recover post-Irene, as evidenced by some seriously ramped-up OCD, and equally questionable sleeping habits. During that time I attacked piles of crap I’d ignored since Father’s Day, ran a ridiculous amount of errands sans child, and remembered to shave my legs. Even with my husband just down the hallway hard at work, the house was comparatively silent, devoid of the whirlwind of noise that signifies the presence of both of my sons.

School, glorious school.

Every year I send a silent message of thanks to the universe at large for the creation of IDEA, that fabulous law that enables my offspring to have an education, and gives me the opportunity to once again breathe. I can’t thank the parents who spearheaded its creation enough, and can’t imagine having to convince legislators that my children were indeed entitled to attend school despite the differences in their brains from the “typical” crowd. I am well aware that all school systems are still not created equal. I am also aware that many of my fellow parents with differently-abled children are yet engaged in a tug-of-war with their respective districts, desperately attempting to convince administrators and teachers how best to meet the needs of their children. We still have a long way to go until it’s perfect. In some cases, we still have a long way to go before it’s even adequate. But at least, thankfully, education is an option.

For my two boys, for which I am eternally grateful, it’s become a fabulous option indeed.

I have to admit the McCaffertys cheated the gods of first week of school jitters this year, as my eldest not only had the same teacher and classmates, but enjoyed the return of the same phenomenal bus drivers. My youngest just commenced his third year of school with his cherished teacher and dedicated aides, and although his class composition has been altered (a fact which kept him up three straight nights in June) to allow a few of his friends to move on to kindergarten, a sampling of the “oldies but goodies” remained behind. He’s already made a new best friend, a lovely young girl with whom he plans on being betrothed and producing his future five, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she’s amenable.

So much for that return trip to Paris someday. Time for an addition.

The truth is my semi-return to sanity would not be possible without the expertise of both the faculties involved, from assistants and teachers to principals, and occupational and speech therapists as well. From the frequent notes replete with great detail about their days to the exceedingly well-executed field trips and schoolwide programs, both my boys are cared for, challenged, and excited by the prospect of learning. My sons are constantly treated with dignity and respect, and valued for the unique qualities of their personalities that comprise the core of who they are.

Frankly, that last sentence is half the battle already won.

So today I’d just like to say thanks to the entire world (we’re so beyond a village) helping to inspire my sons, both for a great first week of school, and what I’m certain will be a fantastic year to come. This family quite literally couldn’t do it without you, and the glorious smiles beaming from the faces of my boys every day they return home to me are evidence of just how hard you work for them, trying to elicit their best. My sons are appreciative. I am grateful. The reduced piles in my house are ecstatic.

And once again, truly, thank you.

July 11, 2011

Always a Bridesmaid

Posted in Fun Stuff, Life's Little Moments tagged , , , , , at 12:59 pm by autismmommytherapist

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Just kidding.

This past weekend I had the honor of being chosen to participate in the wedding of a dear friend from DC, a friendship neither diminished by our five years apart since my relocation to Jersey, nor the two hundred miles of interstate that now geographically separates us. I was thrilled to be asked, and since it’s pretty clear my life is complicated, this says a great deal about the woman requesting my presence. I began six months ago to pull off the seventy-two hours of coverage required to keep both kids alive and happy, and due to the generosity of friends and family, we accomplished our goal. All went well, and my boys were thrilled to revel in the constant attention usually paid to them when their parents are out of the house. Jeff and I were equally ecstatic about the opportunity to sleep past 5:00, as well as the opportunity to string two consecutive sentences together without interruption.

Clearly, the weekend was a win-win for all.

I admit, on Sunday, when the cobwebs cleared a little and we were headed once again toward the duties of parenthood, I felt this post clamoring violently for attention in my brain on the long ride home. I took some notes as Jeff thankfully drove, and I struggled to retain my thoughts long enough to set them irreparably in ink. I find my little vignettes sometimes have a theme to them, and I also find that frequently the one I conclude with is not the one I had in my head when I began. To be honest, that could be in part because by the time I’ve finished I’ve often forgotten what I had in mind when I started. More often however, it’s just that my writing frequently takes uncharted twists and turns, and is yet one more thing I seem to have very little control over.

Much like everything else in my life.

I could tell you this post is going to be about unions and families, and in part that would be true. Despite our closeness, the first time I met the future husband of my friend was at the church prior to the rehearsal. We had a moment of rushed introduction where it was clear we knew a great deal about one another, a meeting of the minds which resulted in all of my hopes for my friend’s future being completely validated. Witnessing the strength of the connection between these two individuals, coupled with the way they complement one another in every aspect of their existence, was bounty enough. Watching the way two families blended together until they appeared one seamless stream of relations was an even further unexpected, and welcome, blessing as well.

Trust me, the proof is in the reception footage.

I could share with you that this post is about teachers (shouldn’t every post be about teachers), for I was fortunate enough to reconnect with a group of professionals who once comprised what my co-worker aptly describes as the “dream team”. This compilation of educators was ever-changing, never static, but came together during what we think of as the “Camelot years”, which took place under the direction of two different but dynamic principals who in their own unique ways pushed us to their limits. For the most part we were young, as yet unencumbered by our own progeny, and simply fueled by a singular passion to create the greatest educational clime ever. At our facility there were operas created from scratch by ten-to-twelve-year-olds, productions eventually performed on the stage of a local university. We held a school-wide museum that covered every square space of the massive second floor designed to accommodate half of the twelve hundred students who went there, complete with live exhibits and docents. Creativity simply had no limits.

And yes, we’re talking public education here.

I could inform you this post is about acceptance, as I realized that eight years have indeed transpired since I gave birth on that benevolent and prophetic spring day so many years ago. While I was attempting to convince my children that the world was indeed a fun place to reside I’ve put my career on hold, and in the process been eclipsed by many of the professionals I worked with “back in the day”. I was seated with the young woman brave enough to take over my classroom for those last seven weeks of school while I took maternity leave, a lovely individual who is now an assistant principal helping to command an entire school and every classroom within it. The bride herself was my mentee many eons ago, and has recently conquered yet another step in the steep ladder of educational administration herself. Bossing around big people was once my dream too. For a variety of complicated reasons, in all honesty, I can say it is unreachable for me now.

And finally, I can also say I’m at completely at peace with this truth.

Obviously, today’s post is about all of these things, but in the end, it will really be about friendship, about a hard-won and enduring bond. It’s about finding those people in your life who will remain with you no matter how infrequently you call or visit, or how tired you seem when contact is finally made. It’s about a woman without her own children, who nevertheless comprehends the complications and disconnects of this often chaotic life as much as it’s possible to do so. It’s about a foundation built so solidly on shared experience that new friends, careers, and even husbands will never take it down.

Finally, it’s about her generosity of spirit and a limitless compassion I’ve come to depend upon over the years, and know without reservation will thrive with resilience in the years to come.

I’ll close this now with the tag line from my mother’s wedding toast (I’m sure she won’t mind I’ve stolen from my own words), as well as heartfelt wishes for a wonderful honeymoon to be spent in the redolent beauty of Hawaii (good luck in that shark cage).

Karen and Mark, may you live long, love well, and laugh often.

I am completely confident you will.


June 21, 2011

Gratitude Attitude

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:26 am by autismmommytherapist

This week’s Gratitude Attitude goes out to both of my sons’ teachers, their therapists, and their aides. Justin and Zach have made tremendous progress this year, and it is in large part due to the collective efforts of the men and women who worked so hard with them at their respective schools. I couldn’t be more thrilled that they will be with the same teachers next year. I wish everybody a wonderful and restful summer!



July 23, 2010

School Choice

Posted in Life's Little Moments tagged , at 6:22 am by autismmommytherapist

I slowly pull into the school parking lot looking for the spaces marked “drop-off”, but since I only see empty ones accompanied by a handicapped sign I make a quick U-turn, and wend my way backwards away from the building and the busses. I’ve picked Justin up once before during his first week at his new school so he could get to his swim lessons on time, and although I’ve been told to park in the allotted area in whatever spot is available, I can’t bring myself to rest in one of the handicapped spaces. Even though the staff has given me permission, I know this will be the one day a van earmarked for a child in a wheelchair will not have a space, and it will be my fault. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone, and as one of the new parents in the school, I’m looking to make a slightly better impression than that.

I park, and navigate my way between the staff’s vehicles and the large yellow monoliths which transport the students here. I quickly find myself at the entrance to the school, waiting unceremoniously to be buzzed inside. Within moments I feel the whoosh of cold air as the sliding glass door permits me entrance to the building, and I stop at the desk to sign Justin out. The woman seated there smiles, says “Justin, right?”, and hands me a pen as she simultaneously reaches for the phone to summon my son. I am impressed that she remembers me. I am impressed that she is smiling. Justin, myself, and his entourage of father, grandma, and assorted school officials visited half a dozen potential school placements this spring, and not everyone was so cheerful. Hell, some of them seemed downright annoyed that we were there at all.

I’ve been nervous for him this week, as much is riding on Justin’s successful transition to this new educational facility. My son is what I like to term a “tweenie”, non-verbal but bright, moderately autistic with all the familiar trappings, but affectionate and appreciative as well. I’ve always felt he straddles both worlds, an amalgam of a child both “normal” and on the spectrum. There aren’t many places available that are a good fit for him, fewer that would grant him entrance, fewer still with available openings. We were extremely fortunate that he was accepted in most of the places where he was assessed, so that we ultimately had choices. He has matured greatly in the previous year. I’m certain we would not have had as many options had we been searching last fall.

It was quite strange to bring him into those rooms in unfamiliar locales where he knew no one, where I left him to familiarize himself with alien toys and educational materials, and expected him to “perform” appropriately for an hour at a time. I was invited into each classroom to observe, but I always opted to wait outside as I knew Justin would want to leave after a few minutes in each place, and there would be no cajoling him to stay. Often, as the “interviews” commenced, I could track his progress simply by listening to the timbre of his “eeee” through the closed door. At any given moment, I knew exactly how well he was doing. It is amazing what one mother can discern from a vowel sound.

Today is his fourth day at his new school, the culmination of a week’s worth of bonding to new people, sizing up new classmates, and learning the routines of a foreign placement. He has seemed eager to enter the bus each morning since the first day, when he eyed me warily from his perch in the back of the vehicle, and my heart lurched a little as I knew I could not be certain he understood his eventual destination. He has met me every day this week on the final step of his transport, made eye contact with me, beaming. These have all been good signs that the reports of “he’s a sweetheart” and “no behaviors” are not just the manifestations of a honeymoon period, but the true reflection of my son’s approval of his new educational clime, acceptance of yet another chapter of his life sealed and closed. I know, in his own way, he will miss the staff at his former school, for he knew them all well for two years. He seems to have made his peace  with this transition, welcomed the change. I hope, for his sake and mine, that it lasts.

As I set the pen down carefully on the narrow ledge and make my way to the empty chairs placed conveniently for waiting parents I hear my son’s joyful sounds, witness him locate me down the hall, watch his face light up in expectation. I understand, without him telling me in words, that he is happy here, cared for.

And as we both move forward to greet each other, I know in my soul that this will all work out.

May 7, 2010

Hot for Teacher

Posted in My Take on Autism tagged , at 9:29 am by autismmommytherapist

It’s teacher appreciation week. It should be teacher appreciation century.

Yes, I’m a bit biased toward my brethren. I hail from three generations of public school servants, beginning with my grandmother who instructed kindergarteners for the better part of thirty years, back in the day when a college education for a woman was still a bit unusual. My mother was a teacher as well, and since she labored in a different district than my own we were rarely able to share our winter breaks together. I spent most of mine (until I rebelled as a teen) working alongside my grandma in her brightly colored, meticulously organized classroom, debating with five-year-olds whether or not March would come in like a lion or a lamb. Every year was a cliff-hanger.

I followed in my family’s footsteps as well (although I SWORE I wouldn’t), and spent half-a-decade instructing pre-teens in the District of Columbia public schools, and another seven with the same age group in northern Virginia. People are always shocked when I inform them that the latter gig was often more difficult than the former. At times, nothing is more daunting than a stay-at-home mom from the suburbs. I should know, as I now am one.

Just recently this particular former educator watched incredulously as most of New Jersey’s school budgets got voted down, and trust me, the incredulous part was that I was actually surprised after years of watching history repeat itself. Our town in Ocean County is notorious for not passing the school budget, and I think I finally understand why. An elderly woman was recently quoted in our local daily as voting against it “because the governor told her to” and “because those raises the teachers receive have gotten out of hand.” On this issue, of course, she is completely correct. After taxes, that annual cost of living adjustment educators take home may actually enable them to afford an extra night out at our local movie theater PLUS the 3-D glasses and the jumbo popcorn, when, of course, they really should just be home toiling over lesson plans. Sounds like granny knows her stuff.

Despite what people think, we know what we’re getting into when we sign on for this gig, and we know the benefits aren’t glamorous. I’ve been fortunate to work with many extremely dedicated individuals over the tenure of my career, and most of them had no qualms about putting in ten to twenty hours weekly over contract (that means working for free) so that their students could get the education they deserved, not the education they were legally entitled to receive. We’re not out for the insane perks of movie stars (although a well-thought out end-of-year gift is deeply appreciated), but a little respect is in order.

I’ve read articles on the fall-out of the budget failures in the Garden State, and while I was relieved that most special education programs won’t financially be affected (it’s not worth the districts’ time in court), there is no guarantee the integrity of various programs won’t be compromised due to teacher RIF. There are going to be a great deal of pink slips handed out in the next two weeks, and most of those educators will be forced to wait weeks or months to find out if they have continued employment, or even what options are available in other districts.  Some of them will be rehired. Some will be scrambling. This uncertainty will, without question, cause great consternation for parents of children in special education classrooms. Believe me, nothing strikes fear into the hearts of parents of disabled kids like the threat of losing a seasoned and caring teacher. I am certain however, no matter what the outcome, the vast majority will do their utmost to diligently enact their students’ IEPs in the untenable interim.

It is in this anxious atmosphere, this climate of uncertainty, that I must take a few moments to praise my peers, at least the ones that have had a direct impact on my oldest child. I will go on record as saying if Justin hadn’t been eligible for the well-constructed pre-school program he attended several years ago, despite my fifteen months as his primary educator in Virginia, I am certain he would not even closely resemble the child he has matured into today. His ability to read, to spell, to attempt math problems despite the disability his mother passed down to him in the latter subject, are all directly attributable to the hard work and diligence of the women (it’s usually women) who toiled to tame my rather wild child four years ago this fall.

The last two years he’s been able to continue in this academic vein, and with the support of his elementary teacher and ancillary staff has also finally learned the concept that waiting for gratification is not necessarily evil, and being denied a coveted object will not result in his untimely demise. Collectively, the practitioners of the last four years have shaped him, and helped mold him into the bright, happy, and somewhat more compliant individual he is today. There is no doubt in my mind that I, and my family, would not be reaping the benefits of his far more peaceful soul if he had not been immersed in a cocoon of educational excellence. My husband and I are eternally grateful.

Our youngest as well has recently been drafted into a special education program for children who reside on the milder end of the spectrum, and I’ve seen almost miraculous results in just the few months he’s been attending school. After more than a year of attempts to rewire his brain to facilitate real and meaningful language we are finally having conversations, ones in which I don’t supply the answers for him after tortuous deathly pauses. He initiates his own queries now, discusses his day, has even tattled on a classmate on occasion (I know the names of a few tantrum-prone gentlemen to date). Zach loves school, practically runs over me to get to the bus in the morning, and would be perfectly content to eject his parents from his household and have his teacher move in permanently to care for him.

On certain days, Jeff and I have considered that option.

Things haven’t been perfect for either child. There have been bumps in the long and windy path of education, much as there are in life. Mistakes have been made (mostly on my part), errors rectified. They’ve all been a learning experience (again, mostly for me).

I just want to say this is one family who deeply appreciates the commitment, the care, and the dedication that has been bestowed upon our children in their educational realm. Happy children create happy families, and at least in our case, happier marriages as well. I am grateful for the effort, and I thank all those teachers who have directly influenced my children’s lives, and all those who work so diligently despite budget cuts, furloughs, and hiring freezes to improve other children’s lives as well.

Thank you, truly, and happy Teacher Appreciation Week!