Last night was the night before school started. It was the night we had been waiting for in our house. All of us had different reasons for wanting this day to arrive. I, as the mother, just wanted to get the first day over with. I had run a million different scenarios through my head for what my son's first day would be like. My four year old son, seemed anxious and unusually grumpy all day, and when night arrived, he seemed to share some of my fears. My husband was wishing summer would hang around just a little bit longer so we would not have to face the reality of another school year and challenging journey through special education. But our daughter Molly, our smart, funny and wise beyond her seven young years daughter, was looking forward to starting third grade. She laid out her clothes, washed and blow dried her hair and climbed into bed well before the standard 10pm bedtime of summer. She was ready. She was excited. She was so far away from the fear the rest of our family had...and I was so happy to know that her journey through school has been welcoming, nurturing, challenging and fun all rolled into one beautiful package.
As a special needs parent, I am so grateful for my daughter's experiences at school. I like to think her experiences are typical. I only know two types of experiences. One with a typically developing child and one with a child with special needs. But I know that my daughter's experiences have less to do with her own individual needs and more to do with an amazing school. For the past four years, we have been welcomed with chalk covered sidewalks cheering on all the students, and PTO parents giving up their first day walks to school with their own children, to make sure new and returning families alike feel like part of the Switzer community. Molly has a principal who supports all...the teachers, the parents and most of all, the students. The teachers and staff who have entered my daughter's world have become a little part of our family and I am grateful for the support and encouragement they have shown my daughter. My daughter has gained confidence, surpassed her own expectations academically and most importantly, never complained, not one single day, about going to school. My daughter feels at home each day she steps foot into her school. Molly loved summer, but she welcomes the routine and familiarity of back to school.
As my soon to be third grader climbed into bed last night, I asked her if she had those butterflies that seem to creep in each year about this time. She looked right up at me, straight in the eye and said...nope...not one. She was excited to get to morning and begin a new year. A year of challenges she was ready to tackle. A year of friendships, new and old. A year of a new teacher, with new rules, new learning and new ideas. Another year, where she gets to fill her backpack full of freshly bought supplies and hopes and dreams. She was ready and my heart soared for my little girl's enthusiasm and expectations.
So, as my heart was bursting for all that my daughter dreamed of for the new year, I was already letting my heart break for my son. I know. The year had not even started. Morning had not even started to break through the darkness, but the fear that so many special needs parents feel right as September turns the page, is one I am learning does not fade away with each new school year. Instead, it comes on even stronger.
Last year, my son Brady, who has a very rare chromosome duplication on his first chromosome, went off to school. He was placed in an Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) classroom. Our expectations were high. We were optimistic for a year filled with learning, friendships, big strides and lots of words. My husband and I were nervous and we remember walking out of and thinking...really? He will accomplish all of this. The ECSE program must know something we didn't at home. But we believed. We believed the experiences we were having over and over with our daughter would continue with our son. Our son who needed a break. Our son who needed a positive experience. Our son who needed the world to open up to him.
As many special needs parents know, the last school year did not go according to plan. Brady struggled. The class wasn't quite right for him and those initial goals were not true to him. We advocated. We challenged. We fought to speak up and ask questions. We learned that education is clearly not a one size fits all. We tried to stay optimistic, but as the year ended and the summer flew by, we entered last night far from optimistic and even a little confused. Brady is still nonverbal. He worked hard this summer with an amazing new speech therapist, but the challenges continue. His blood sugars still raged out of control and his concentration dwindled. But new meds and new hopes have entered the picture and my husband and I are trying to stay positive for a new school year.
This morning my daughter darted off to third grade. She was so full of excitement and anticipation for a new year. She had a moment, when she hugged me goodbye and walked into her new classroom, where I saw the butterflies start to flutter, but as quickly as they came, they left and my little girl seemed to grow up before my eyes. Then I felt something funny as I quickly ran home to pick up Brady. What was that feeling...oh yes...it was butterflies. I had them. Strong and fierce as I loaded up my little boy and started a new journey. Brady's program had been moved to a new school and a new teacher and ECSE team. I was as nervous as my little boy, as the anxiety and fear took over both of us. As we walked into a new classroom, filled with bright colors, inviting smiles, and most importantly, a teacher who walked right over to my sweet and scared little boy and welcomed him, and all his challenges, with open arms. My husband and I watched as Brady had a few meltdowns, but also explored the room a bit and even let his aide walk around with him. Before we left his classroom, I unpacked his backpack. I thought about how carefully I had packed it the night before and how fearful I was for the moment we stepped into a new school year, but as we walked out of his classroom, Brady's sweet little hand in mine, I realized I am cautiously optimistic for this school year and I couldn't ask for much more than that today.