posted Tuesday May 19th, 2015
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago this week, I sat in the audience at Sophie’s elementary school “graduation” ceremony and sobbed, convinced that the Salad Days were over, that no school experience would ever be the same, that from now on my girl’s life would be a painful, downhill slog.
And in some ways, I was right. Junior high is big and scary and most mornings, Sophie pretty much refuses to get out of bed, out the door, out of the car. She hates the dress code. She doesn’t have many friends. I wonder how much of the curriculum flies right over her teeny, tiny head.
In other ways, I was so wrong. From the principal down — with very little exception — the staff could not have been more welcoming, open to mainstreaming a kid with Down syndrome when they never had before, and when they already have a host of inner city public education issues to address. This isn’t a school that receives a lot of tax credit money. I haven’t seen much evidence of a PTA, or acknowledgement of Teacher Appreciation Week. This is a staff that makes do with less and doesn’t complain. They take what they are handed, including a pretty tough group of kids, kids whose parents haven’t sought out charters or the district’s lily white, fancy alternative schools.
I’ll be honest: I sent Sophie to this school because I didn’t have a choice. And a year in, I’m so glad I didn’t. True, she never wants to get out of the car. But she’s glad when she does. Her beloved aide from third grade on waits in the courtyard, waving to me each morning. This school started a Best Buddies club when I asked, a drama club when Sophie begged. They welcomed her onto the cheer squad and after the first month, Sophie was fist bumping with the school resource officer and joking with the office staff. She’s a frequent flier at the nurse’s office, and is always welcome. I am uneasy with some academics (the social studies teacher’s reports have been pretty erratic), but I can say for sure that Sophie’s ending sixth grade with better math and Spanish skills than mine.
To be sure, friendships with peers are coming along more slowly. Sophie has yet to attend a junior high birthday party (is that even a thing?) and I hear she dances a lot at the school dances but I’m not sure that’s such a good thing for her social life since she’s apparently the only girl on the dance floor.
And yet last week I got a glimmer that everything is going to be okay. I skidded into the last choir concert of the year, late as usual. Sophie sang with enthusiasm, then sat with the rest of the sixth graders as the older kids performed. I was caught off guard at the end, when all the kids crowded onstage to sing one final song, “Lean on Me,” and I snuck around the back of the stage to get a glimpse of Sophie. As I rounded the corner, my eyes filled with tears. There she was — front and center, the smallest by a mile, singing her heart out — cuddled in the arms of a classmate. I didn’t know this girl who happily embraced my kid, including her so fully –for the moment, at least.
That moment is enough to keep me going all summer, to encourage Sophie to read a book start to finish, to invite some junior high girls over for play dates, to brace myself for August, when I’ll have to start waking her up early and pushing that dress code on her again.
This week, as I watch the reports of dreaded IEP meetings fill my Facebook feed and see parents express anger and frustration at being pushed out, I am sending silent encouragement to my fellow parents: First and foremost, push for what you think is right for your kid, but also listen to trusted advisors, like Sophie’s elementary school principal, who encouraged me to lean into this junior high.
And embrace those moments, when they come.