Kindergarten Flashback

posted Wednesday July 18th, 2012

My friend Cate’s daughter Abby is staring kindergarten this fall, and watching the preparation play out in Facebook posts over the last few weeks brought me back.

Like Sophie, Abby has Down syndrome. Like me, Cate had to fight to get Abby into the school that her older child (who, like Annabelle, does not have Down syndrome) attends.

It wasn’t until Cate and I were corresponding, comparing notes, that I realized how much of that year I’ve conveniently buried. I promised Cate that kindergarten was a wonderful experience for Sophie — and it was. I casually mentioned she might want to have some cocktails on hand throughout the year (for her, not her daughter) but I didn’t mention that it was one of the most nerve-wracking times of my life.

Some of it (a lot of it — after all, i started Girl in a Party Hat to document Sophie’s kindergarten year) I’ve written about. Some of it, not.

Unlike Abby (who lives in another state, which I’m guessing has a lot to do with it), Sophie had no aide. And while I adored (and still adore — she’s one of my closest friends) Sophie’s teacher, she was charged with the instruction of two dozen kids, not just one. I was terrified that Sophie would suck up all of her time. And what about when she wasn’t with the teacher? What about lunch, recess, PE? Early in the year, I learned that during lunch and lunch recess, there was one (really! one!) adult watching the entire kindergarten — just under 100 kids.

It was insane. I sat in an emergency “team” meeting and wrested the principal’s attention away from her Blackberry by announcing I was “looking into” whether this student/teacher ratio was appropriate. And I don’t just mean appropriate for Sophie. I mean any 5 year old.

Turns out there’s absolutely no ratio requirement in Arizona public schools — legal or otherwise — in such situations. Nice, huh? At other schools, the PTA raises money to hire lunchtime aides. When I brought it up to our PTA, I was ignored — instead someone suggested PTA funds be used for Italian lessons, or trips to the zoo.

Anytime I even thought about opening my mouth to ask about any sort of extra help for Sophie, I was told quite firmly, “If you want Sophie to be at this school, she’s going to have to act like the rest of the kids.”

And so I took matters into my own hands. Every single day of kindergarten (literally I think there was one day we went without — someone had a bad cold), a “volunteer” showed up at Sophie’s classroom. Two young women, students at nearby Arizona State University, worked in shifts, kindly offered their services — fixing snacks, handing out glue and scissors, grading papers — all while keeping an eye on Sophie.

These girls hung around during lunch and lunch recess. They went to PE and music class. And then, at the end of the day, one of them took Sophie home from school.

They were our babysitters. Yep, I sent Sophie to kindergarten with a babysitter. It wasn’t cheap, and I worried the entire year that someone would rat me out and the principal would call me in. Looking back, I can’t imagine she didn’t know. Clearly we had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — and unlike in the military, in this case it worked.

It was a terrific year. The girls were hands-off; I’m not sure their charge ever realized they were there just for her. In any case, Sophie flourished. She wrote her name by the end of the first week of kindergarten, despite the occupational therapist who insisted she never would. She was invited to birthday parties and learned to read. She met the little girl who’s still, almost five years later, her best friend in the world.

That kindergarten classroom was the right place for Sophie. Could she have done it without Emily and Jeanine? Maybe. But I couldn’t have. (And still can’t — but today I have Sophie’s lawyer to thank for finally convincing the school to give Sophie the extra support she needs to stay safe.)

Funny, I’d forgotten all about the babysitters/aides/spies til Cate asked me how things worked for Sophie in kindergarten. I’m glad she reminded me.

And I’m glad I dug up a picture. Sophie grows so slowly, sometimes I feel like she hasn’t grown at all. But look how tiny she is in this picture! Could you drop this kid off in a kindergarten class all by herself? I didn’t think so.

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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome, public school by Amysilverman

3 Responses to “Kindergarten Flashback”

  1. This is so damn hard sometimes. I’m thrilled Sophie flourished – I’m confident Abby will too. But I can’t believe you had to hire babysitters & a lawyer, or that Cate had to hire an advocate. I cannot believe that 100:1 ratio – I wouldn’t want my (typical) son in that lunchroom. Blech. I have nothing else – too bad it’s too early for one of those cocktails.

  2. I can feel your anxiety through your words, it must have been a tough year for you, and I imagine it still is tough in different ways for you even today.

    Sophie is ADORABLE in that picture, what a little cutie pie!!!

  3. Oh, that picture takes my breath away. What a tiny, beautiful little elf of a girl.

    My son will start kindergarten this fall and I’m in a state of complete denial (well, as much as you can be after all those meetings spelling out exactly what to expect). One thing I do feel very fortunate about is that the principal and both main front office people have children with special needs and so they *get* it. I feel about as comfortable as I can imagine feeling sending my boy anyway every single day without me.

    However, I do plan to get involved ASAP and volunteer in his classroom. Nothing like keeping your own eyes on things, as unobtrusively as possible. Love that you made that happen in the way you could.

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