posted Tuesday September 20th, 2016
The other night in the Target girls’ section, I noticed a campaign aimed at kindness. Tee shirts with sayings like “Come Sit With Us” and “Kind is Cool.”
I smirked. If only it was that easy.
In my world — rather, in my daughter Sophie’s world — too often it’s Homecoming Queen or nothing. This is the time of year that my Facebook feed fills up with feel-good stories about boys and girls with special needs winning titles and serving as royalty for a night. It’s a wonderful thing — don’t get me wrong — but we parents worry about the other 364 days a year. Such a discussion was taking place on my Facebook page yesterday afternoon after I posted a terrific piece by another mom who also grapples with such things, when the phone rang.
It was my mom.
“How was lunch?” I asked, not really paying attention, thinking I knew the answer. My mom had been once already this year, bringing Sophie Panda Express (half rice/half noodles and a small pink lemonade) and happily eavesdropping on junior high conversations.
“Well,” my mom said. “Not good.”
Turns out, the kid Sophie’s been eating with all year walked up to her in front of my mom and announced he won’t be sitting with her anymore. I get it. Really, I totally get it. I love this kid; he and Sophie have had their ups and downs and he’s been very patient with her. He had another guy in tow, and my guess is that like most eighth grade boys, he’d rather hang with the guys and he found one. Good for him.
That leaves Sophie with the rest of the entire school.
I asked my mom, did anyone else at lunch acknowledge Sophie? No. Only a cafeteria worker who noticed when Sophie tried to cut in line. (That part made me smile.) No kids.
Shit. Lunch has always been my biggest worry. In kindergarten, I worried that Sophie would be mowed over by the other kids as they rushed the playground. I hired babysitters to pose as volunteers and spy to make sure she was okay. A couple years later, we had an “incident” — older girls grabbed her lunch box and locked her in the bathroom (briefly, but still). Not long after that, we got a lawyer and the lawyer got Sophie an aide, an incredible woman who I’m convinced has paved the way for Sophie’s inclusion and success.
But (ironically) the aide is on break at lunchtime, the one unstructured period during the day. And really, I know that Sophie’s old enough, mature enough to eat lunch by herself.
Which is exactly my point: “by herself.”
I hung up with my mom and sat for a minute, staring at the floor, as the work emails stacked up in my in box. I reminded myself that I didn’t always have someone to sit with at lunch when I was in school. I spent most high school lunch hours hiding in the library. Those, of course, were the bad old days. I wouldn’t wish Hopi Elementary School in the 70s or Arcadia High School in the 80s on my worst enemy. (I think I’ve blanked out entirely on junior high, a good thing.) We wore band tee shirts, and tee shirts with sayings like “Do The Hustle.” There were no kids with intellectual disabilities, none that I saw anyway.
But this is 2016, this awesome time where a person with Down syndrome gets assigned a Best Buddy, competes in Special Olympics, and might just be elected Prom Queen. There’s a social skills club at lunch at Sophie’s school, I’ve been told several times. There’s a tee shirt campaign at Target, encouraging kindness! She’s a fucking cheerleader, okay?!?!
And yet, my kid has no one to sit with at lunch.
I get it, I suppose. Most kids’ goal in junior high (even in this allegedly enlightened age) is to emerge unscathed and unnoticed. Sophie demands attention — both because she’s half the size of the other kids, and because, well, she literally demands attention with her intentionally ratty hair, wedge sandals and eyeliner experiments. She still sucks her thumb on occasion. It’s not so easy to understand her when she talks. And her conversation abilities are not those of your average 13-year-old girl. But she’s trying. And of course trying is the kiss of death when you’re a 13-year-old girl.
Someday she’ll fully embrace punk rock and she’ll be set for life. But for now, I’ve got to figure things out.
I stopped staring at the floor and emailed Sophie’s team leader at school, her math teacher. He’s a nice man who wrote back immediately, reporting that last Friday he noticed Sophie eating lunch in the school office by herself.
When asked why she was in the office, she told me how that person did not want to eat with her anymore. I tried to encourage her to sit with other people, but she told me that [she'd only ever sat with that boy]. My next step involved bringing up her self-esteem and letting her know that plenty of people know who she is, and would love to sit with her. I also told her that other peers love to say hi to her in the halls. She still wasn’t ready to give the cafeteria another try.
I emailed him back and cc’ed several others at the school, reminding them that I’d expressed concern about lunch at the beginning of the school year. In part I wrote:
Amy’s book, “My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome,” was published by Woodbine House this spring and is available through Amazon and Changing Hands Bookstore. For information about tour dates and other events visit myheartcantevenbelieveit.com and here’s a book trailer.