Two kindergarten classes in two days. A “sneak peek” at what next year will look like — next year, which starts Monday. And this is the way the story unfolds: one boy will have one teacher and 22 classmates. The other boy will have one teacher, five paraeducators and 5 classmates. Both will have weekly visits from therapists.
Sam’s sneak peek at his new kindergarten class was full of laughter and reading and non-stop talking. It won’t be a surprise to those of you who know him or who follow here that he loved (loved!) being the center of attention as his new teacher showered him with questions. He excitedly took in where he’d sit to work, where he’d sit for circle time. He found his cubby and ran over to touch his name. He took in the posted schedule on the wall. Then he asked: “Where are the feelings?”
“Feelings?” she repeated, confused.
“I’m really good at all my feelings,” he continued, pacing around the room. Finally, he spotted them on a far wall — a poster with nine faces depicting nine different emotions. “Here they are! See?”
His new teacher, Mrs. W., laughed and asked, “And what are you feeling today, Sam?”
“I am happy…” he said, following along with his finger, “…and I’m excited… and I’m also surprised.”
“Surprised?” I asked. “Yes, I am surprised,” he said, “It is good.”
After his first look last spring, it is great.
On the way to John’s sneak peek, I told Sam that it was John’s turn to be the center of attention, that he needed to let everyone focus on John. I reminded him that he had had a great time the day before while John hung back with me. “Do you understand?” I asked. “Yes,” he said.
As we walked in, John deftly avoided everyone who approached, turning his back to the room after finding a computer. I spoke quietly with the new teacher and met the team of paras and after ten antsy minutes of being quiet, Sam ran to a shelf of toys and said loudly, “John! They have Sesame Street books here!”
John eyed that corner of the room and eventually, slowly (lest anyone think it wasn’t his own idea), made his way over. He took the book from Sam and sat down to flip through it, his other hand gripping two small cars. When done, he dropped the book and ran the perimeter, learning every surface with his free hand, until his attention was pulled to the center of the room.
Another boy, a new classmate, played with a motorized race track and every time the cars passed go, they shot through with a loud whizzzz. John approached him and began to laugh and jump. He watched the boy’s movements over and over, each time more and more excited. I smiled, then laughed myself — amazed when John carefully placed the two he had been gripping on the track, trying to copy what he had seen.
It was almost more than Sam could bear, he wanted desperately to get in on this game. But he hung behind his brother and laughed and jumped too, it seemed to me with love.
In the car on the way home: “Mom, why can’t John go to my school?”
I start thinking fast. “Well… John needs to go to a school where there are a lot of people who can help him learn how to do things that you already know how to do.”
“Like what? What, Mommy?”
“John has something called autism.” Really? Did I really say this word aloud? Like that (insert snapped fingers) it took shape and hung between us. If he repeats it back to me… what will I…
“Autism? Autism. What’s autism, Mommy?”
Sh*tSh*tSh*t. “Um, well…you know how sometimes when you ask John a question and he doesn’t answer you? Sometimes autism makes it hard for some kids to talk.” Oh, I’m so unprepared for this discussion, really unprepared. I look in the rear view mirror and see his worried face.
“Mommy, I think we should take John to the Talk Doctor. To make him talk.” What a great idea. I wish we could end this conversation here, but no… “What happens if I get the autism and don’t talk?” So many mine fields here and how do I explain any of this to a five-year-old who also may or may not be, probably is, on the autism spectrum?
“Honey, autism isn’t something that you can catch, like a cold, people are born with it.” At least this is what I believe, don’t yell at me.
“Was I born with autism?” Yes? No? Maybe? Can I exit this conversation stage left?
“Um…well, honey. You also had a hard time with talking when you were real little, but now you talk great, you talk a lot! You’ve had a lot of help with talking, just like we hope John will get in his new school…” How ironic that I get to avoid eye contact right now and how happy I am about it.
And so the story concludes for now: the mom wipes her eyes and continues to drive — the subject abruptly changed to Thomas trains. She will have, for the first time in five years, a week yawning with free hours that are hers and hers alone. She sighs, afraid she will be sucked into that void just to disappear — what will she do if she’s not taking care of two? In the back seat, two boys so perfectly themselves are framed together in the rear view mirror.