We watch Bella walk around her new kindergarten classroom, where she’ll spend her school days beginning next week. It looks aimless to us, the people who can’t think the way she does, but I know her brain is working rapid-fire. She zeros in on specific things from time to time. “Candyland!” she happily shouts, as she tries to pull it free from the bottom of the stack of board games. She stops to investigate a stack of curriculum binders in another corner. The smart board grabs her attention. “Can someone turn this thing on?” she says as she draws on it with the green crayon sensor, her scribbles visible only in her mind.
Phaedra and I are forever Bella’s tour guides to the typical world. We both play our traditional roles — Phaedra pointing out to Bella where she’ll get to sit and read, the shape hanging above her work table and its meaning, how to put her backpack and coat away. I try to engage her in conversation with her teacher and explain how the first day of school will go. Bella fulfills her usual role of ignoring all of us and carrying on with trying to absorb all the newness around her in her own abstract way. Round and round the classroom we go, touching this, poking that.
Bella is moving up from her special education preschool/delayed kindergarten program to a mainstream kindergarten classroom next week. She’ll have a classroom aide with her to help her with the things she still has trouble with, like transitions and anxiety. Her teacher is excited to have Bella in her class: a wildly imaginative, creative student who loves to write stories and can already read nearly anything she comes across (a blessing and a curse right now, let me tell you). Phaedra is looking forward to having Bella at her school, and has offered up a wide variety of scenarios in which she can pick Bella up at her classroom should they have to leave early.
I’m holding my breath and trying not to think about kindergarten at all.
In special ed, it’s accepted that everyone is a little different, and has their issues. Nobody is perfect, or even close. The parents, the siblings, the classmates — everyone gets it. If someone melts down over not being able to finish their drawing, life goes on, and no one remembers it the next day. I’m not ready to leave that little bubble of safety that special ed provided for us. Jumping from the kind of environment that is specifically built around being different to an environment where being different is being DIFFERENT has me nervous. Don’t get me wrong — our elementary school is amazing. It’s filled with staff and faculty that are going to fall head over heels in love with Bella this fall, and do everything they can to help her out and guide her through this first year. I’m not worried about fighting the kinds of battles with administration and teachers that so many special needs parents fight every day.
I’m not even worried about the things that I worried about when Phaedra went to kindergarten. I know the adjustment to a full day of school will take time, and adjusting to a school day with a lot more sitting than playing will be a little tough. Bella’s smarter than any human being I know, so the academic aspect will be a breeze for her. It’s the social aspects of kindergarten that have me feeling on edge. This is the year that the rubber meets the road when it comes to Bella learning how to be autistic in the real world, and I’m not ready for it.
Here’s what I’m not ready for:
I’m not ready for the first time I see two other kids in line exchange a glance when Bella repeats a line from her favorite cartoon to them that makes no sense at all.
I’m not ready for the worried, nervous faces of her classmates during Bella’s first meltdown at drop-off.
I’m not ready to hear another student say something harsh about Bella when she lashes out in anger instead of using words when she’s angry.
This is all part of that fine line we walk as special needs parents. I want Bella to remain herself, different and quirky and shining. Rob says his favorite thing about Bella, and the thing that will allow her to succeed in life, is her ability to not give a shit about what other people think of her. But, how do you teach her that she needs to care just enough to be functional in our society? I mean, I know I’ll want to tell those kids exchanging glances about Bella to go fuck off; but on the other hand, they’ve got a point. She has to learn how to start a conversation with kids her age in a non-alienating way, the volume that is considered too loud in a public place, and a million other basic social rules that will keep her safe and let her make friends. I realize I need to back off and let her figure most of this shit out on her own. I realize this is going to lead to hurt feelings and sadness and not just a few tough life lessons for her down the road.
This whole “stepping away and letting them learn things the hard way” thing is fucking awful and I don’t like it and you can’t make me like it. But apparently I’m doing it beginning next week when I drop her off at school.
Last spring, at Kindergarten Round-Up, Bella raced around the classroom across the hall from her actual classroom, checking out the toys and playing on the smart board while I chatted with her future kindergarten teacher. She remembers Phaedra fondly, and I apologized in advance for Surrey. We watched Bella work her way around the room, charming her way into getting what she needed from the other adults. Her teacher must have just a teeny, tiny bit of experience dealing with terrified parents who pretend to not be terrified, because after the fifth time I said, “She’s going to be okay!”, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “Yes, she really is going to be okay.”
Ready or not, here she comes.
Follow me on Facebook and Twitter so you never miss a post. Better yet, pop your email address in the box at the top of the page and subscribe! Also, you can read my essays in I Just Want to Be Alone, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, and You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth!