As the end of the school year approaches, I am reflecting on Brennen's school experience thus far.
I have to say that we have been very fortunate. Brennen has been blessed with some wonderful teachers and incredible teacher's assistants. He is nearing the end of Grade 2, and I just can't believe the time has gone by so quickly.
It hasn't all been easy. I remember Brennen's first day of Kinderstart, when I brought him in to meet his teacher and his classmates for the very first time. I pulled up at the “big school” and parked in the blue spot nearest to the entrance. I could see other parents excitedly walking with their little ones into the main entrance of a school that looked much too large for these tiny little children. As I pulled down the ramp at the back of my vehicle, I could feel the eyes of curious onlookers watching my every move. It is something that I've done hundreds of times without even thinking about it, but on this day, I was acutely aware that our way of doing things was very different from the majority of others.
I didn't get to experience many of the typical 'first day of school' stresses - the nervous child, holding tight to Mommy's hand, the tender reassurances that everything was going to be just fine.. that it was going to be FUN! We didn't talk about the friends he would meet, the games he would play, or the many new experiences that lay ahead of him. Instead, I tried to keep it together while I felt like I was actually dying inside.
I remember carefully picking out Brennen's outfit for his first day of school, then quietly realizing that no one would be looking at his clothing. Everyone would be looking at his wheelchair. My fear was that no matter how cute, how happy, or how excited he was, Brennen was going to be seen as the 'kid in the wheelchair', and that fear was about to become a reality.
On that first day, parents were allowed to stay in the room with their children. Brennen's classroom was beautifully decorated, and full of tools and toys, props and materials, all ready for the new crop of eager learners. The kids were seated in small groups at child-sized tables that had baskets of play-dough laid out, just waiting to be manipulated by tiny hands. The parents all stood back and watched their children interact with each other and explore their new environment. I stayed with Brennen, helped him feel the play-dough and I talked and joked with him so that he wouldn't feel left out. I could only keep that charade up for so long. He was being left out. No one was talking to him, and the parents were staring at him with sad eyes, as if to say “That poor little boy”. They would catch my eye and quickly look away, obviously at a loss for what to say or how to interact with me.
After a short time, the Guidance Counselor came in and sat with me and asked me to let her know when I was ready to visit the room downstairs. I quickly told her that we were ready now!
When we got to the “Special Needs” room, it was like breathing a huge sigh of relief. I knew instantly that this was where Brennen needed to be, that this is where he belonged. The teachers here were warm and welcoming. They were excited to see us and they went above and beyond to make Brennen feel included. No one stared. No one looked at me with sad eyes. They didn't feel sorry for me. They were genuinely interested in meeting my little boy, and they wanted to get to know him.
Brennen had a great kindergarten year, and made some wonderful friends that he will go through school with. The way it works for us is that Brennen spends most of his day in the special needs room, but joins his regular class for things like gym, music, choir, field trips and outings. In the special needs room, there are 7 or 8 children from grades K – 6. There is a wide range of abilities and developmental levels among those children, but the teachers are amazing and work with each child to help them reach the goals outlined in their individual education plans.
Grade One was a challenge for me because that was the start of full days. It took me a while to get used to not being with Brennen for such a long period of time every day! When I would think of sending him off to school every morning, wondering what he was doing for the seven hours that followed, my chest felt heavy and I'd lose my breath. We had to be sure that Brennen was going to eat his lunch at school, which meant that it would have to be the same person giving him his lunch every day, or it would never work. I am so thankful that Brennen has a wonderful Teacher's Assistant who loves him like her own. Brennen gets lots of attention and cuddles and love at school, and really, that is what I want for him. I want him to be happy and to be surrounded by love. That is all. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
Grade Two seemed to fly by, though it was a short year for Brennen. He didn't start school until the end of October, since he was still recovering from the surgery that he had over the Summer. It didn't take him long to get back in the swing of things, and his teachers and classmates were excited to have him back. I have great communication with his teacher, which is absolutely essential. She will text me with serious concerns, like if he seems upset, or to let me know that he's had a seizure. But occasionally I will receive a message like I did last week -
It was Sports Day, which always has the potential to be a terrible day for our special needs kids. After lunch, Brennen's teacher sent me a photo of him doing a potato sac race - full on in a potato sac, being pushed in his wheelchair by one of his classmates. She said, "Brennen is having a ball today! During one of the races, all of the boys in his class jumped up and followed along cheering his name. I don't have a picture of that because I couldn't see through the tears!"
Like I said, Brennen has been blessed with teachers who love him. I can't thank them enough for all that they do, not just for Brennen, but for our family. His well-being is my number one priority, and I can honestly say that I don't worry one bit from the time he leaves on the bus in the morning, to the time he arrives home in the afternoon. I know that if something is wrong, I will be notified, and if I don't hear anything I know he is having a great time!
Starting school can be daunting for parents of children with special needs, but we have to be open to the idea that school can be a wonderful thing for our kids. The socialization and interaction with their classmates and peers, and the world of experiences that will be opened up to them is invaluable. It took my heart some time to acclimatize to the fact that Brennen would be ok without me. That is perhaps the hardest part. I miss being with him.
I know some families struggle with the idea of sending their children off to school for the first time, and even now, my stomach does a flip-flop just thinking about it, but we must listen to our heart and pay attention to all of the quiet cues our children send us to tell us exactly what they need. Believe in your motherly instinct, listen to your own voice. We make decisions for our children based on what we feel is right for them and for our family. Nothing is ever set in stone and everything can be reassessed at any time.
All of that being said.. school is almost out! Enjoy the Summer holidays!!!