Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Long Walk to School

A year ago Vernon had just turned four and would not walk into the classroom. Every morning his parents pushed, pulled and carried him into the room only to leave him on the floor where he fussed dramatically at my feet until they left begging him to please 'be good, have a good day at school." On one occasion Vernon  plopped himself onto the sidewalk in the parking lot, refusing to budge. Dad called mom from home, and mom joined dad on the sidewalk begging, pleading and attempting to bribe Vernon to please just get up and walk. A bystander alerted me to the drama unfolding in the parking lot and I walked outside to find Vernon on the pavement, rocking back and forth crying, his parents helpless on either side of him.  I crouched down next to him and said to him firmly, calmly "Vernon, we really need you in school. Time to stand up and walk with me." "Okay, Miss. Amy,"replied Vernon. He stood up, grabbed my outstretched hand and waved goodbye to his parents.

It is a long walk sometimes isn't it? I think about that moment, all three adults surrounding him on the pavement in that parking lot. Two concerned, loving, committed parents bargaining and worried that their child would not be able to do the very simplest act of walking through a door. But it isn't simple. My request and his positive response was not magic, it was a response to a clear expectation. As an educator, with emotional investment clearly but also with objectivity I know, I believe that Vernon was capable, is capable of a great many things starting with the walk from the car to the door of the classroom.  I have set the expectations very high, and because Vernon knows what my expectations are, and he knows I believe in him, he takes risks. He stands up, and walks into the classroom ready to learn, to let go a little bit of his worry, his need to control, his fear that the world might be too overwhelming, because sometimes it is.

I see Vernon's parents and I respect them. I understand that their concern, anxiety and their disappointment that their toddler, their precious baby was not learning to talk as expected, was not relating socially to others like his big sister did motivated them to seek medical help, educational intervention. Their worry became a fiercly protective bubble around their son, a constant list of what he cannot do runs in a loop in their minds because they care, because they are scared for him and will fight for him. No, I do not blame them for this. And when I sit across a table from them and tell them, "I want to mainstream your son in Kindergarten next year because I have every confidence that he will succeed", they look to the list of things he cannot do and ask when.

My answer is now. Vernon is five. Each morning he walks independently and proudly into the classroom, happily greets me, his teacher, his peers and waves goodbye to his father. He settles himself into an activity next to his peers, his friends. He has internalized the routines of the day, he assists me in leading circle time. He comments on his friends feelings in context. He knows how to play. And each time he says goodbye to me when he leaves the room and I have to work on the computer he says to me, "Goodbye Ms. Amy! Good luck and have fun!"

I encourage Vernon's parents to believe in their son's ability to succeed, because he has shown us that he can. If I believe, if his parents believe in his success? That truly is more than 90% of the battle. Sometimes successes come slow, others more quickly. Sometimes when we look for big changes, we miss the small, subtle miracles of minute to minute growth. I missed almost three months of Vernon's life. I was not there, and when I returned I found a boy who had not only met many of my hopes for him, but he has exceeded them. I want him to have the opportunity to learn to generalize the skills he has learned in my classroom and in speech therapy in other places in his world. Trying new things, being brave, sticking with something difficult and new like a sport, or learning to read... He can do these things. He has learned to make friends, he has learned to separate and reunite with his family, he has learned to have conversations that are meaningful and relevant instead of constantly scripting his favorite TV shows. He is a kid who can.

When Vernon's parents told me a year ago "We always say at home that Ms. Amy is so strict, but so loving," I took that as a compliment. I raised the level of expectation for them too. I challenged them to spend more time reading and playing with Vernon, and less time allowing him to watch television. I've asked them to sign him up for an organzied sport to expose him to other, typically developing kids of his age. I've asked them to believe that their son, is strong enough to pull himself up off the ground, take an outstretched hand and walk to his next adventure.

Soon I will be saying Goodbye to Vernon when the school year ends. He will know, and maybe not understand that the classroom he enters next Fall will be different, more challenging, new faces for him to memorize, a new teacher for him to build a partnership with. I will wave to Vernon and I will say to him "Goodbye Vernon. Good luck and more than anything? Have Fun!" I will tell his parents the same.

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