To the Teacher Who Put Her Own Struggles Aside to Help My Family

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When my son was 3, he started in a preschool special education program that was housed in the same building my daughter attended. Three teachers and three paraprofessionals worked with the students, and it was a wonderful first experience for Zach.

I took turns volunteering in my daughter’s room, as well as my son’s room. One of my jobs in his classroom was to prepare book bags that went home each week. The bags contained a book and a puppet or stuffed animal, and the children took them home and then returned them the next week for a new one.  

One day while volunteering, another teacher approached me. She was a warm and genuine woman whose thick Southern accent lilted like honey off her tongue. Each week we chatted a bit, and one day she asked if I would be interested in helping her out with the birth-to-3 program as a paraprofessional because she knew I was a certified teacher.

I hadn’t really thought about going back to work but knew it would be a nice part-time job to make a little extra cash, and I’d be in the building both of my kids were in. It was a win-win situation.  

I started working with Ann, and we were a great team. She was truly one of the most dedicated and selfless teachers and friends I’d ever met. She had my daughter and son over from time to time so my husband and I could go out, and she had our daughter over to play with her granddaughter on several occasions because she knew she needed a break from autism and ring 22 syndrome. What was also amazing about Ann was that she’d battled breast cancer on more than one occasion. For an entire year she went to chemotherapy in the morning and then came in to work. When most of us would have curled up into a ball, she came to the spot that gave her the most joy… her classroom.

Ann always appreciated the fact that I could relate to the families we were working with and that I had a good background knowledge of special education. She always treated me as an equal and asked for my input and collaboration.

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As the time demands became greater in the birth-to-3 program, I decided it was time for me to go back to a classroom of my own. I started working on my Master’s Degree in special education.  

Ann had always talked about moving closer to her family and retiring in one of the southern states, and she told me when she left she wanted me to take her position. She felt strongly about it. I was honored.

I began working at one of the elementary schools full time. Three years later Ann decided it was time to move south. She asked me to take her position, but I was just starting a new program at the school I was at, and I declined. She wasn’t a happy camper, but she understood. After she moved to South Carolina, we continued to remain in touch. When she came to Michigan, we’d get together for a meal and talk.

They hired a lovely young lady to take her place, and she was a well-loved and wonderful teacher. Three years into the job, she started her family and moved to another state. The job was available again.

I knew I could not let Ann down again, and in all honesty, it was time for me to make a change. So I accepted the position and came back full circle to the classroom I’d started in. Ann was so pleased and happy that I’d finally decided to do the job I was destined to do.

About the time I took the job, we found out Ann was once again waging a war against cancer. Several of us went for a visit and enjoyed one last weekend with her. 

Ann gave me a gift I’ve been unwrapping and enjoying for five years now, and I hope to keep at it for many years to come. I try to embody her spirit and dedication to the families we work with in an effort to pay it forward for all she did for so many years.

For all of December, The Mighty is celebrating the moments we gave or received a gift that touched our lives in a special way. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post describing this moment for you. Include a photo and 1-2 sentence bio to [email protected]. Hint! Some gifts don’t come in packages.

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When I Started Eating Lunch With My Classmate With Down Syndrome

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Differences surround us. They can define us. They can hurt and separate, shape us and inspire us.

In fifth grade, the last thing most people want to be is different.

That’s when I met Caleb, as we were waiting for the bus to take us home. Caleb was obviously ready for the school day to be over; he kept saying, “Bus, bus, bus.” I was unsure what to think at first, but I knew, much like me, Caleb wanted the day to be done. But that seemed to be where our similarities stopped. He was unlike most of the other fifth graders I knew.  

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He spent most of his time in a different classroom than the rest of the other students. He often sat in a different section of the cafeteria. He spoke differently; he acted differently.  

But our differences didn’t scare me. In fact, our differences brought us together.

Around this time, I became involved in the Adaptive P.E. program at school. The program was voluntary and allowed me to work with my peers with special needs. I definitely wanted to be a part of it. Not only did I enjoy the program, but I learned more about Caleb.

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Every day at lunch, I would sit with him. I thought this would be tough at first, because I was unsure how to interact because of our differences. But it was actually fun. After lunch, I would walk Caleb to P.E., and we would play together. We would bowl. We would dance. We would laugh.

And I began to look forward to spending time with him.

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Caleb and I ventured outside to play soccer together. I assumed the game would only be the two of us. But much to my surprise, all of the other kids joined us. And this time, no one judged Caleb. No one made fun of him. No one left him out. It was Caleb’s soccer game, and I stood in amazement and happiness when I noticed the other kids give Caleb the ball and let him score. 

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My Son Did Something Naughty… and My Heart Swelled With Joy

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IMG_6746 I’ve been to many parent/teacher conferences. I have three typically-developing children — well-behaved, high achievers. In these later years of their schooling, I’ve received a lot of forms with “No conference necessary at this time” checked off. In the early years I went in to confer with teachers, who, to my surprise, never wanted to talk about the sheer wonderfulness of my darlings. There was always a problem. Most of the time the problem was talking in class.

“I’ve tried him in every seat in the room,” my oldest’s first grade teacher complained in her beautiful Irish brogue. “Finally I put him in the back and he talked to himself!”

It was the same with my two daughters. All I could do was say how sorry I was that they were disrupting the class, promise to talk to them, and do so. Then I waited for maturity and the passage of time to do the real work. I myself was often written up as the chatterbox, my name chalked on Mrs. Turtur’s blackboard circa 1976.

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Last year I went in to meet with T’s TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired). They’d been working on nesting and stacking cups. T uses an adaptive activity chair with a tray in these sessions, and Miss R. told me when he grows frustrated with the activity, T pushes the cups off of his tray with a sweeping arm motion.

“But Mrs. V. [my son’s aide] has gotten very good at catching the cups in mid-air and putting them right back,” Miss R. assured me. “So… lately he’s started throwing them backwards over his shoulder, instead.”

We looked at each other for a moment, and then I burst out laughing. Miss R. did too.

“I know… it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” she said. “So typical for his age, so creative…”

“So naughty,” I filled in.

It’s so hard for T to make himself known as a person in the world. At home we know him well, but it’s hard sometimes for us to understand what he wants and needs. He has only a few signs and sounds he uses to communicate. He relies on others to move him around and bring him things. We make so many decisions for T, and many of them are guesses.

I never expected that my heart would swell with joy when I heard my little boy was doing something naughty. I went around bragging about it for days. He’d given me the gift not just of rebelling against something, but finding a new and better way to rebel when thwarted. Sometimes, when I worry, I take that memory out and picture Miss R.’s impression of T tossing a cup over his shoulder with determination and aplomb.

Naughty — but also very nice.

The Mighty is celebrating the moments we gave or received a gift that touched our lives in a special way. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post describing this moment for you. Include a photo and 1-2 sentence bio to [email protected].
Hint! Some gifts don’t come in packages.

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The Holiday E-mail All Parents of Children With Special Needs Should Read

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Ah, the holidays…

They always end up being so hectic and stressful. Add a child with autism in the mix and things become even more chaotic. I wrote to our therapist about my daughter, Lila, and Christmas. The truth is, the gifts mean nothing to Lila. She couldn’t care less. Know what she wants for Christmas? Her balloons and ping pong balls and for Mommy and Daddy to be at home playing with her.

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Is that really how it is for anyone? I have my doubts. You know… we’ve already re-arranged our entire lives for Lila and her autism, but for whatever reason, it never occurred to me we could flip the script on the holidays as well. Our SoonerStart therapist, Janet, sent me the following in an e-mail. I genuinely believe it’s something all parents of children with special needs should hear, so I wanted to share it with you:

There are so many social norms and expectations surrounding the holidays. It’s like there’s a big book of items that are stereotypical and everyone feels if they aren’t ticking off a certain number of them, they aren’t doing it right. So many holiday things are hard for people with ASD. Different foods/cooking smells, longer travel times to infrequently visited homes with unfamiliar people and a different schedule, things you can’t touch, sitting on Santa’s lap, opening gifts, more shopping trips, all the forced social interactions, I could go on and on…

This is a great opportunity to ditch all the “normal” expectations and start to develop BETTER, new, fun ways for you all to do the holiday thing. Free yourself from all that garbage and follow her lead. You can celebrate in an AUTHENTIC and true way to your family. Your special twist on things will mean so much more to her than ANY gift. It’s kind of exciting and freeing isn’t it – to get to rewrite the book and tick your own things off? You are going to have a much better time than a lot of “normal” families. Makes you almost feel sorry for them… 🙂

So, please take that advice and do as you wish with it. I hope it helps you and your families like it has helped me. Our holidays won’t ever be what typical families would consider normal, but maybe – just maybe — they will be even better. Happy Holidays and much love to all of you and your beautiful, different little families!

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This post originally appeared on Dancing With Autism.

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I Would Have Made an Awesome Soccer Mom

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I had a few hours of free time on Sunday, and because I lead a very sexy life, I used the time to clean out my pantry. It’s a little room off my kitchen that has, over the last six years since my son came home, transitioned from a cute, chandeliered office/pantry to an enter-at-your-own-risk-I-can’t-be-responsible-for-what-falls-on-your-head room. It was time.

Photos, party supplies, glue guns, three coffee makers, expired cupcake mix – I sorted and filed and moved and tossed. I was on the last shelf when I yanked down a big, big box marked “ice cream social.” Huh? Two things: one, why do I have a huge box marked “ice cream social”? And two, I don’t even remember being the person who had time to appropriately label stuff in my pantry.

I opened the box, and inside was everything you need for the coolest kid party ever. There was a shake maker, snow-cone machine, cotton candy spinner and a cake pop baker. Long-handled spoons, ice cream bowls and a bright table cloth with ice cream cones printed on it. At the bottom of this box — the cherry on this surprise sundae — was a lime green pedestal that held six small bowls for ice cream toppings. Sitting in the middle of the spinning pedestal was a ceramic cupcake with a removable lid for hot fudge or caramel or strawberry sauce. It was summer and Pinterest and laughing children in one clever serving piece. It was darling.

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I wanted to throw the darling cupcake as hard as I could against the wall.

Instead, I sat down next to the box called “ice cream social” and cried.

I remember this stuff. I bid on it at a silent auction years ago, back when ice cream socials and impromptu play dates and birthday parties had starring roles in my parenting plan. Back before I knew that my son’s meltdowns were not a phase and back when I thought he played by himself because he was shy. Back before I had any idea that I would not be a soccer mom but a special needs mom.

What I have here is a box full of plans for a kid I don’t have. Some days, like today, it makes me sad.

I was crying for my son, but I’ll admit I was also crying for me. Instead of six different ice cream toppings always on hand for my son’s friends, I have an endless supply of pens for his therapists. Instead of being the house that everyone comes to, we are the people that are never home. Instead of bike rides, we have speech therapy; instead of swim parties, we go to OT.

Do I begrudge this? Not ever. But is this what I planned? No. Every once in a while, not very often, but every once in a while, I give myself permission to grieve for the life I don’t have, to think about the mom I don’t get to be.

I wrapped up the cupcake and put it back in the box. One day. Maybe. In the meantime, the sweetest boy in the world was on his way home. As moms go, I think I’m doing OK. Ice cream socials are fun, but my son needs a mom with a backbone, some fight and a strong voice. I’ve got that.

But just so you know, I would have made an awesome soccer mom.

Sincerely,
Becca

This post originally appeared on Sincerely, Becca.

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