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To the Special Needs Mom I Met on the First Day of Kindergarten

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Dear New Kindergarten Mom,

Today was the first day of school.

I’m not your son’s teacher, but I work here at your son’s school.

The hallways were packed today, crowded with students who were eager to find their classrooms, teachers and friends.

And, through the crowds, I spotted you.

I saw you walking slowly down the hallway towards the kindergarten classes.

I saw the way your little boy was clinging to your hand with a brand new backpack looming huge and heavy on his tiny little shoulders.

You approached me to find your son’s teacher. I knelt down next to your little guy and asked him for his name. I saw how he buried his head into your side and refused to answer me. Or perhaps he couldn’t answer. I couldn’t tell, but either way, I smiled at you to let you know it didn’t bother me and to let you know he would be fine.

This is my 13th first day of school as an educator.

Six years as a classroom teacher.

Seven years as a literacy coach.   

The fifth-grade students from my first year of teaching have graduated from high school. Some have children of their own.

I have seen many first days of school come and go.

But this year is different for me.

My heart tugs for your son in a way that it never has before. I’ve always loved and cared for the children who walk through these school doors, but today I feel deep empathy for you and for your son. Because less than an hour before you walked through these doors, I was that mom, dropping off my own little boy for his first day of kindergarten at a different school just a few minutes down the road.

And so, for the first time in 13 years, I asked you a question I never thought to ask before. I asked you, “How’s it going, Mom?”

Because, for the first time in 13 years, I really saw the worry on your face.

I saw the internal struggle that waged inside you, between holding your child safe and close beside you and letting him go off into the big, scary world for the first time. You and I both knew what had to happen today. We knew you had to let go.

And so you took a deep, shaky breath. You spoke to me of your concerns for your child. You told me that he has difficulty communicating with others. You told me he sometimes has trouble sitting still, transitioning from place to place, and, most of all, of his shy and reserved nature. You worry about his ability to convey his needs to an adult and to reach out and make friends. As I assured you of the wonderful teachers and programs available for your son at the school, I saw your shoulders relax a bit. I know how important his care is to you.

I collected your information on my clipboard for his teacher’s class. I made sure we had your direct phone number. I checked he had a bracelet on his backpack that indicated how he was getting home at the end of the day. You told me he was going to ride the bus by himself for the first time. I could feel the unspoken worry within that statement. I imagined how my little boy would do if he had to navigate on a bus this afternoon by himself.

And so I made you a promise.

I promised you I would check on your boy during the day.

I promised you I would find him at dismissal and make sure he got on the bus.

I promised you this because I knew you couldn’t do it yourself. I hoped you would be able to relax knowing there was at least one adult at school today who was watching out for your little guy, a child who required extra support.

I promised you this because while I wouldn’t be able to be there for my own son at his school, I could be there for yours.

I promised you this because there were those at my son’s school who had already made the same promise to me.

I want to tell you, Momma, that I kept my promise to you today.

Heather Zink the Mighty.2-001

I checked on your little guy several times. I peeked on his class while his teacher was reading a book out loud. It’s called “The Kissing Hand,” and it’s about the love a mother has for her son. In the story, the mother kisses her child’s hand on the first day of school, and she tells him the kiss will stay with him all through the day. And, even though she isn’t there with him while he is at school, her love will be with him always. All the children were gathered around the teacher on the carpet, and your little guy sat up close to her, right by her feet. He was gazing out the window as her rhythmic voice flowed through the quiet room, but his teacher didn’t mind that he didn’t look at her with rapt attention like all the other children. She and I both knew he was listening.

I found him in the cafeteria at lunch. I helped his little hands to reach the tray. I took extra time to explain his meal choices to him. And, as his classmates started jostling him in line because he was taking too long, he started to melt down. I gently guided him to a quiet corner. I taught him how to breathe in through his nose like he was smelling a flower and out like he was blowing a candle. When he was calm, he told me that he missed you. Then we walked through the now quiet lunch line together at his own pace. I found him a seat at a table next to a friendly looking little boy.   

The child looked over and asked, “Why is he crying?”

“He’s sad because he’s thinking about his mommy,” I told him.

“Don’t worry,” the friend told your son. “Everyone gets sad sometimes. I miss my mommy, too.”

At the end of the school day, I found your child once again in the hallway. I saw his anxiety growing as the masses of children started congregating around him. I took him by the hand and guided him to the spot where he would wait for his bus. I showed him how to find bus sign with the color that matched the color on the band of his backpack. I made sure he walked up those steps onto that yellow bus and marveled at how small he was. I swear they get smaller every year. I made sure a caring fifth-grade girl who was also on his bus would watch out for him and make sure he got off on the right stop where you would be waiting.

After all the children had gotten into their buses and cars and the hallways were once again quiet, I made my way back to my office. I checked my phone and saw I had a picture message waiting in my inbox. It was from a colleague who works at my son’s school, who also happens to be the mom of my son’s best friend. I opened the attachment to see a picture of my son, Ben, and his friend, smiling ear to ear as they ate their lunch in the cafeteria.

So I say this to you, kindergarten Momma. It’s hard to let go of our little guys, especially knowing the extra challenges they face, but try not to worry too much. Someone is always there, watching out for him. My son once said he’s strong enough to be in kindergarten. And so is yours. This year, he will learn. He will grow. He will thrive.


A teacher at your son’s school

Follow this journey on Changed for Good Autism.

Originally published: August 5, 2015
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