When you have a child with special needs, especially if that child is non-verbal, life is all about trust. Not because you’re a trusting person, not because you necessarily choose to trust, but because you have to.
Every day I put my 9-year-old son on a bus and send him to school. And every day I put my trust into his teachers and therapists, the bus driver and paraprofessionals, to do right by him. I not only trust them to supervise his academic work and individualize it to his needs, but I trust them to help him eat. I trust them to help him in the bathroom. I trust them with my most vulnerable child, the one who can’t speak up for himself.
It’s hard in the beginning, when Scott is at a new school with a new team, a conference table of unfamiliar faces discussing his education plan. I’m thinking to myself, “Hi, Stranger. Here’s my non-verbal child. Please be nice to him. Please treat him with respect.”
I say a prayer, and I send him to school, and I hope I’ve made good decisions for my son, because he can’t tell me if I haven’t. He can’t tell me if something wonderful–or terrible–happened during the day. I depend on daily notes from his special education teacher for that. She lets me know how the day went, what Scott worked on, if there’s anything we should address at home. Without those notes and the trust I have in her, I wouldn’t know. Scott can’t tell me.
Three years ago, Scott concluded his kindergarten year at another school. I wept on his last day, sad to leave a team of educators I loved, and fearful of starting over at a new place where everything would be different. Change is hard with a child like Scott, who depends on familiarity and routine.
I remember a friend back then encouraging me, assuring all would be fine. “I bet you’ll cry again when the time comes for him to leave the new school,” she predicted. At that time, it was hard to imagine she could be right.
Well, here we are, three years later, and of course she was right. It wasn’t long before those strangers became familiar faces and then friends, and we relaxed into a comfortable routine. The new school became home, and my trust, once desperate and blind, developed into something real. Scott was happy and learning.
Those three years disappeared in a flash, as time does when you’re parenting little kids. Scott is about to attend his last day of third grade. He’ll move on to the middle school in the fall. And I am a mess.
I can hardly talk about it. The other night my husband asked a question about Scott’s bus driver, and I burst into tears. The bus driver! He is the kindest, most wonderful bus driver, and how is it possible that Scott won’t be riding his bus anymore? You know when something feels so important you can hardly find the words to express its importance? Well, that’s how I feel about Scott’s bus driver, and the wonderful paraprofessionals on his bus.
I can’t write about the bus anymore. It’s too emotional. (I sound loony.)
Everything will be different next year, and I don’t want it to be different. I know…it will probably be OK, and he’ll do fine at the middle school. This is what everyone says and what I keep telling myself. But right now, when Scott is leaving behind a wonderful team that has been part of his life almost every day for three years–this part is hard. The closing of a school year can bring with it some wistfulness, even with my neuro-typical children. It’s bittersweet when your child leaves a wonderful teacher’s classroom, but those feelings are magnified with Scott. And also, it’s not so much bittersweet. It just feels sad. I’m going to miss them terribly.
He’ll be in fourth grade at the middle school in August. Scott will start from scratch with a new team on a campus that right now feels alien. Once again I will trust strangers with my son because–outside of keeping Scott by my side at all times–it’s my only option. I’ll hold my breath and hope that he loves school as much as he does now, and he continues with the progress he’s made. And I’ll pray that three years from now I’ll be writing another column like this one, about another team of people who were once strangers, but who became trusted friends and encouragers, who loved and cared and helped my son to learn.
(Betsy Swenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)