A New World

I looked around the classroom, slowly, holding Michael’s hand.  It looked a great deal like your standard issue preschool classroom:   letter block foam play area, bins of toys tucked neatly into cubbies, perfectly penned nametags pasted to the wall near coat hooks.  R stood silently next to me, his face unreadable.

“Look, Michael,” I enthused, “here’s your name on the wall!  Let’s go ahead and get out of your coat and put it on this hook they’ve saved just for you!”  Michael’s blue round eyes looked at me blankly as I eased him out of his warm, winter coat.  He stayed close to my side, hesitating to leave the comfort of my presence.

“Hi Michael, welcome!” said the teacher, coming over to greet us.  She too looked exactly the part of the preschool teacher:  sweet, round face, inviting and welcoming, with a singsong voice.  She kneeled down in front of him to catch his gaze.  Michael responded by burying his face in my leg.  She stayed there for a minute, waiting to see if he would get curious and peek out from his self imposed cocoon; when he didn’t, she rose up again to speak to us.  “It’s OK that you’ve walked him in today, but when you come on Thursday, you’ll want to follow the protocol and drop him at the door.  It’s important that he learn independence and routine right from the start.  Will he be riding the bus?”

I shook my head.  The school system had told me that Michael qualified for busing to and from the preschool, but since Melinda was already attending in the reverse mainstream classroom down the hall, it made no sense for him to be bused when I’d have to follow in the car.  We thought it might be a good idea for Melinda to serve as one of the typical peer models in her age group; I had hoped that it would help her understand a little bit how to help her younger brother.  “No, I’ll be bringing him.” I answered.

“Well don’t worry if he screams or cries when you bring him; he’ll get past it.”  I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to leave today, actually.  He never wanted to be left in the daycare at the Y when I went last year; I’d be in the middle of my time on the elliptical when the teenager would come out to find me after ten minutes of blood curdling screams.  Eventually I’d simply stopped going during the day, leaving Michael with R or Z after they got home.  It was easier.

Michael had started to look interested in the brick simulated cardboard building blocks, and so R and I started looking at each other like it might be time to make our exit.  “Should we go now?” I asked the teacher.  “Now that he’s finally distracted?”

“Always say goodbye to him,” she instructed.  “Otherwise he’ll wonder all of the time when he gets engaged in something if you’ll just disappear.  Michael, Mommy and Daddy are going to leave now, ok?”  He ignored her, as he often did when he was thoroughly engaged in an activity.  “You’ll want to talk to him and make sure he understands that you’re leaving,” she told us gently.

I looked over as the classroom aide brought in other students.  One by one they walked in, removing their coats and backpacks, finding their names on their hooks and putting everything in its place.  I couldn’t imagine Michael being able to do that.  He didn’t understand simple commands; the playroom was a wreck.

Suddenly, I saw one boy being led in by the hand; he was so clearly seriously affected by some sort of learning disorder.  His mouth hung open slightly and a small shiny bit of saliva coated his open mouth.  His eyes were obscured by ill fitting, thick glasses; his chin bobbed up and down.  On the upswing, his face looked blank and empty.  As the aide removed his coat and backpack for him, I could see the top of a Pull Up diaper peeking out from his pants.  The aide talked to him constantly, a continuous stream of commentary on what she was doing now for him.  He made some guttural noises in response, but it was hard to judge as to whether or not he was understanding any of her words.  Still, he dutifully allowed her to do what she needed to do, and docilely followed her to the carpet where the teacher was gathering the students.

I gulped as the same aide returned for Michael, gently taking his hand.  He immediately started to pull away from her, looking with a sense of panic towards us.  He clearly didn’t want to stop playing with the fun bricks to go to the center of the classroom, and he wanted to be separated from us even less.  The unhappy grunts were turning into full blown screams as she knelt down next to him.  “Say goodbye to Mommy and Daddy,” she said happily.  “I know it is hard, but you have to go now.  He’ll be fine, trust me.  Most of the kids over there were exactly the same on their first day.”  I started crying as I waved at my son and slunk out of the room.

R and I walked silently to the parking lot, where both of our cars were waiting for us; him to go to work, me to return home for a few hours before picking the kids up.  He still hadn’t said a word.  I looked at him, fearful.  “Did you see that little boy?” I whispered.  “Is that what kind of child Michael is?   Is that what our life will be like now?”  All along I’d talked myself into thinking that things were just not that bad for us and our son.  But seeing the issues of the other children at the special needs preschool brought it all home; we were on a new and very different path now.

“I don’t know,” R said quietly, sadly.  “I just don’t know.”

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