First Day of School

I got in my car and followed the school bus.  R followed me in his car, both of us nervous and wanting to make sure that Michael didn’t freak out or meltdown on his first day of kindergarten.

It was a big day at our house, a warm late August day.  R had almost missed it, him working out of town all week two hours away in the Hudson Valley; he’d left his hotel at five in the morning to swing home so he could get a glimpse of Z’s first day of his senior year, Melinda’s first day of second grade and Michael’s first day of kindergarten.

Z smiled dutifully, if painfully, for my posed photograph on this, his last day of public education.  He’d already spent weeks in marching band camp, so he was nonplussed by the early wake up call.  He had a busy schedule this fall of college applications and AP classes; I couldn’t believe that his senior year was finally here.  Z had thrived since we moved to CT, earning all As in his honors level classes, and taking classes that would eventually earn him a whole semester’s worth of college credit.   He had friends at school, he’d joined the church youth group, he taught Vacation Bible School.  It was such a strange place to be, proudly sending my eldest (and gifted) son off to his last year of school before college, and then sending my youngest (and special needs) son to his first year of elementary school.   Melinda danced happily in between, the only girl, chattering incessantly about her cute camoflauge pants with pink accents that she’d proudly chosen for her first day of school outfit.

I was nervous about Michael’s experience today.  Back in June, at our kindergarten orientation, he’d seemed lost amongst his typical peers. He had come so far since his diagnosis, but he still had so far to go.  He looked lost while his teacher read a story to the twenty two children assembled in front of her, and I could see his attention flagging less than half way through.  But the worst of it had been the bus ride, where the kids were allowed to ride the “big bus” in a trial run without their parents.

For most kids that had been their first experience on a school bus, but not for my son.  He’d been riding “the short bus” for two years now, and when he boarded the enormous yellow bus, he grew fearful.  I ended up sitting in the seat next to him and tried to keep him calm for the duration.  But the loud noise of the other children’s excited voices and the unfamiliar route outside the windows sent him into a meltdown of epic proportions.  I wrapped him in my arms and hid from the other students as I applied deep pressure and rocked him back and forth to get him through the rest of the ride.  His screams could barely be heard above the din of the other kids, but I could feel his fear as he shook in my tight embrace.

I could see it all clearly in my head as we wound down the hilly roads of our suburban town on the way to school, red lights pausing the ride every minute or two.  So far, so good, though I wasn’t sure how I would know if something was happening; maybe the bus would stop longer than normal in order for the bus driver to attend to my son’s meltdown, if it were happening.  But it didn’t happen; the bus slowly meandering through town until it stopped in front of my kids’ school.  I parked my car, grabbed my camera, and ran to the side of the bus in time to see the doors open for the students to exit.

Michael was supposed to be sitting in the front seat, something we’d designated in our discussions of how to make the bus experience smoother; this would minimize the exposure to the other kids (scary strangers) and the noise.  Sure enough, he bounded off of the bus, backpack on his shoulders, second in line.  I stepped back, trying to remain invisible as I watched the school principal greet him and introduce him to his aide.  She was an older woman, grandmotherly, and warmly smiled at my son, spoke a few words, and reached out for his hand.

And just like that, it was over.  My son disappeared into the building.  Melinda skipped off of the bus a minute or two later, her having sat further back where the “bigger” kids sat.  She turned in the opposite direction towards the second grade wing without even glancing around her, strong and confident, seeming eons older than her brother.  I looked over at R, who stood silently next to me.

“It seemed to go well,” I offered.

“You sound surprised,” he answered.

“I’m always surprised when things go well,” I answered with thinking.

He looked at me quizzically.  “You get that is probably the wrong response, don’t you?”

I sighed.  “I do.”

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