Sending a child to kindergarten is a huge milestone, as any parent who's been there will tell you. When the big day finally arrives, we snap pictures of our child in their brand new clothes, backpack in tow, as they stand with barely-contained excitement outside the classroom door. Our heart tugs as they walk away from us through that classroom door, looking much too small to be sent off into this big and scary world. We hover a few extra minutes, peeking through the window, knowing that once we walk away we will have to admit to ourselves that our baby has just taken another yet step on the path to adulthood. Leaving our child in that teacher’s hands for the first time is a really big deal.
Now, imagine your precious baby, who you love more than anything else in the world, has special needs. Imagine the sleepless nights spent dreaming about the teacher that you wish for your child. A teacher that has the right mix of compassion and love, high expectations and flexibility, patience and support. You know that your child will require extra vigilance because his needs are greater than most. You know that learning can be frustrating to him at times, and he will require a caring hand to guide him. You know that he will stand out as different from his peers and will need frequent reminders to keep him on track when his mind starts to wander. You dream of a teacher who not only understands these things but celebrates his strengths and orchestrates her class in such a way that everyone is accepted for their uniqueness and individuality. Everyone is welcomed into the class family. And then, as you wake from the dream and face the cold reality of the day, you wonder if this mythical teacher can even exist. For months, Ben’s Pre-K teacher and I have both been having this same dream. We talk about it often. Will we find the right place…and the right teacher…for him?
So for the past several months, I have struggled with the decision of where to put my son for kindergarten. This year in Pre-K, Ben has gone to the same school as me, but for many reasons, we all agree that he needs a school to call his own, away from his momma. Finally, after two observations by district specialists, several visits to surrounding schools, hours of surfing school homepages, and countless conversations with other parents, I found a school close to where I teach that fits the criteria for what my son will need. And, for the first time next year, the school will be trying an inclusion model in kindergarten. This means that Ben will be in a regular kindergarten class with other children with special needs, and they will push in support teachers to provide extra assistance. As an extra bonus, there would be another autistic student, Nikki, in the class. Nikki was in Ben’s Pre-K class earlier in the school year, so he will have a built-in friend at the new school. The school is still working out the logistics of all this, but I’m finally breathing normally as the details slowly fall into place.
Because transitions can be difficult for Ben, especially one this big, I decided to take Ben by his new school one day before the summer so that he could see the inside of the building and possibly peek into a classroom. I wondered how Ben would react to seeing unfamiliar teachers and a new environment. I wondered how Ben would respond to his soon-to-be kindergarten teacher. And, most importantly, how would the new teacher react to Ben?
Well, once again I felt God’s hand in my life. From the moment we walked in the doors of the school, we were welcomed into the family. The afternoon passed like a happy blur. It started with seeing Mrs. H in the hall, his soon-to-be kindergarten teacher. She spotted Ben coming and immediately approached us with a huge smile on her face and bent down to his level to greet us. My little guy was positively shivering with excitement and waved hello, and I could tell in that instant a bond had formed. I watched as she took him by the hand and led him to Nikki’s VPK class across the hall. What happened next was a moment that I will never forget. The VPK teacher called Ben’s friend Nikki to the classroom door. After a moment’s Nikki’s face popped into view. He stared at Ben in a moment of disbelief, and then cried, “Ben!!” The long-lost friends then ran to each other in a big bear hug. The rest was history. Mrs. H ushered us into her classroom and gave the boys the grand tour of the room they would soon call their own as kindergarteners. After they checked out the cubbies and the reading corner, Nikki took Ben by the hand and led him to his class, showing him all toys, and together they used the puzzle letters to form their names Nikki and Ben. Next they visited the OT class, where the therapist immediately made time to let Ben try out the equipment as Nikki enthusiastically demonstrated his skills. The entire time, Nikki talked to Ben nonstop, “Ben, you’ve got to come to my house to play. And come to my birthday party!” We next stopped by to see Nikki’s aunt, who works at the school, and after exchanging numbers and promising to be in touch soon, the boys said their tearful goodbyes. I would learn later from Ben’s teacher that after they returned to class, Nikki kept saying, “Ben was here. I love him!” As I walked to the parking lot that afternoon, I knew in my heart I had made the right decision, but it wasn’t until later that evening, as I settled down to check Facebook, I came across a status update from Mrs. H. that absolutely took my breath away. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to her during our visit, since the school day was in full swing. What follows are her words, taken from Facebook with her permission.
Moments like today are why I teach. Next year I will have two precious autistic boys in my class. One of the boys is in VPK at our school, and the other little boy came to see where he would be going to school next year. The two boys had been best friends in another school but had not seen each other for a year. I brought our visitor to the VPK classroom. I opened the classroom door and told the little boy I had a big surprise for him. He came over and I opened the door. There standing in front of him was his best friend he hadn’t seen in what had to feel like forever. There are no words to describe their faces and reaction. I will treasure that moment for the rest of my life.
#preciousmoment #teachlikeyourhairis onfire #whyIgetupandgotowork
To Mrs. H, and all the teachers who work with Ben, I want you to know this-
I can never thank you enough for opening your heart to my little boy and to all the children who you touch through the amazing work that you do. I know that teaching is often a thankless job, but please know that the influence that you have in these children’s lives are like ripples in a pond, spreading outward further than you can ever see. The children that you teach will take a piece of you forward wherever they go, passing on the kindness and goodness that you have instilled within them. I am blessed and so grateful that my son will have the privilege of being part of your legacy as a teacher.