Last October, my boisterous but tiny three year old started school. For weeks we warned him that big changes were coming with his birthday but the gravity of the day was lost on him. That Tuesday morning, the very day he turned 3, he left my side for the very first time as he entered the preschool program for children with disabilities (PPCD). In those seven months between October and May, ironically it was I who became the most educated. I learned how to cope and how to trust. I learned that my son was more capable than I ever dreamed him to be. And I learned that there are a few things I’d like his teacher to know, going into year two.
He’s three. In his heart he is just a three year old boy. He sees himself as just the same as any other boy his age and, at least of yet, he hasn’t perceived himself as different. Disabled isn’t anything to him. There is no meaning in that word. He’s just a boy who falls a lot and wears special braces on his legs to make them stronger. In the same way, I expect you to not only see the braces and the clumsiness. He’s so much more than that. He’s strong, determined and brilliant. I’ve always feared his dismissal by small minded people who couldn’t see past his imperfect exterior. Don’t be that person. And don’t baby him. See him as the boy he is.
I want you to be honest with the other kids about his disability. Don’t be afraid to say the words “cerebral palsy” or “premature” and to explain them in ways they can understand. Much of their initial life experiences with the disabled community could stem from their first meeting my son and playing alongside him. They’re kids- nearly blank pages who will absorb the knowledge that we give them. Tell them not to fear him or pity him. Ensure that they know that he is just like they are. He may need a bit more help than them but that isn’t a bad thing. By doing this, you can teach them an understanding and empathy that they may not get otherwise. The world can only benefit from this. Lead by example and the kids will, too.
Don’t say “can’t.” Because he can! I haven’t yet failed to find a way to adapt or modify an activity to Avery’s needs. If you’re in PE or doing something physical and it requires running, let him use a scooter board and cheer him on as he goes. His little hands don’t work as well as they should, so perhaps give him a larger crayon or marker. Guide his hands the first few times. Instead of working with smaller objects, give him something big that he can manipulate easier. Know that the mess may be bigger and it will undoubtedly take more time, but it will be time well spent. Time spent teaching a little boy that he can do anything he wants to.
For the love of all things holy, don’t make your room an obstacle course! He has no center of balance and he falls often. The more items are crammed into his space the more likely he is to fall on them. And bust open his eye, or his lip, or his head. Make it as toddler friendly as possible to ensure that he has enough space to move around without injuring himself. This one might seem petty, but you’ll thank me later. So will the nurse!
Keep me in the loop. Send me a picture of him with ketchup or chili all over his face at lunch. Show me how proud he is standing in front of the class as they say the pledge of allegiance. That single snapshot could be what gets me through a day spent worrying about him. Text me if you think he’s not feeling well so that I can watch out for it at home. Invite me to the classroom to help with crafts or read to the kids. Make me feel welcome. I want to feel good about sending my baby to you every day, and you can make that happen. I want to be there as much as I can. If you do, I promise that you can come to me first if you need cupcakes for Christmas, candy for Valentines or a donation for class T-shirt’s. I’ll even make crafts for every kid in the class on holidays. Better yet, invite me to the classroom and we’ll do them together!
This last point I want you to hold nearest your heart. Love my baby. If he falls, pick him up. Kiss his ouchie quickly but don’t dwell on it. Tell him that it will be okay. Encourage him to never stop trying just because he falls. We don’t always succeed the first time and he will learn that. I promise not to be jealous if he decides that when he’s mad at me, you’re his favorite person. That tells me that he loves and trusts you. He needs you in his corner.
One day, Avery will see that he is different. My mother’s heart knows that this is coming. With your help, we can soften the blow. Together we can better equip him to deal with a world that oftentimes will be determined to tear him down. Help me show him how special and loved that he is. How capable and strong. Help me teach his peers tolerance and acceptance.
Away from his Mommy now, you are his champion. Trust me, I know that those are pretty big shoes to fill. But you’re up to the job. You’re a special education teacher, after all. And that’s pretty much synonymous with super hero.