I suppose every parent has mixed feelings about their kids’ return to class after the holiday break. Unless your kid is perfectly delightful all the time (in which case you’re either lying, delusional, or most likely not paying very close attention) or is a rotten pain in the ass (I think I might have met your child before, sorry), the return is bittersweet. It’s a little like the ending of Polar Express, when Santa finally stops screwing around and flies off to deliver the toys. There’s a moment of silence where everyone ponders the wonder and the miracle they’ve just witnessed. Then all the elves start screaming and dancing and lighting up.
For parents of kids with special needs, I suppose it might be a little more complicated.
Our family holiday probably wasn’t like yours, not entirely. If we had friends over for New Year’s Eve, it was a low-key affair, because our children don’t usually just go to bed and that’s that, and staying up with the grownups is probably asking too much for many of our kids. (But let’s be frank. We probably didn’t have friends over.) If we had a family Christmas, we endured questions from the more distant family members, smiled without a hint of outer sadness as other parents bragged about their own kids’ academic accomplishments or fretted about problems we’ll never get to worry over, and maybe watched our kids’ interactions with their relatives or monitored their special dietary concerns so closely that we might not have actually eaten much ourselves. (I did not have this problem.) When it was all over, we went home and restored our decked halls to their previous condition, and sighed and kept doing what we do, because we don’t often get the opportunity to not be doing it.
The return to school can feel like a chance to stop for just a moment and not do. For just a moment or two.
But at the same time, the return to school means letting go again. It means sending our kids back into the fray, and even without the specter of Newtown hanging over our psyches, that’s a daunting task for special needs parents. We send our children back, even though we know they’re less safe when they’re not with us, less understood when they are in the care of even the good teachers, less sheltered when they are surrounded by their peers-who-are-not-necessarily-really-peers.
And we do so willingly, even enthusiastically (sort of, maybe), because we know that they’re better off being in the less safe, less understanding world. They are better off stumbling, failing, hurting, learning the hard way, because they’ll never grow with our arms around them. They’ll never thrive without clean air and nurturing sunlight and a fresh breeze to blow them away from us. It’s a hard world for our kids, but it’s theirs, and so we send them back into it with newly organized backpacks and freshly cleaned lunchboxes and new school supplies because what happened to all the stuff we just bought you, for God’s sake?
Tomorrow, Schuyler returns to middle school, and it may be Lord of the Flies, but she’s not Piggy, not just yet. It’s hard, and harder for her than most. If there’s one thing I’d pay real cash money to never hear again, it would be how Schuyler’s middle school challenges are just like those of any other thirteen year-old girl. The people who say this think they’re being comforting, but what they are actually doing is reenforcing a fact that we already know too well. Not very many people understand how this is. Not many people get it. And those who do are almost certainly in The Club.
I’ll put Schuyler on the bus, and I’ll feel relief that she’s going back and fighting the good fight again, and I’ll feel sadness at exactly what’s waiting for her when she gets there and how daunting the odds that are stacked against her really might turn out to be.
And I’ll watch the clock closely, even as I pretend not to, and when it reaches four o’clock, I’ll listen for the PSHHHH! of the bus and try to force myself not to go outside and meet her as she arrives.
I’ll try, but I’ll fail. I’ll be standing there when she steps off. I figure that’s not the worst way I can fail her.