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In with the New

busgirlThere’s an annual fall ritual for parents of kids with special needs who attend public schools. You’ve got the changing of the autumn leaves, you’ve got the Major League Baseball postseason (Go Rangers!), and then you’ve got the first parent/teacher conferences of the year, usually with a fair number of new teachers for your kid. It’s the same sort of meeting you attend every year, the one where you go in and you hear how your kid has done for the first few weeks of school. You sit down with these new teachers, and you hold your breath.

What will they see in this person, your beloved little weirdo who doesn’t fit in anywhere? Will they have observed the things that set our kids apart already, or will they still be trying to fit them into preconceived spaces? Will they see your kid as a burden, or a challenge, or will they see the person you see, with flaws that certainly aren’t invisible but which perhaps don’t manifest in obvious ways? Will these new teachers be hesitant? Enthusiastic? Will they even know where to begin?

It’s hard for parents to do this every year. When our kids are young, I think it might be a little easier in some regards, even though you’re still trying to work out exactly what works for your enigmatic child. In the beginning, there’s that educational phase, that time where you’re trying desperately to impart what you’ve learned (mostly the hard way) about how to reach your child. With younger kids, there are so many unanswered questions, and that part is really hard. Those meetings with teachers are often centered on coordinating what methods and approaches you’re going to take, and if the teachers don’t seem to know exactly how it’s going to work, that’s not really so bad. You probably don’t either. You’re not looking for a mentor so much as a fellow adventurer. And in those early years, it can feel like you’ve got all the time in the world ahead of you. That can be daunting, the feeling that school is going to last forever, but it’s comforting in a way, too. It’s probably unfair to say it’s easier with younger kids. Perhaps it’s just more forgiving. Lots of time to screw things up and still get back on track.

I miss those days, to a certain degree. In fairness, I had an advantage early on. I wrote a book, and a book specifically about my daughter and her disability. When she first began attending public schools, at least Schuyler came with something very much like a User’s Manual. The teachers who really wanted to understand Schuyler could read the book. It was an unexpected bonus.

Schuyler is now fifteen, almost sixteen, and the little girl in my book, running wild and free half a lifetime ago, that character doesn’t reveal much about the young woman she is now. Most people don’t even know about the book now, but it wouldn’t help them much if they did. Schuyler has a mostly new team this year, and this isn’t a bad thing at all. Her new special education team leader already has a solid working relationship with Schuyler, so that promises to be a good thing moving forward. The band director with whom she had so much conflict last year retired and has been replaced by a very young, very enthusiastic director who seems genuinely interested in reaching Schuyler. She’s made a connection with Schuyler already, which is key, because no one shuts down like a kid who can cross their arms and turn off their primary mode of communication. So new feels… promising, I guess.

But these annual student/teacher conferences usually end up taking place with those general education teachers who seem to wander in and out of Schuyler’s life like extras on a film set. They’re not bad teachers, I don’t think. Some of them have become fierce advocates for Schuyler, particularly when she was in elementary school and when she first started taking band in middle school. But there’s a kind of recurring theme that takes place almost every year, of the gen/ed teachers for whom Schuyler represents extra work, and mysteries for which their college courses and their previous experience may have not prepared them. Sometimes they turn out to be good teachers, and sometimes not. But there’s one thing they have in common, which is the same with neurotypical students as well, I suppose. At the end of the year, they’re done.

They move on, and maybe they reached Schuyler, or maybe they tried really hard but didn’t quite get there. Perhaps they didn’t try all that hard at all. That’s certainly happened a few times. Until the semester really gets under way, as a parent, you just don’t know. These parent/teacher conferences give you the first peek at how things might look. There’s a lot of sizing up going both ways at these meetings. Are you going to be the teacher that cares, or the one that sets my daughter back? Will you be running out the clock on my child? And it cuts both ways. Are you going to be the parents that I mentally red flag, the worriers and the enablers and the helicopter pilots? Or likewise, will you be the ones that simply don’t give a damn? I’m reminded of an Eels song, with it’s repeated refrain. “I’m tired of the old shit. Let the new shit begin.”

Schuyler has three years of school left, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that in some ways, I might be running out the clock a little myself. Schuyler has been blessed with some extraordinary teachers, but she’s been weighed down by some of the lackluster ones as well, and burned by a few of the downright cruel. We go to these meetings and we listen as young teachers fresh out of college and older ones anticipating retirement tell us all about our daughter, as if we haven’t lived with her and worried over her and celebrated her victories like Vikings and regrouped from her failures for years already.

I still hold onto a kind of anticipation when I meet her newest teachers. There’s still time to save her, I think, to save them all. Sometimes it feels like as parents, that salvation has simply got to come from us, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll find partners in the schools to help.

That’s ridiculous, though. I know that. Schuyler will be saved by Schuyler. Her future, whatever that’s going to be, is going to be written in her scrappy handwriting. What a wonderful thought. What a terrifying idea.

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