September 2021

A Leap of Faith

By Lisa Catterall

To all parents and caregivers starting the school year with special needs kids and waiting with hope, fear, faith, and some worry that it just can’t possibly work out, I feel you.

“Some of the most wonderful people are the ones that don’t fit into boxes.”
–Tori Amos

Forever burned into my memory is the image I saw this week, of my daughter holding the hand of another little girl and her teacher, walking away from me through the open gates of her new school. I just turned around and started sobbing.

My entire family and extended family were there, and all of them, and other parents I’d never met, jumped right in with reassurance… “She’ll love it!” “The teacher is great!” “This is a great school!”

It wasn’t that. It wasn’t that at all. She was the baby that no one thought would live, the one who was supposed to be blind, incapable, vulnerable. No one knows exactly how premature she really was (she is adopted), but her eyes were fused shut for two weeks, and she had a brain bleed. She weighed one pound. She is a miracle. And this week, my miracle walked happily and confidently into school.

The real superheroes in this world are the children who are working harder than we will ever know. They have the biggest hearts and they never give up trying to succeed. Their parents do all of the normal back-to-school preparations, but they also are preparing equipment and checking braces and gear, reading the IEP again, practicing social stories to use in terrifying situations like recess, ordering every fidget toy the school approves and a backup store to have at home when they all get lost in the first week, and wondering just how to stretch the bridge of support from home all the way into that classroom.

I have an incredible faith in teachers, after all, I am one. But there is still the fear that a special needs child will run across a teacher who sees them as more work, and not as the gift they are. Our family discovered passion, tenacity and strength in ourselves after my daughter arrived. She needs a gentle, firm hand holding hers as she tries to walk through a world that isn’t built for her, and to be that, we all reshaped our lives. The idea that there are teachers out there who know how to help her is still shocking to me.

I can’t see my little girl how the rest of the world does. I see strength, beauty, perfection. I rejoice in every milestone, I don’t know whether or not they are “on-time.” I’m mystified most of the time that she is labeled as different, until I’m cleaning up and finding strange food stashed all over the house, or sniffing around to discover the latest potty accident, or comforting a screaming, toddler-style meltdown about something simple she just doesn’t understand.

More than any of my other children, my daughter wants to go to school. She would run miles, climb mountains, even put her own shoes on and get entirely dressed herself in two minutes, if she knows the reward is school.

Our county has a wonderful public preschool program, and a wonderful program for preschoolers with special needs. I was terrified of it at first, thinking there was no way kids with so many different needs could possibly learn anything, or even be managed, all in the same class. But it works. It is well funded, and full of passionate and creative educators. I’ve never encountered a teacher, aide, administrator, assessor, specialist, or receptionist in the system who is putting less than their best self into educating our county’s special kids. My daughter is happy because her classroom is shaped for who she is.

To all parents and caregivers starting the school year with special needs kids and waiting with hope, fear, faith, and some worry that it just can’t possibly work out, I feel you. Will the teacher this year be able to manage, or will I have to advocate until I’m blue in the face? How will I do that? Will the teacher sit with my child when my child is having a fit, or make them go to the lunch room anyways? Won’t that be devastating? How will the “normal” kids treat her?

The worry-spinning stops for me when I see the shining, happy faces of my daughter and her teacher. I’ve never felt so much like I’m watching real, live super hero in action as I do when I see them together. Taking her to school and waving goodbye, after all she and we have been through, is the closest I’ve ever come to walking on a cloud.

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