Penny woke up every morning the first week of kindergarten and looked at me eagerly, “I get to go to kindergarten again?” Her tone held a mixture of incredulity and delight.
We’ve settled into a morning routine–pack lunch and a snack, make breakfast, get dressed. She and William strap their backpacks on and we walk together up the little hill to her school. Penny has noticed that some of the older kids we know from our neighborhood get to walk alone, so recently she’s taken to saying, “I can do it myself Mom. I’ll see you later.” But William and I escort her close enough that the door to school is in sight. We hug and wave and watch her enter in.
As for what goes on in the nearly-seven hours when she’s behind those doors? Well, I know it was a challenge for Penny to stay in the all-purpose room, where the whole school gathers at the start of the day. She wanted to head straight for her classroom. We’ve talked about it a lot, and it’s getting better. I know she’s had some trouble having “quiet hands.” I know which friend was sad and wanted to go home. I know which friend has gone to Disney World. I know that “carpet” time is tough. Penny is inclined to roll around on the floor or hop up for an impromptu game of duck-duck-goose. She’s working on sitting still and using her words.
I also know that Penny has an exceptional teacher. Exceptional not because this teacher has unusual training or unbelievable skills with kids with special needs–though those things may be true. Exceptional because this teacher is willing to sacrifice herself on Penny’s behalf. She called me early on to come in for a conference. “Penny has pushed other kids a few times. It isn’t aggressive, but I don’t want her to become stigmatized. I want her to have friends.” We worked together to come up with a reward system–one sticker every hour of “quiet hands” and a prize at the end of the day if she gets 5 out of 7 stickers–and we discussed which areas of concern to focus upon (if she’s taking off her glasses, for instance, just take the glasses away. If she’s stealing someone else’s snack, no sticker.).
On Monday, though, Penny’s teacher took it to a new level. “The hardest time for Penny is on the playground,” she said. “I think it’s because it’s such an unstructured time.” So she’s decided to create a game time for Penny and a smaller group of friends. Usually the teacher would use that time to prepare for the second half of the day. But instead, she’s outside, making sure there’s a place for our daughter.
I spoke with a friend last night who has a daughter with Down syndrome who is also in elementary school. My friend was in tears because some kids had yelled at her daughter on the playground: “You don’t belong here!” We talked for a long time about the difficulties of being a child with special needs, and the difficulty of being a parent of a child with special needs. She talked about the purpose of inclusive education, and she said, “I know that for my daughter to fit in means putting a square peg in a round hole. But I thought that inclusion was intended to make that round hole bigger.” My daughter will not become a circle, but I’m grateful that the circle is becoming large enough for our daughter to fit in.
Penny has a teacher who is expanding the circle. She’s doing it through little things like taking Penny to art class a few minutes early so she can adjust to the temptation of a new room filled with things to touch (and smear), like keeping a log of Penny’s day so we can talk about it in detail at home, like organizing Duck Duck Goose on the playground.