Saturday, January 22, 2011

We All Have Special Needs

Believe it or not, the parent association meetings for my son's school take place at 6 PM on Friday nights.
Our school board member could not believe it either, but he came anyway, dined on cheap pizza and iced tea at card tables in the auditorium, and pitched his plans for a new span middle school in the district.
A pretty good-sized crowd turned out, and with my oldest in first grade, I expected to be a little bored as secretary taking notes about the middle school.

Then the Q and A started. The Q and A that made it the most memorable meeting I think I have ever attended...
Are there special day classes at this new school? Because my son has special needs.
Are kids fully included? Because my daughter has autism.
Is it going to remain open enrollment? Even for kids who have IEPs? Can you promise?

I have no idea what came over me but the meeting changed for me very suddenly. I went there to take notes and get home as early as I could to write a paper due Monday for a class I'm taking; I had wanted to fly under the radar quick and painlessly. But as I realized how many people in that room had kids with special needs, my heart started racing. I zoned out of their Q and A for a bit for some internal Q of my own.

She also has a kid in the inclusion program? You mean I'm not alone in that here, like I tend to assume? You mean there as so many of us? Why so many? All autism, or other diagnoses too? Can you hear how scared they are about the school in our district? We are, I mean? Why is it so hard? Are the NT families tuning out? Do they get it? Why can't we do more for kids, all kids? Why are the numbers soaring? Why are the dollars disappearing? What can we do? How long will it take?
I lost the thread of the room and I shot my hand in the air. I had no plan. I had to listen to what I said just like everyone else did because I didn't know where I was going.
I spoke louder than I planned, and slower than I am known for.

"As the parent of a child with special needs, I get sick of being made so other all the time. And as an educator, too, I just want to say that it is past time that we all realized that all people have special needs. And that we all benefit when schools address all those needs to the best of their ability. Not other schools or other rooms in the school, not somewhere else, but everywhere, fully included. And there just are not enough options for meeting kids needs, not enough schools doing what needs to be done to help all learners, and I can't understand why not."

The school board member considers this new middle school his pet project, the thing he says he commits to making happen, hell or high water, during his term, through sheer determination to serve the needs of the constituents, and that is why he spoke to us on his third late work evening of the week, tired and dogged. But that focus shifted when I spoke, and the night seemed to crack open, and a new connectivity hatched as a result. I have no perspective on how others saw the night. But what happened next, for me, sent me reeling. The school board member engaged me. He agreed. He spoke with passion. He believes in inclusion, he cares about providing services, and he was willing to talk about this important concern instead of his middle school for a portion of the night.

At the end of the evening, I walked over to a mother who has a 10-year-old with autism. We clung to each other's stories like the only two English speakers who find each other in the whole of Asia after trying in vain to pick up either Mandarin or Cantonese. As we talked, the assistant to the school board member approached us cautiously. Young and beautiful and clearly career minded, she had put together the Powerpoint and served as an able sidekick to the school board member, but coming into the circle to chat she looked like a nervous deer. She stumbled through explaining that her sister recently died, leaving behind a nonverbal 8-year-old. Together, she and her mom needed to figure out what to do for this child to get him the services he needs. Business cards and iPhones and hugs circulated rapidly as we exchanged information before she left with the school board member.

The other mom and I walked to her car, then drove to my car, then said goodnight four times before I finally drove home. We talked about our dreams for our sons, our journeys with autism, how much we would love to start an inclusion model charter in the district, how we might involve the guy from the school board because he seemed to get it and want to help.

In the car, my husband called, wondering why on earth a parent association meeting would last past 9 on a weekend night. I wanted to tell him about the meeting. He asked what happened? What was it about? I tried to find the words to tell him. But what was it about? About a middle school. About inclusion. About community. About dreams. About possibilities. About autism. About parenting. About questions. About healthy food in the cafeteria. About government. About reform. About money, or lack of money. About local control. About children.

As secretary, I can tell you what HAPPENED at the meeting, but I guess what the meeting was about is determined by perspective --- the hat you wear, the cards in your hand, the agenda you care about.
But that makes sense. Because. we. all. have. special. needs.


Casdok said...

And we all need to be not just listened to but heard :)

Alysia said...

wow. what an affirming meeting. so rare these days. good for you for speaking up - look at the difference you've made.

kim mccafferty said...

AMAZING meeting. Is there an inclusion committee in your district, like the one DOAM I believe started in hers? That could be a step to continuing this conversation. Happy for you!

redheadmomma said...

I have tears in my eyes.



Tina Szymczak said...

I LOVE this post, I couldn't agree more that we all have special needs. What an amazing night and so glad you had a chance to speak up.

Elizabeth said...

Wow. I don't know how I missed this post! I'm so curious to hear more about it!