I would like to share a whiny Facebook status with you...my status, before you ask...
"I seriously feel like everyone else's kids fit in fine in public school ( I know this is not true, but having kids that don't feels very lonely at times ) and I wonder what the heck am I doing wrong? Why do I fight against a system that clearly doesn't get them and that only wants to make them conform? It is a day-to-day struggle and I don't have any answers except to keep moving forward."
Venting has it's place and Facebook seems to be it.
I got what I was looking for from this status; many sweet comments, lots of commiserating, a couple of words of wisdom.
If I have learned anything in my forty-four years, it is that usually, when I feel the worst about things, I am about to turn a corner. Not always, but most of the time.
We have turned a corner, at least, I think we have.
I am a proponent of inclusion; that is, by my own definition, full participation in life for all people.
When I am talking about school, especially for my middle son, Charles, who has Down syndrome, inclusion means being at his home school, not the school five miles away that has the "services" he needs. No, thanks. My kid does not need "servicing", he needs educating alongside his peers.
I was reading some terse responses that I had received from emails to Charles' teachers, while trying to figure out how things were going. Terse doesn't work well in an email, especially when you have a super-sensitive mom on the other end reading it in annoyed teacher-voice. Words like "needs prompting" feel like tiny little paper cuts on your eyeballs. Everything said and mostly, left unsaid, makes me question my purpose. Every. Freaking. Time.
So, the howling self-doubt cyclone grabs me out of my seat and spins me towards the ceiling and sucks me into the self-pity vortex. After hyperventilating myself into a mini coma and falling asleep on the couch, I arrived at the next morning's meeting looking every bit the insane, inclusion terrorist that my kid's teachers think I am. My husband and I await the pronouncement...
And they say something good.
They say something nice.
They are starting to get why I do what I do.
They see MY KID and not the problems my kid imposes on them.
They are smiling.
They are talking about next year and what they are putting into place.
(on their own!!!)
They tell me (without telling me) that I was right.
That inclusive math class is working.
He is making friends in that gym class.
The students are embracing him, as I knew they would.
It's not all roses and fairy dust. As I signed in, I saw my boy down the hall. As he turned the corner, the girls standing there smirked and giggled, looking at his retreating back. He is the smallest kid in the hall. Maybe they are giggling at his cuteness? Maybe they are noticing his cool cap? It's doubtful. He doesn't see them and I am grateful.
I have heard the argument that inclusion does not work for everyone. I say they are wrong; but hear me out.
There are trade-offs. My kid is probably not learning as much about his subjects as he could in a smaller classroom. He is not getting as much educational support as he probably needs. He is mostly isolated, not physically, but socially from most everyone else. It is NOT perfect.
My husband and I have chosen VISIBILITY over academics for our middle son. We have decided that it is more important for him to be seen by his peers than to get A's and B's. We see it as a literal life and death struggle for Charles. What will his life be after school if the kid's in his home school have never experienced a person with Down syndrome? How will they treat him? Will they want to work side by side with him? Hire him? Or, will he always be "that guy with Down syndrome?" or worse, "that retard"?
I grew up in the 70's and 80's. The encounters I had with people who looked or talked or acted "different" were few and far between and NONE of them left me feeling compassionate. My reactions were usually fright and disgust. I am ashamed to say this, now. I feared these people because they were not my peers. They were "others" and "freaks". They did not belong in my every day life because they were not IN my every day life. I can't help but think that if I had had more exposure to the world of difference that my life could have been shaped in a more positive way earlier on; but that is not how it happened. It happened because 16 years ago I found out that my second child would be born with Down syndrome and a major heart defect. The news broke me apart at first, but quickly, I learned that it had broken me open. This was MY child. Nothing was going to change that. I want the best for him, the same as I want the best for my other two boys.
So, we fight for him to be a full participant in his own life. We fight to keep him at his home school with his brothers and where his neighbors can see him as just another kid. I don't think this is a pie in the sky fantasy. I have already seen changes in these short, sixteen years. My kid was the first kid with Down syndrome to be fully included at our home school for kindergarten. He is the first to be included at his high school. We pushed a little, got a little lucky, and maybe, just maybe, the timing was right.
Inclusion IS for everyone. We have learned that separate but equal is anything but. That doesn't mean it works in every case; not yet. There are far, far too many school districts that are stuck in the 70's. I have many, fierce mama bear friends who have decided that the struggle for inclusion for their kid was causing more harm than good. The timing is not right for them and they are doing their best with what they have. You do what you've got to do. In conversation with these mom's, they kind of wait for me to be judgmental of their decision to NOT pursue inclusion and that makes me feel awful; because God knows that they have been judged and judged and judged again.
I don't think I am anything special and I tell them that. I tell them about luck and timing and willingness. Our schools were willing (with some prodding) to include my son. If I thought for a second that the struggle was causing him undue stress, or harm, I would pull him out. I like to say that "I would never martyr my kid on the altar of inclusion". I'm not sure if I made that one up, or read it somewhere, but I have been saying it for awhile and it perfectly sums up my feelings. Unlike Rosa Parks, my kid is not choosing to take a stand; I am choosing for him. I have to be careful to weigh his feelings and his best interests and include him in the process along the way. As he has gotten older, he is more involved and anytime I ask him about which school he feels more comfortable in, his home school wins every time.
Things are not perfect. That's life. We often take two steps back for every one forward; but we are learning and growing and helping to pave the way for all the children that come after mine to have an easier journey.
I look forward to a future in which everyone knows and has grown up with individuals like my Charles and it is no big deal because of that. It's not about not seeing difference, it's about seeing it and embracing it, because it is a part of life.