Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Going public

At the beginning of this month, Oliver became our first-ever public schooler. Having just graduated from (mandatory) Birth To Three program participation, we faced a decision: either get speech services through the school district, or get them through the developmental preschool. After much prayer, we decided that the preschool was worth a try.

Oli has enjoyed the two hour, twice weekly program. He is excited when he sees his little clear plastic, school-issue backpack come off of its hook on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He flaps his hands as we pull into the school parking lot, shouting, "Bus!" and "Sk-ooooo!" alternately. He leaps from my arms as I carry him to his classroom, barely pausing to shuck his coat before he clambers onto the special chair marked with his name, ready to start whatever sensory activity that his teacher has lined up for the session.

I am mixed with this utter love and acceptance of school. Even as I wholeheartedly embrace the blessing of two hours per week of intensive speech therapy, I am torn.

The preschool was supposed to feel like a necessary evil. Instead, it feels like more of a gift.

What's wrong with this picture?

The truth is, I went to the initial IEP meeting with a closed mind. We had been very pleased with Oli's private speech therapist prior to being told that, as a foster child, he was required to be enrolled in the state-run Birth to Three program. These services were provided at a lower cost to DSHS. Sadly, in our case, that also meant that they were of a lower quality. I was fairly certain that this would be an across-the-board trend in our area, and didn't hold out much hope for the opposite to be true when he turned three and, still not legally adopted, needed to begin receiving services directly through our school district.

I went to the meeting wondering if there was any way possible to get Oli back into private therapy. At worst, I thought, I can just lug him into town for the school's speech therapy once a week, check that box, and find a program to do with him at home until he could be put on our insurance. What I heard at the meeting changed my mind. Instead of anti-homeschooling, overbearing professionals who were ready to step in and parent my boy, I found understanding, open-minded folks who admitted that they had never worked with homeschoolers before, but were more than willing to give it a try. What's more, the idea of a parent actually wanting to be an active part of the process thrilled them. I left the meeting with a flicker of hope in my heart.

Mr. Blandings and I prayed. We looked at our social, amiable son. We researched other options. We found peace; We would enroll him in the preschool. If it fell flat, we would find another way. But if not, well ... maybe there was something God had for Oliver ... some blessing we couldn't yet see.

The teacher is fabulous. Her long experience with developmentally-delayed preschoolers is made even better, in my opinion by her own status as an adoptive mom. She embraces a Montessori-type approach to preschool. Her classroom is uncluttered, slightly dim, and cozy. She likes Oli, and can elicit some of his genuine, deep smiles--the ones he saves for his favoritest people.

Oliver has two classmates. One is a tall, quiet little girl named Nikki who does not speak and is on the autism spectrum. The other is Nathaniel, also autistic, who can raise the roof with his laughter and wild jaunts around the room. Three three year-olds, a teacher and an assistant, plus a speech therapist and occupational therapist. Water tables. Small, manageable furniture. Push trikes and playdough. For two and a half hours.

I guess I can see why he likes it.

It's been an odd experience, adjusting to even this little bit of institutionalized schooling in our lives. The clock, on school days, always feels like it's ticking. Our activities wrap around those hours--1-3:20 p.m.--in a different way than they adjust for those random intrusions in ones life. And then, there's always the strangeness of not having Oliver home, not having to keep a steady eye trained on him lest he fumble his way into trouble. Or not having to make space for him in the grocery cart.

"My arms feel empty," Jo said the other day, as we sat on the floor, reading our astronomy text. I looked over and realized that, while my lap was happily full of a squirming, rocking Manolin, she was missing Oliver, her constant companion.

That afternoon, when we went to collect him, she threw the van door open and snatched him from my arms.

"My Oli!" she laughed, burying her head in his cheek. "How was your day? What did you do? Is that paint on your chin?"

Jo, Atticus, and Logan have been decidedly against the entire premise of "sending Oli away for school." They avert their eyes as I free him of his carseat straps and stand him on the curb, adjusting his heavy coat and helping him into his backpack. They make no distinction in their minds between a public school classroom where children play with playdough and sort weighted pegs all afternoon and ones where children labor over fill-in-the-blank worksheets and math quizzes.

Mr. Blandings and I have tried to explain it, but our words seem to fall flat. To our children--true black and white thinkers--there is no reasoning that public school could be the answer for a particular season, or service, or child, even. They don't want to go to public school. Therefore, they don't want their brother to go to public school. They respect our choice, but they don't understand it. While it pains me to know that they are wondering if I have utterly lost my mind, I am o.k. with their doubts.

The truth is, I have them, too.

I wonder if these hours in a classroom will have a worthwhile effect for Oli. I wonder if he will pick up behaviors that he doesn't currently struggle with. I wonder if I will forever be the squeaky-wheel parent, the only one to say "No, thanks" to the bus transportation, the only one to ask for a written list of skills being covered so that I can supplement them at home. I wonder if Oliver will learn anything. I wonder if I am wondering too much.

Before I send any of my children off into the world without me--be it to a night of AWANA or to a friend's to play--I always say this blessing over them:

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

As I swing Oli into my arms just outside of the elementary school, I whisper these words in his ear and prepare my heart for handing him over not truly to the kindly Miss Teacher who handknit him a sweet hat to have as a "welcome to School" gift on his first day. No ... what I must remember is that I am handing him over to GOD. In following a prayerfully considered path, I am trusting that GOD is in control. He has led us here, and He will not allow harm to come to Oliver. And until we meet again, I trust that God will hold Oliver in the palm of His hand--his education, his future, and his heart.


Unknown said...

Beautiful, MG.

Luke Holzmann said...

Another wonderful insight! Thanks, Mary Grace!


Lori said...

God just knows, doesn't He? He just knows. Thanks so much for sharing.

Autismland Penny said...

We too had to make the decision early on whether or not to send Logan to a speech therapy preschool. As difficult as it was, God blessed us tremendously and grew us at the same time. God is good all the time!

Rosita said...

I really appreciate your thoughtful insight on your struggle.

Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

LOL I just sent Woodjie to preschool as well! If it helps any, this is probably just a season. At least for us, we know the elementary here is ABUSIVE, but the preschool is wonderful.

We are enjoying the preschool while we can and praying that either things change or we move before he would be elementary age. Woodjie says about three words and is almost certainly autistic. I love him as he is, but understand I would LIKE a lot of help guiding him through childhood. :]

Steve Sensenig said...

This was timely. I'm catching up on MONTHS of unread blogs, yours being one of them, and needed to read this.

We just took in two more daughters (ages 3 and 5), hoping they would be cleared for adoption soon. But alas, right before we got them, the next appeal was filed and in our state that means almost certain year or longer delays in clearance for adoption.

Here's why your post was so timely: The 5-year-old is in a preschool program (she just turned 5 last month) and the 3-year-old is in daycare. We got permission to keep the 3-year-old home with us, but got turned down (just two days ago) on our request to bring the 5-year-old home from pre-K. Even though pre-K is not mandatory in our state, we were told that it would "raise red flags" if they allowed her to be withdrawn. Never mind her need to bond/attach with us. Gotta keep the system happy.

So, your perspective on it all is helpful. Thank you for posting this.

steve :)