A few weeks ago Freyja and I visited a friend who'd had surgery on his jaw. In order to recover, he had to have his jaw wired shut. Talking was understandably challenging; he spoke through gritted teeth with a wet hiss and a mumble. She looked at him quizzically. "You talk weird!" she said to him. "You talk weird too!" I reminded her. She looked at me in shock. "No I don't, Mama!"
She doesn't know, I realized. Or maybe she doesn't care. As she says over and over, "I'm just Freyja!" In many ways, she's just a kid like your kid and your kid and your kid, only her brain doesn't talk to her body the way your kids' brains do. And she belongs in this classroom and in this school and in this world just like everyone else and she has never been taught anything different.
Her new school is great. It's a public school. Her sister goes there too; they are in the same school for the first time in their lives. The district has wheelchair accessible yellow school buses so they are now riding together. She has a lovely new 1:1 who meets her at our house in the morning and rides the bus too. She works with Freyja all day long, providing individualized instruction when she needs it. Freyja receives many services that she needs: PT, OT, speech, adaptive PE and literacy sessions. And her school has been supportive since we began the transition process last spring. They are doing everything they can to ensure that she is safe and that she has all the tools she needs to succeed. They've watched her walk, measured how well she can reach the sink, the water fountain, the toilet. They've arranged for adaptive seating and adaptive step stools. She's been evaluated for adaptive technology and will be learning to keyboard as the other kiddos learn to write. She is learning to navigate the school with the elevator and ramps, since stairs take her a very long time. And now I have another reason why it's so awesome.
Last Wednesday was her first day. I was a little distracted all day long because I was worried about how she would do. So when my phone rang while I was at a work lunch with five people from out of town, and it was the school's number, I ran out of the restaurant in a panic. "Everything's fine," the voice said. It was the school psychologist. "She's doing great so far." She was calling because some kids already had questions, she said, and she wanted some advice for how to handle it.
I told her that last winter we'd visited her preschool classroom. We talked about her disability openly with the kiddos. We answered their questions, reassuring them that the van she arrived in was not an ambulance, that she was not sick, that she likes the same things as most kids do. She gave all the kids a turn in her walker and they squealed with delight, zooming around the room with it, hopping on one leg to try to get a sense of what it feels like to rely on your arms to walk. It was a good visit, I told her, and we could do something like that again if it's helpful. "Hmmm," she said, thinking. "I don't know if having you come in is the right thing." She paused. "What do you think?"
Well, why don't you ask Freyja? I responded, and she said that was a great idea. An hour later she called back and told me that Freyja was really excited to have us come in with her. So that's what we did.
It made me so happy that they asked Freyja her opinion. It made me so happy that this came up on the first day of school and not halfway through the year. It made me so happy that the school staff wanted to address the other kids' curiosity and questions openly and with respect. This is the kind of thing that encourages inclusivity. It normalizes difference.
When we arrived, the kids were seated on the floor. There were lots of grownups in the room, including the brand new principal. We sat right down on the floor. I read a book I love called Susan Laughs. This book talks about all the things that Susan does and likes and feels. She sings and swims and gets angry and sad and laughs and dresses up and does all the things kids do. It's not until the last page that you see that she uses a wheelchair. I asked if any of the kids like to do ballet and go swimming and play dress up. Hands flew up and many kids started telling us about their swim lessons, their summer vacations, their dance classes, their Batman costume. And then we got to say, well guess what? Freyja loves to dance and to swim and to play dress up too! She's just like you!
We showed the class her braces and her walker and asked them if they knew what they were for. Freyja explained that they both help her walk because her balance isn't good and her legs aren't that strong. A girl with a cast on her arm talked about how long she has to wear it to keep her wrist straight, and I told them that Freyja will likely wear braces on her legs for life to keep her ankles straight. I explained that she isn't sick. Nothing she has is contagious. That they can expect her to apologize if she bonks into them with her walker. They took turns trying her walker and a few asked to try the wheelchair too. Some of the grownups asked Freyja pointed questions about how she gets around the school, what she needs, and how the other kiddos could help her. She answered well and I was proud.
On our way out, the principal caught up with me. "You used to be a teacher, right?" he asked. I admitted that yes, I was. He smiled and said, "it was obvious."
But it wasn't. It doesn't matter that I was a teacher -- my teaching experience is with kids way older than these. I know nothing about early childhood education. What I do know is that we never pretend that Freyja is typical. It shocks me that some families are "in the closet" about their kids' disabilities. That doesn't help anyone! Why pretend that your kid is something she really isn't? Why pretend that everything is a certain kind of normal when being open and honest and visible makes being atypical normal too? When I hear kids whispering about her walker or her braces or her limp, we always stop and talk to them respectfully. We invite questions. We let kids take a spin with the walker or in the wheelchair. I don't reprimand them for talking about my kid or pretend I don't hear them. Kids are curious and Freyja loves to tell them about herself. I mean, her walker is really cool -- it's pink and shiny and looks like a weird sort of scooter. Her braces are interesting. She herself is fascinating. So why not let them ask? Freyja knows how to answer these questions by herself now. And she has no idea that she's radically different from anyone else because when it comes down to it, she's really not.
Can you tell which one is the atypical kid's?