On Friday, night, Callum attended the first birthday party he’s been invited to by a classmate. All the other kids (mostly older) attending the party were fully verbal and had established friendships. No, he didn’t fit in exactly. But the birthday boy’s family were welcoming. And every single one of those boys turned and exclaimed, “Hey, Callum!” And gave him fist bumps. He got to “play” party table games with daddy and the other kids and won a bunch of candy. He had pizza. He stood during the birthday song. He was thanked enthusiastically for his gift. He ate a giant wedge of strawberry cake. And got some more fist bumps and a genuine “Goodnight, Callum! We’re glad you came.” It was a success.
We can start a passionate debate here about inclusive education and how awful/wonderful it is that Callum now attends an exclusively special ed school. But I’ll tell you right now why parents agree to it. Because of moments like this. Moments when other children are welcoming because there’s zero pressure not to be. Moments when a 13-year-old boy can proudly open gifts of cologne, gift cards, and trendy clothes alongside equally desired gifts of toy cars and dinosaurs – with no embarrassment. Moments when no one is the odd man out because everyone in attendance understands the state of Otherness. Moments when everyone can relax, smile, and just be.
I know how an ideal, inclusive world is supposed to be. But I also know it doesn’t exist yet. And unless you have spent time in an exclusively special needs school, then you cannot understand what the students and families get from them. They get the same thing that everyone who shares an identity or common experience gets from spending time in the company of others like themselves.
Yes, I want inclusive education. But I would be lying if I said we didn’t experience something at that party that felt good and right.
And I feel all sorts of conflicted about that.