Two years ago, my husband and I took our daughter school supply shopping for the first time. Armed with list in hand, we searched for the requisite items, allowing her to pick out the colors and designs. We were nervous about her first day. I was emotional, wavering between excitement and pride and fear of putting my precious little girl into someone else’s hands. We talked it up to her and made a big deal out it, allowing her to choose a special first day outfit and hair clips. Then we walked her in to her classroom, helped her find her cubby and seat, kissed her goodbye, and left. I teared up as I left, like many mothers – but knew in my heart all would be well. And at the end of her day, we delighted in hearing from her about each and every new experience.
Last night, we made preparations again for her little brother’s first day of school. We went to the store to buy school supplies. Only, this time, we picked them out ourselves. My son, mostly nonverbal and autistic, doesn’t have an opinion about his lunchbox. He doesn’t know his colors yet, nor does he express a preference. He doesn’t even understand that he is going to school today. This experience of The First Day of School is altogether different for us. And at the end of his first day, he will not be able to tell us what he thought or how he felt.
In a couple of hours, we will-supplies in hand- walk him into a very big building. In it will be hundreds of children who can follow directions, feed themselves with a spoon, are potty trained, and can – if frightened or in pain – express their needs. My son cannot. Yet I will be placing his tiny, just shy of three-year-old hand into someone else’s – someone who does not yet know and love him. Someone who will not be able to understand the few words he has and the peculiar ways he attempts to communicate. Someone who will not know how to soothe him when he inevitably gets lost in confusion and frustration. I cannot begin to convey the bone deep terror I am feeling right now. He is so little and helpless. And it is such a very big bad world out there.
I met you last week at his IEP. I tried to use every instinct I had as a teacher to get a feel for you. My instincts tell me I made the right choice. You weren’t assigned to him by chance. Teachers know all about homework, and I did mine. Yes, I shamelessly queried every connection I have made in my years in the school system to find just the right classroom for him. You are rumored to be the best. I can tell you that some mighty fine people whom I like and respect think very well of you.
Having done that, I now have to step back and let you do your job. I have to trust in your experience and love for special little ones like mine. Let me assure you that, though I feel confident in my choice of you as a teacher, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. For, somewhere in your classroom – is a cubby with the name of the little boy who encompasses my entire world.
And though I am trying, there really are no words.
As a teacher, I know what you need from me. I have been where you are. And I want you to know I plan to support you. I will take into consideration that you are a person – not a saint. I know all too well how bone tired you can be at the end of the day. How hard child neglect and apathy can be to your mind and heart. How critical the Powers That Be in Education really are. I know how all of your planning time is stolen for stupid meetings and unhelpful consultants. I know. I do.
So, here is my pledge to you. I am not going to make your life a living hell over the little things. You are allowed to be sick, sometimes have to come up with things on the fly, have your head turned during a minor bump on the head, and even forget a note home or phone call. You aren’t superhuman. I pledge to not expect perfection from you.
In return for this, I would like something from you. I would like you to remember that this little boy is mine. I would like you to remember- when he is being difficult – that he cannot speak for himself, cannot share his fears, desire for mommy and daddy, and confusion over the new expectations placed upon him. I would like you to remember how fragile and defenseless he is while learning how to navigate this world. I would like for you to grow to love him for the sweet, loving little boy who cuddles with me and holds my hand each night. I know that, having chosen to do what you do, you already know these things and have already made that committment. But, please -on the most difficult days that all teachers have – remember you are holding my world in your hands.
Thank you for your sacrifice. For, though we both know the rewards of teaching are many, I know the time, dedication, and expense you put into it –for little pay and a great deal of hassle. May you be blessed with patience, love, determination, optimism, realism, and the stamina that I know is required to do what you do well. If you need anything at all, please pick up the phone and call. For I know for certain that, in this sacred trust, I am calling on you already.
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