Tuesday, September 03, 2002

September 3-6, 2002


Today is the last sweet day of summer vacation for my kiddos, who start school tomorrow morning promptly at 8:45 a.m. My daughter has been calling friends to find out who's in her assigned class, my son's been completing the immense packet of worksheets his teacher asked him to bring back in the fall for a prize, and I've been quietly obsessing over whether the proper preparations will have been put into place for my two to have an appropriate academic experience. After two months of almost daily phone calls to the special education office, I finally have something of a satisfactory answer as to whether my daughter's instructional aide will really be qualified to instruct, and whether my son's teacher will be experienced enough to handle him. But I've been misled before, and I won't relax until I've seen, met, and consulted with said personnel. A pursuit which also begins tomorrow.

When my daughter groans about how hard fifth grade is going to be and my son sighs about losing the freedom of summer, I tell them that they should think good thoughts, and expect their experience to be wonderful. I suppose, then, that I should take my own advice. But being a good special-ed advocate can be emotionally wearing; so rarely is the outcome actually anything approaching wonderful, and it's hard to get those hopes back up another time. Whenever I try to micromanage my kids' educational set-up, I regret it; but whenever I take a hands-off approach, I regret it, too. Finding the middle ground between those two is a perilous thing, fraught with offended teachers and appeasing administrators and poor choices hastily made. I'll do it again -- I have to do it, because it's pretty sure that nobody else will -- but I'm looking forward to it about as much as my daughter is fifth-grade swimming.

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Today, after my kids get home from the first day of school, begins the paper chase. Or rather, the notebook chase, the ruler chase, the pencil chase, the folder chase. For today's the day we finally get the list of the school supplies their teachers expect. And, like seemingly every other family in town, we descend upon Staples.

No dancing down the aisles like that man in the ad for me; I'm elbowing down the aisles, pushing aside small children to get to that last glue stick. Why the school doesn't give us these lists at the end of the previous school year -- or at least with the class assignments that come a couple of weeks before the start of the new one -- I'll never know. It seems downright sadistic. I suppose I could get an early start by picking up some basic supplies, but even the basics are often subject to the specifics of teacher preference in ways I could never guess. Not any spiral notebook, but one with a specific number of pages. Not any pen, but ones in specific colors. Not any ruler, but one made of a specific substance. If I tried to shop ahead of time, not only would I still have to shop on the first day of school, I'd have to make exchanges.

So I'm waiting, credit card at the ready. Why is it that all the homework that comes home on the first day is really for the parents?

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Well. It's never easy, is it?

I spent the summer calling the special education department on a near-daily basis, trying to wrest from them three pieces of information: Would my daughter get a proper instructional aide this time; which class would my son be in; and would my son have the same one-on-one aide he has had for three years now, the aide who knows him and handles him so well and whom he adores. For two months, I was told to call back, call back, call back on the first two -- but on the last one, I was assured that they'd never switch. That was always the thing I could count on.

So you can guess what happened.

It happened fast, and out of my sight. When I called the school on Tuesday to make sure everything was in place, his usual aide was there and waiting for him. When I dropped him at school Wednesday morning, ditto. But some time between 8:45 a.m. and about 2 p.m., when the child study team leader (God bless her) called to warn me that a change had been made, our long-known and trusted aide was spirited away and replaced by somebody else.

I called the special ed department again -- again! -- to complain, but it turned out the change had been made by the school principal, who had been left in the lurch when a classroom aide quit and had poached my son's aide to fill the hole. And I can't blame him. She's wonderful. She'd make a fine classroom aide, and I hope they give her the job for good. She knows the kids in the classroom she's filling in for, which makes her a natural choice. The principal has to put the good of many kids above the good of one, and I understand that. But none of it means I don't want her back, bad.

It's always like this, one way or the other, with special education. Every time I feel like I have my ducks in a row, somebody knocks them over. Sometimes I wonder why I even try. And sometimes I wonder whether somebody's staying up late trying to think of ways to screw things up.

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I'm ending our first half-week of school here with an extreme case of "Mommy remorse," wondering -- anguishing really -- over whether I did the right thing in allowing my son to be skipped up a level to a self-contained class with kids he doesn't know as well and a new teacher who doesn't know him. There were good reasons to go along with the idea -- last year's teacher was pushing it, the kids in his former group were rowdy and rambunctious, he could use a little extra academic stimulation, the teacher he would have had if he hadn't skipped seemed a little stern to me -- and good reasons not to -- those rowdy and rambunctious kids were his buddies, his emotional development is so behind that it makes more sense to hold him back than push him forward, he'd be mainstreamed for art, music and gym with older kids who might give him a hard time -- but in the end I let the special ed department decide, and they did what the teacher suggested.

So now, of course, not only are all of his buddies in the class behind, but so is his longtime aide, having been moved to the position of the classroom aide for that group (see yesterday's dispatch). There's nobody in his new class who knows him at all now. The teacher sent home a rules sheet yesterday and included among the consequences removal of recess time, which I thought everybody knew by now is a really bad choice for hyperactive kids. The rules include things like "listen carefully" and "be polite and respectful" which are infinitely open to teacher interpretation and infinitely difficult for a child with FAE to get a handle on. So right off the bat, I'm worried. And I see his friends from last year running around together and wonder why I ever thought it was an acceptable idea to pull him out of that and put him in a more challenging situation.

I could probably get him put back with his old group. But then, of course, I'd kill myself worrying that *that* decision was wrong. I'll meet with his new teacher next week and see what she has to say for herself. Maybe she can convince me that she understands how to handle my guy -- not just handle him but nurture him, bring him along academically and behaviorally in a way that will make me end the year bursting with "Mommy pride." I'll believe it when I hear it.

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