Feb 8, 2015: Bittersweet

Well, it’s official: The smallest Small is officially three years old now! And what a bittersweet birthday it was. On one hand, it’s a birthday, and birthdays are always fun and exciting! (Well, unless you’re me this year—mine was a bust. But my “observed” birthday two days later was fun, so it’s all good.) But this particular birthday for Sam was also kind of heartbreaking, because it meant we had to leave his Early Intervention program and step into the big, wide world of preschool.

Honestly, I had no concerns about his preschool and him starting. I had a really good feeling about it, so that part wasn’t hard for me. But what was hard was saying goodbye to his Early Intervention teachers and class. As predicted, I cried…a lot. But I wasn’t alone. There wasn’t a dry eye among the adults in the room. Not one.

I had been joking with them for weeks about being a weepy mess, but it was really no joke. It broke my heart to have to say goodbye…and here’s why. As parents, we want our kids to be accepted. And when you have a kid with special needs, that desire is even more…raw, I guess would be the right word. Exposed. It’s like, with any child we hope for him or her to be accepted, but we also kind of assume it—I mean, kids are usually inherently likable, and we assume that when we put them in something like preschool, their teachers will like them. And that’s usually the case…but not always.

Remember back to Theo starting preschool? Some of you do, some undoubtedly don’t. Our first experience was a good one—the teachers genuinely liked Theo and accepted him despite the fact that he didn’t quite fit into the program. They liked him and were willing to work with him to ensure that he was a happy part of the class. And then we moved…and he ended up in a school that was not willing to work with him. Before too long, my precious kid was unwanted…and kicked out. And three years later, I’m still a little raw over that—when teachers call or whatnot about Theo, I still half expect it to be another “um, this isn’t working…” call. And it never has been since, but it’s like a bruise that hasn’t really healed, you know? If you poke it, you can still feel it.

So then along comes Sam, who by virtue of his chromosome count is “different.” And that little bruise left over from Theo being rejected opened up into a nice little gaping wound that I keep expecting to be jabbed. Because I know damn well that he won’t be universally accepted…and that kills a little part of my heart every time it happens. It hasn’t happened often yet, but it has happened, and it’s painful.

So it’s with hesitation that I put him in any new situation, wondering whether it will be a good experience or one that pokes that raw wound. And his Early Intervention experience, as it turns out, not only didn’t poke the wound, it helped to heal it up a bit. Because they didn’t just accept Sam, they loved him. I mean really, truly loved him. I have no doubt of it. It was written all over his teachers’ faces, and the other parents loved him as well.

On Sam’s last day, in fact, one of the other parents stopped me to tell me a quick story. She has a daughter with DS who is three months younger than Sam and who is in the other classroom at the EI center (not Sam’s). Naomi is currently nonverbal but very expressive even without words—cutest little thing ever! The other day, Naomi apparently trotted by Sam’s classroom on her way out of the building with her mom, and Sam yelled “HI!!” to her and she waved back. Such sweet little friends!

Anyway, here I am with Sam in this place where he’s learned a ton and where I know he’s valued and cherished and loved…and I hated to leave it. If it wasn’t a state regulation that required kids to leave on their third birthday, you can bet I never would’ve taken him out of there.

And as if I wasn’t already feeling bad enough about it, Sam’s teacher got tears in her eyes every time she saw me for the last few days…which made me well up, too.

So on Sam’s third birthday, Chris and I walked in at 12:30…and Sam ran up to us wearing a graduation gown. Cutest thing EVER…but a punch in the gut, too! And we watched his graduation ceremony, and I cried. Usually it’s just the teachers, the kids, and the graduate’s parents, but for Sam’s graduation a bunch of extra people came: his beloved infant development specialist/OT came, along with the parent coordinator, a former employee who has retired but still volunteers occasionally, and another volunteer who knows Sam well.

His teacher led his final circle time, where he got to sit in the birthday/graduation throne wearing his little gown (and cap, though he refused to wear that!), and they sang his favorite songs: Slippery Fish, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Skidamarink. (Is that how you spell it? That song that goes “Skidamarink-e-dinky-dink, Skidamarink-e-do—I…love…you!” And out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam’s infant development specialist, who had worked with him from about one year old on, break down in tears and leave the room. Sam’s teacher presented him with a diploma and two special favorite books that she had bought him, and she wished him all the success in the world and told him how great he was going to do. And then Sam went from person to person giving big hugs, without any prompting from us—it was as if he knew this was a time to say goodbye and show a little extra love. Most people ended up getting two or three extra hugs for him…and honestly, there wasn’t a dry eye there. It killed me…in a wonderful way, but it still killed me.

Here’s a video of them singing “Twinkle Twinkle”—Sam was tired, but you can still see him doing the motions. And you can see by his exuberant clapping at the end that he quite enjoyed it. 🙂

And then it was done, and they cleared out Sam’s cubby and took all his artwork down to give to me, and it was as if he’d never been there. Which has to be done, of course, but it was just so hard. I had to stop back by the classroom for a second after signing him out, and I saw his teacher freely crying—she had managed to keep most of her tears in while we were there, but they were rolling down her cheeks when I went back in. She had told me before how hard it is for them—they work with the kids from 18 months or older until three years old…and then the kids abruptly have to leave, right when most of them are on the cusp of really putting together the things they’ve been taught. I can only imagine. Some states allow kids to be in Early Intervention up until age 5—I wish ours was one of them!

Anyway, I’m crying again writing this, so I’m going to move on to another topic now. Let’s see…dinner. We took Sam to a burger place for his birthday dinner, since he loves fries. Naturally, Theo was delighted, too, as burgers and fries for dinner is a rare treat! And then we came home and opened presents and had cake. I botched the cake, but it really wasn’t a big deal because we had leftover cupcakes from Sam’s graduation party anyway. (In case you’re wondering, I put in the wrong amount of baking soda. That does NOT make for a tasty cake!) Here’s a little video of us singing to the birthday boy:

Theo wasn’t too pleased about having to do his homework before playing with all of Sam’s new birthday loot, but he managed. And Sam got to have the first half hour of playtime with his toys all to himself while Theo muddled through his homework, so that was kind of nice for him. 😉 Poor Theo—it was the tedious, busy-work homework assignment that comes every Wednesday, so he wasn’t too pleased. (Nor was Chris. Chris is not a fan of the Wednesday night homework, and he’s usually the one to supervise it, because I usually have to teach on Wednesday nights!)

As a last word on Sam’s birthday, let me just direct you to a post I wrote specifically for his birthday—click here if you haven’t seen it yet. I felt like turning three deserved a special post!

Sam started his new preschool the very next day. And as I knew he would, he did terrific! I think the preschool staff were surprised by how capable he is—they had met him when we spent an hour there a few weeks ago, but seeing him for one hour with me around is different from seeing him for a full morning as an actual class member. I knew he’d do well…and he did! The director told me that she and the teachers are totally impressed by how quickly he picks up on the class routines, how independently he navigates the playground (I think they expected his gross-motor delays to be more pronounced than they are), and how well he feeds himself with utensils. The little turkey ate almost three helpings of spaghetti and mixed vegetables the first day, and the second day he ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Do I even need to tell you that he won’t so much as touch any of those items for us at home?? Little stinker!

Anyway, evidently he uses utensils better than many of the other kids there, and for that I give 100% credit to his Early Intervention teachers. We can’t really work much on utensils at home because he refuses to eat at home! He will sometimes eat yogurt, and we have him use a spoon for that, but he has yet to be willing to eat any fork foods at home, so that credit goes completely to his EI teachers. And honestly, his big brother still struggles with utensils, so I’m kind of amused that apparently Sam is some kind of utensils prodigy. 😉

Sam is also quite pleased with his new school’s circle time, and they told me that he has a very specific front-and-center spot he likes to sit in. If there’s another child already sitting there, he will carefully squeeze in so that he, too, can be front and center. I guess they play music throughout the day at his new school, but Sam was used to music signifying circle time. So when he heard them turn it on at another time during the day, he immediately trotted over to the carpet and sat down at his circle time spot!

Sam’s teacher is bilingual, and she teaches the kids some Spanish along with English, and apparently Sam is already repeating the Spanish words. And she said she accidentally asked a question in Spanish, without thinking, and Sam answered it correctly…in English. She asked me if someone speaks Spanish to him at home, and I said no…but his beloved EI teacher is from Spain, and it’s entirely possible she used some Spanish in front of him. Whatever the reason, he seems to be taking to the Spanish quite well! This doesn’t bode well for me and Chris, though, as we speak Spanish when we don’t want Theo to understand what we’re saying…and it sounds as if little brother may soon be translating it for him! 😉

Anyway, Sam has only been in school for two days, but so far I’m very, very pleased. I caught sight of him on the second day when he didn’t know I was there, and he was smiling hugely and clapping and yelling “Yay!!” like he does when he’s happy, so I have a good feeling about him being comfortable there. And the staff is rapidly adapting their expectations of his abilities and treating him like any other three-year-old, which makes me very happy. I didn’t want him in some super-high-pressure academic preschool, but I also didn’t want him coddled just because he has a “disability.” I wanted him treated like all of the other kids in terms of basic expectations, and that seems to be exactly what’s happening—they’re expecting him to follow the same routines as all of his classmates, which is exactly what I was hoping for!

This has been a very Sam-heavy post so far, simply because of his birthday, so let me switch to the other little man of the house! Theo’s week was largely uneventful except for two Cub Scout events. One was a den meeting, where he learned about healthy eating and is cultivating a tomato sprout (which hopefully we won’t kill—we have very bad luck with tomatoes!). The other was the Pinewood Derby, which has been a Cub Scout event for…I don’t know, forever? Probably not forever, but Chris participated when he was a Cub Scout, thirty years ago, so it’s been around for a while! The Scouts build a Derby car out of wood, paint it, and then race it in the Pinewood Derby. So Chris and Theo have been working on his car for a few weeks, and the Derby was Saturday. Much to my delight, I actually got to see some of it! Sam is at an age where he’s kind of a marauding terror at some events, so I often have to flee. But he was entranced by the cars (I should’ve known!) and was happy to watch them race without touching them, so we got to see Theo race in four heats.

As it turns out, Theo’s car was not very aerodynamic, so he placed in the bottom half, but he had a lot of fun! My only gripe about it is that it’s clear that the dads are the ones building/decorating the cars, and I’d love to see the kids do more of it. Chris tells me this is a sort of unspoken thing—I pointed out an award for “Wow, I Built It Myself!” on the awards table and remarked, “Aren’t they supposed to build it themselves?” and Chris chuckled and said, “It’s always been this way. It’s an unspoken thing that the dads do more than the kids.” Personally, I find that a bit of a bummer—I’d love to see the kids do more of it themselves. But still, the event was fun, and Theo looks ridiculously cute in his Cub Scout uniform. 🙂

And I have to say, by the way, that Odyssey of the Mind is the complete opposite—the kids have to do everything on their own. And while I love the idea in theory, my time as a coach has showed me that it’s complete chaos and anarchy when you leave everything to a group of six-year-olds. Our Odyssey meetings are on Friday afternoons, and can I just freely admit here and now that when the children leave and I put my boys to bed, I have a nice big glass of wine on Friday nights?! 😉

After the Pinewood Derby, we headed to a birthday party for one of Theo’s classmates. And Theo had a good time, but it was clear that doing the Derby in the morning and the party in the afternoon was a little much. He was way, way off in “autism land” by the end of the party—totally detached look in his eyes, and I could talk right to him and he appeared not to even register that I was speaking. Sigh…that always troubles me to see. He had fun at both things, and I don’t want to keep him from things that he enjoys, but clearly two activities in one day just overloaded him to the point that he shut down and went inside of himself. He was back to normal by Sunday morning, but it’s always a little hard for me to see him like that….

Which brings me to my next comment: Tomorrow (Monday) is our long-awaited autism reassessment. Which, as I mentioned in another post, is somewhat pointless, since whatever the “label” is really doesn’t change anything. But I do hope it will give us a better idea of how to help him when he’s struggling. If it wasn’t completely callous to bet on your child’s diagnosis, I can almost guarantee that Chris would place his money on ADHD and I would put mine on Asperger’s. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s supposedly either, both, or none of the above.

Sunday was a sloppy, rainy day, so we decided an indoor activity would be good, but we didn’t particularly want to sit home all day. So we headed to a children’s science museum in Lodi that we’ve been to once before and liked. It’s not very crowded and it’s not overwhelming—pretty much my two criteria for such places. Oddly enough, we last went one year ago today—though our return today wasn’t for that reason! Just another rainy-day activity… Anyway, last year Sam wasn’t walking when we went, so he spent much time pushing a stool around as a walker. This year, of course, he’s not just walking, he’s running. And old enough to actually enjoy some of the exhibits, even though they’re mostly for slightly older kids. His favorite was the earthquake exhibit—which was Theo’s favorite last year! I kept building block towers, and he would then push the buttons to make an earthquake knock down my building!

Sam is definitely exerting his toddler independence, so several times he purposely threw something and then gave me a defiant look. I would tell him to pick it up, and he’d pick it up, look at me…and promptly throw it again. So then I’d walk him over and hand-over-hand to have him pick it up and put it back. Naturally, this ticked him off, and he’d go all limp and wail…because, you know, that’s what feisty toddlers do. I’m used to this from Theo having gone through the same phase, so no biggie…but then I discovered something. If I sing the standard cleanup song that seems to be universally used at preschools, he will immediately stop the tantrum, pick up the item, and put it away nicely. Wow, really? If that’s all it takes to get him to clean up, I will most happily sing the darn cleanup song! Geez, he’s such a piece of cake compared to Theo, who was far too feisty to fall for the trick of singing the cleanup song. I tried it with him when he was little, and he just gave me a withering glance, as if to say, “Yeah, right, Mom. As if that is going to make me do what you want.” 🙂

Sam definitely wore himself out at the museum, and he was so overtired that he was downright silly on the way home. He was cracking me up in his exuberance, so I tried to record it. What cracks me up about this one is how seriously he answers my comment that he needs sleep. 🙂

I have to close this post by giving a shout out to my dad, who would’ve turned 74 today. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 20 years since he passed away. I can’t even imagine what different turns life would’ve taken if he was still here, but I do often wonder what he and I would’ve been like if he was still here. I was only 22 when he died, and I’m such a different person now than I was then. More independent…more stubborn…more vocal…more firm in what I feel strongly about. Maybe we would’ve still been butting heads, or maybe he would’ve learned to appreciate my stubbornness and I would’ve learned to appreciate his. I do think he would’ve been highly amused that I have a kid who likes to challenge me every step of the way. I wasn’t as bold as Theo about challenging authority, but as my mom says, I did have a rather “up yours” attitude when I didn’t agree with something. I was too smart to mouth off to my parents, but I had a habit of announcing rather coolly “I think I’ll just go to my room” and walking away when my dad was trying to lecture me about something…which was apparently quite infuriating to him. 🙂 So I suspect he’d love seeing me get my comeuppance with my feisty elder.

And I know we’d be united in our distaste for the “new math,” which is driving me to the brink of insanity. Ask Chris, who got a text from me on Tuesday saying, “Please get home soon. First-grade math is killing me.” 🙂


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