Lina goes to kindergarten: First half-day

I sent my baby to kindergarten and survived!

Yes, it involved me ugly crying in the car before running my feelings out for four miles at the greenway. And yes, she fell asleep in our bed after she got home. But we made it through, and she seemed to enjoy her day. She was too tired to talk much about it, but at pickup, she was smiling and answered the standard, “Did you have a good day?” with an enthusiastic “Yes!” So, we’ll call that a win and do it all again tomorrow. Then the real fun begins with the first full day on Monday.

There is a lot I could say about the ways this is familiar and ways it’s different than it was with my firstborn. I could talk about my own worries and how hard I am trying to keep them in check so they don’t color Lina’s experience. I could talk about how these milestones often bring a tinge of recurring grief over the ways life is harder for my girl. I could talk about the guilt that threatens to rear its head, whispering that I should have worked harder with her, that there is more I could have done to give her a head start. I could talk about how proud I am of how ready she really is. But we’re all pretty tired around here, so I’m going to let all that lie. I will post cute pictures and finish out this day knowing Lina is remarkably capable and in very good hands, human and – most importantly – divine.

Happy kindergarten, precious girl! We can’t wait to see all you will accomplish this year.

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Sassypants didn’t want to smile. Also, the headband didn’t make it past photos.

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Best laid plans, or, Lina’s last day of EC

 

Today did not go as planned.

It was Lina’s last day of early childhood preschool. She has spent three years at Pearre Creek Elementary, where the teachers, therapists and staff have loved her and she has loved them. She has thrived. She has asked for school on weekends and holidays. This place has been good to her. It has been good for her.

I was emotional before the day even began. (You’re shocked, I know.) I cried as I thanked the amazing bus driver and aide and watched that preschool bus pull away for the last time.

I got my post-gym shower and headed to Target to pick up a few things. (How many disasters have begun that way?) It wasn’t until I looked down at my phone, well into my meandering, and saw the calendar reminder for Lina’s end-of-year school party, that I remembered I was supposed to be at her school an hour early. I was supposed to bring baby carrots. I was supposed to hear the kids perform the songs they’ve been practicing for weeks, the ones Lina has requested we sing along with on YouTube every day this week. It was five minutes until the 30-minute party started. I was 25 minutes away.

I cried all the way there. The landscaping truck in front of me belched black fumes as we lurched through the worst 3 p.m. traffic I’ve ever seen between Target and Pearre CreekIMG_2262. I’d like to tell you I got it together before walking into the classroom, but nope. I cried again once I got there, as kids were already heading out the door with their parents.

But Lina – that girl, that light of my life – was overjoyed to see me. She was relishing her party snacks like they were the only food she’d have that day. I worked valiantly – really, it was downright heroic – to regain control of myself, and I just managed to avoid ugly crying again as we said our many good-byes.

As I look back tonight at the photos, I can (mostly) let go of my frustration and disappointment. Because, y’all, look at these faces. The pictures are grainy and blurry as I scrambled to catch the moments, but look at the way these women, these super heroes of Pearre Creek EC, have loved our girl.

What more can I add to that? Thank you, Pearre Creek. We will not forget all you have done for Lina.

Down syndrome’s biggest gift

It’s completely outrageous, but somehow, the school year is over. Today was Lina’s last day, and a half day tomorrow is Corin’s wrap-up. My oldest is only finishing first grade, and already I can tell you, every year seems to go faster than the one before. I am not prepared for what this means for the future.

As Lina’s end-of-year party wrapped up and we headed home, I found myself again reflecting on the remarkable people she has brought into our lives. I’d like you to meet a few of them.

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That’s Ms. Meri. This was Lina’s second year in her early childhood preschool class. Ms. Meri has a graduate degree in early childhood special education from Vanderbilt, and she is certified in behavioral analysis. I’m not sure I can really convey the remarkable work she does and the tremendous difference she has made for Lina and our family. Her blend of warmth and no-nonsense high expectations was exactly what Lina needed as she began her school experience. Ms. Meri’s professionalism and expertise have been clearly demonstrated at every turn over the past two years.

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That’s Ms. Courtney. She was Lina’s occupational therapist this year. As the year began, Lina was resistant to fine motor activities like cutting with scissors or working on pre-writing skills. This morning, Courtney told me that writing her name on the chalk board is now one of Lina’s most preferred activities. That is no accident. So much patience and persistence has gone into finding the right strategies to motivate our girl to practice the fine motor skills so essential to her future academic success. Ms. Courtney also happens to volunteer as a leader for the GiGi’s Playhouse EPIC program for young adults, so she is doing big things in our Down syndrome community.

I didn’t get pictures with several other key members of Lina’s educational team: Arianna and Elizabeth, the fantastic full-time aids who did so much of the work necessary for the kids to learn and navigate the school day; Jodie, Lina’s beloved speech therapist, who often got a full-body, wrap-around legs hug at drop-off in the mornings; and Amy, the lovely and patient physical therapist, who made sure the physical environment in the classroom was suited to Lina’s needs and worked with her on the gross motor skills needed to safely navigate the school environment.

No one could have prepared me for how important these people have been to us. They work together as a team, helping to lay the foundation for Lina’s future success and thereby lifting so much of the weight that settled on my shoulders with her diagnosis. But beyond what they do for Lina, they are beautiful people, and my life is richer for knowing them.

What I am really trying to say is that besides the blessings of her individual presence in our family, Lina has brought us the gift of a network of truly remarkable people. In fact, that network extends well beyond her school. The early intervention therapists and staff who were our introduction to special education in Lina’s infant years, GiGi’s Playhouse volunteers and families, the lovely people we’ve met through the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, random strangers who have shared their personal connections to Down syndrome… I regularly find myself counting as blessings people I have met in our foray along this unexpected path.

There are also good-byes that come with the package. Next year is Lina’s last in preschool, and it will bring changes. She will switch to the afternoon schedule, and after two years in Ms. Meri’s classroom, she will be required to change teachers. It’s always a little sad for a kid to say good-bye to a beloved teacher, but it’s especially poignant after two years of working with Ms. Meri and developing a solid trust in her ability to provide exactly what Lina needs in the classroom. We will miss her greatly.

There have been good-byes before, including to Lina’s entire team of therapists when early intervention ended at age three. Because these relationships are by nature more involved than in the average educational setting, the good-byes are hard. That will undoubtedly continue to be true. But it will also continue to be true that our lives are so much better for the role these remarkable people have played in Lina’s life.

It turns out, the biggest gift of Down syndrome is something we all hope for: meaningful connections with the very best kind of people.

I don’t want to let this post go without noting that our educational experience is unfortunately not the norm. We’re still early in our experience, and I am sure we will face challenges in the future. But in many school systems across the nation, families struggle to get even the most basic educational and support services for their children with special needs. Under funded and under resourced schools often see those needs as a burden and try to get away with as little as possible, requiring parents to gird themselves for constant battle and strain family budgets and schedules to fill the gaps with outside resources. Even school systems with good intentions often fall short due to a severe lack of resources and training and the push and pull of constantly changing regulations and competing priorities. I am incredibly grateful that our experience thus far has been exceptional, but I also hurt for families whose educational experience has added to rather than subtracted from their burden. Better is clearly possible, and it shouldn’t take a wealthy county to make that happen. We must do right by our public schools, where most children with special needs have to receive their education and therapy services. 

And he’s off…

Today was the day. Corin got up to his alarm and followed his schedule, just like we’ve been practicing, only this time, it was for real.

Monday, he went in for his kindergarten evaluation, and last night at 5:30, he got a recorded call from Miss Davis, letting us know she would be his new teacher.

He listened to the message about 10 times and has radiated excitement ever since. For those of you who know what this summer has been like around here, you’ll know this was good news. Corin has been very apprehensive about the approaching school year. I was pretty sure he’d be fine once school actually started, but his anxiety had me a little worried about how he would navigate the change.

It’s so like him that the summer was high drama, but the actual start of kindergarten was smooth as butter. He dressed himself and ate a little less breakfast than usual while repeating, “I’m ready to go to school. I can’t wait!” He let me take pictures without protest. When we arrived at his classroom, he walked in with almost no hesitation, struck up a conversation with his new teacher (whom he had apparently already chatted up during evaluation), went with her to find his seat, and settled right down to the first project of the day: drawing a picture of himself on his first day of kindergarten. I got a couple of big good-bye hugs, and then he went right back to his work.

What were you worried about, mom? Easy-peasy. I was so proud and relieved, I didn’t shed a single tear. (I might have shed a few as I made his lunch last night, but that’s between me and the peanut butter and banana sandwich.)

He came home from his half-day looking a little tired but reporting a good day. He’s home tomorrow, another half day on Friday, and then Monday begins the full schedule – and his first time riding the bus.

And so my firstborn begins his honest-to-goodness school career. So far, so good.

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