Chatting it up, hoping she is not distracted by the venue, I stumble over my own trepidation. I have not set foot in this building for what feels like a full lifetime, but is only a few years. Back then, Addie and I would make our way to the door each morning, greeting the few other students that came on the bus, ready for a short few hours of “school." Addie attended here where she received early childhood special education services from age 3 to about 5. A small, self-contained classroom with more adults in it than children - it was our only option back then.
We return to the building today for a Girl Scout field trip. The self-contained classroom and all its services are long gone from this place, inclusive preschool options throughout the community having rendered the old program housed here obsolete. Today we bring our Girl Scout troop of 34 girls to one of the larger rooms in this empty school for a dance/exercise class called Jazzercise. I had a half-valid reason for not joining the carpool, for driving by ourselves. I think the other half had to do with not knowing how either of us would react walking into this building, not knowing what else we might be revisiting.
Addie seemed to slow her step as we crunched the snow underfoot on the path to the front door. She surely recognized it, remembered the bunny they used to have in the office just inside the door. As we crossed the threshold, I remembered her picking up tiny loose tiles from the entrance floor and trying to sneak them into her mouth. Pica. It was horrible for her back then – paper, twigs, ceramic, cotton, book bindings, erasers, gravel, sand…anything. She’d eat it all. My gut tightened as I recalled layers the vigilance and worry just owing to pica that complicated everything back then. Today, Addie stomped her boots onto these tiny tiles and left them lie, even the loose ones. Pica is no longer the challenge it once was.
Just inside the door the bare open area where we waited for teachers had scarcely changed. There was a table and a few chairs that weren’t there before, but the smell of damp carpet, paste, and the bathroom up the hall remained the same. Addie paused, definitely recalling this place from some time in her life. She chose not to sign or use her communication device to share with me any observations or questions. She told me in other ways that she recognized the surroundings.
Following the signs to our destination, we walked down the hall opposite of the one where her classroom was. When I turned and looked back down that old hallway, the brunt of those days came full swing. I had to stop and remind myself that the truths of those days are not today’s truths.
When this building was part of our every day, I was consumed with an obsessive pivot between worry and feverish research. I danced between the emotional reaction and intellectual reaction mentioned in an earlier post here on Hopeful Parents. I would spend the time she was at school sifting through books and websites, making phone calls, setting up appointments, and then seize upon the teachers at the end of her half day to ask countless questions. My manic activity surrounded two constant queries at that time:
1. Will she ever talk?
2. Am I doing enough to help her?
The weight of that consuming preoccupation landed squarely as I looked down that hallway. Back when Addie’s name was on one of those lockers, I really thought all would be lost if my child could not speak. I could not fathom a relationship of any kind with her if we could not exchange information, thoughts, and feelings in verbal/audible ways. What about a relationship with her sister and dad, the world beyond? Worse still, I believed that I had some control over whether she would be verbal or not, as though if I just got her the right tools, the right professionals, the right exposure, she would one day be able to articulate with her mouth what is in her mind. And if I missed a tool, an exposure or a language development methodology, well then. It would be my fault that my child’s thoughts stayed locked up inside. It would be my fault that she had no reciprocal relationships to speak of. Her lonely isolation would be on me.
How damagingly cocky and wrong I was to believe I had this kind of power, to believe that being non-verbal is synonymous with being non-communicative, to think that isolation was the only alternative for my non-speaking girl. Today as we arrive at the room that will hold the energized and action-packed Daisy Scout Jazzercise class, my face warms, hot tears roil in my throat. I shake imperceptibly in tamped down rage at those full years of erroneous thinking and acting. I begin to calculate what that mistaken approach cost my darling girl back then.
But the absorption of those past years is knocked loose as someone calls out “C’mon Addie, come by us.” The girls take Addie’s hands in theirs and call back to ask me to bring her communication device along. Someone has already helped Addie take off her boots and coat and she sits among her friends, waiting for the Jazzercise instructor to begin. Addie signs "sit down" to another friend who takes the suggestion, sitting nearby.
After a moment, Addie notices a mirror at the back of the room and scurries to it. She sits in front of it signing things I cannot see. I take her communication device over to her. She navigates her pages and tells her reflection “I am a Daisy Girl Scout.” A friend comes over and sits in front of the speaker of the communication device so I cannot hear what Addie says to her next. But it’s something that makes her friend laugh and ask follow up questions.
Moments later the class has begun, the music is loud and there is constant giggling with intermittent screams of delight. The girls hold hands in a circle, rowdy and swift as they change directions walking. Addie’s balance is not the issue it usually is. Rather, her friends on either side know her well and know how fast to go so she can keep up and join in. She stumbles once and the instructor rushes to help her up – over-help her, really - the anxious approach of someone assuming Addie's cognitive and communicative differences also imply fragility. But Addie’s friends stand between her and the instructor, allowing Addie to get herself up and get back into her place on her own.
Because it’s her place. She got it herself and she will hold on to it herself. Her place among friends.