middle school


{image is a photo of Brooke dancing before school yesterday, as you do.}

Oh, guys, I have so much to say about the middle school visit. It will definitely warrant a post (or a book), but in the meantime, here’s my one big takeaway ..

It’s going to be okay.


– Diary’s Facebook status, yesterday

It all started at the door to the school. Well, that’s not really true, I suppose. It started nearly five years ago, when Luau and I started meeting with other parents of same-aged kids to find those who might have similar strengths and needs. Or, at the very least, it began two years ago when Luau joined a committee of those parents to work with the administration to revive a dormant program that we knew could ensure access for our kids.

Then again, it really started two years before that, when another group of parents with children slightly older than ours gathered together, desperate to change the disastrous cycle of inadequate support, failure and outplacement that had sadly seemed to have become our district’s de facto modus operandi for middle school.

Or, if we really want to be honest, it started a whole lot of years ago when that same group of parents’ kids were entering elementary school and they searched for one another and began to harness the power of numbers and collaborative advocacy.

I know I’m going pretty far back here, but I think we’d all do well to heed Carl Sagan’s reminder that one can only bake a pie from scratch if one first invents the Universe. We never forget that our advocacy is built on that of those who came before us and ground the wheat into flour so that we could far, far more easily bake this particular pie.

But back to the door.

As I walked into the middle school where we would be observing Brooke’s potential placement for next year, I found the principal standing in the hallway. I recognized him from his speech at orientation last month, but I’d never met him. He said nothing, but his body language made it clear that I was not going any further into his building until I told him who I was and why I was there. I kinda loved him immediately.

I stammered a bit as I said, “Um, hi, I’m Jess Wilson. My daughter, Brooke is likely coming here next year to the [autism] program and I’m meeting [the assistant principal in charge of special ed] to observe this morning.”

His posture changed dramatically. He smiled broadly and opened his arms in order to swing me into a warm, jovial hug. “You’re coming here?” he shouted. “You’re going to love it!”

I wondered momentarily if, given my height, or lack of it, he thought that *I* was actually the one coming to the school, but then realized that he got it and that my question really made no sense at all and that fifth graders don’t tend to be holding their car keys.

Moving on.

Before I knew what was happening, he was sweeping me down the hall and toward the main office. As we made our way, a gentleman came walking toward us in the other direction. “One sec,” he said, “This is going to be a little awkward.”

I stood for a moment as he chatted with the gentleman, then came back and we were in motion again. “Sorry about that,” he said. “He’s a bus driver who comes in sometimes to use the rest room. I was showing him where the faculty men’s room is as he shouldn’t be in the students’  bathroom.”

I laughed. “I’m a mom,” I said. “If you’re going to promise me awkward, you’re going to have to deliver a lot more than a conversation about which bathroom to use. That ain’t awkward, my friend.”

We laughed as he passed me on to the assistant principal, who greeted me with a warm smile and a genuine welcome. Less than two minutes in, I was starting to believe that everything that we’ve worked so hard to create on paper really could come to life here.

Luau, who had beaten me to the office, walked over and the three of us headed down to the classroom most similar to the one where Brooke would spend the majority of her time. It is a substantially separate program, specifically tailored to students on the autism spectrum. The members of next year’s proposed cohort all have somewhat similar academic profiles and learning styles and a great deal of overlap in both strength and need. Though the setup will be slightly different next year, the current group is made up of five kids with two teachers, as well as various service providers who rotate in and out of the room throughout the day.

The kids leave the classroom at the bell when classes change, even if they are coming back to the same room when it rings again. Because that’s what their peers are doing. Because movement is important. Because being in the flow of the community is vital. Because being able to see friends and be seen by friends, even in those few moments, matters. It’s not what some kids do. It’s not what other kids do. It’s what the kids in the school do. That was one of the many small things that sold me on the program (once the bigger things were in place.)

Despite the small class size and intensive support, Brooke will have a dedicated aide available to her throughout the transition, the need for whom we will reevaluate in February. My guess is that she will no longer need that level of support by then, but we shall see. I’m overwhelmingly grateful that it’s an option.

With the aide’s support, she will participate in chorus and art and PE with the general population. Should she choose to join an after school club or take a part in the musical (which she’s already made VERY clear that she intends to do), an aide will go with her.

She will have access not just to academics, but to the life of the school.

She will be in a classroom of which she will be not just be a sometime resident, but a consistent part. One from whose sensory onslaught she won’t have to flee to learn. One that is actually functioning on HER social and academic comfort level. One with built-in structure, predictability and a visual format. One in which she can start projects with her peers and see them through to completion, rather than struggle with the constant interruption of yet another pullout and its attendant need to transition both out and back into the flow of the room.

One that is finally, blissfully, designed for HER rather than to which she must, yet again, struggle to adapt.

Knowing all of that on paper was great, but there was something that I needed to see before I would sign on the dotted line. As we watched the teacher help the students navigate their reading, I looked for it — the one thing that would make or break the observation, whose absence would kill the placement and send me off in another direction without regret. The one thing that mattered to me more than anything else —

Respect for the kids.

And I saw it. I saw it in the silences as the teacher waited for her students to find the words they were looking for — the silences unfilled with prompts or repetition, just silence. I saw it in her gentle guidance toward discovery and revelation. I saw it in encouragement and then praise, not for naught, but for jobs that were truly well done. I saw it in the smile that greeted ideas, regardless of the format in which they were delivered or whether or not they fulfilled the expectation of the moment. I saw it when one boy got up and walked in a circle because he needed to and not a word was uttered as he sat back down when he was ready.

As they discussed the book they were reading, one student read aloud a passage in which the protagonist talked about his “powers’ – a reference to his fantasies about rescuing the girl on whom he had a crush. Another student raised his hand and said, “I have powers too. I make up stories in my head where I’m a superhero and I save the town.”

The teacher smiled at him. “What a great text-to-self reference!” she said. “Thank you.” Her pride in the achievement of his answer was undeniable.

I had to turn my head so that no one would see my tears. I put my hand on Luau’s arm and let me forehead rest for a moment on his shoulder.

“Yes,” I thought. “This is the place. “

Brooke will go with her friend, Becky, who will also be in the class, to visit the program this morning. If, from everything that I can discern, she feels the same way as we did, we will make it official.

For years I feared the end of elementary school. The end of what we knew and the transition into the unknown. I never doubted my girl, but I sure as hell questioned my and Luau’s ability to find or create a respectful, nurturing, challenging environment in which she could thrive.

It’s far too early to call it done, but not a moment too soon to find the oft-repeated lesson in the process.

The future will come, as it always does. Both we and our kids will meet it as it arrives, from exactly where we are as it does. We will gather, we will strategize, we will advocate and we will plan. We will do what we need to do.

And then we will live.

We will not — must not — cannot — wait in suspended animation for deadlines to strike and dreaded transitions to come and go.

That’s not the life I want for myself and, far more importantly, it’s not the life I want for my child.

The future will come when it does.

And wouldn’t you know it? It really looks like it’s going to be okay.





21 thoughts on “middle school

  1. Oh, Jess, this does sound perfect for Brooke. I’m so thrilled! I cant wait to hear what Brooke has to say. .I can’t imagine that she won’t love it

    Love you,

  2. I am so happy for you that you found this place for her- for all of you. It is such a feeling of peace to find a school that can feel like a home. Indescribable peace. Just perfect. Enjoy.

  3. This. All of this.
    So much of this is important – the advocacy to be proactive, the respect, the meeting our kids where they are and working there and not pushing into a program or a classroom that doesn’t fit. I’m saving this for when we are at this point.
    Two major things stand out here though. One, the line “and then we will live.” This is what I need to remember. When we are in a heightened state of planning and advocacy and fixing and reevaluating, it’s hard not to think ahead to the next step and just let it go. Let what we’ve set up work instead of worrying that it won’t.
    Secondly, that Brooke AND her friend, are going to look at the program TOGETHER. As friends. That’s huge in many many ways.
    Thank you for writing this all up for all of us to learn from your hard work.

  4. i’m so glad i refreshed fb before heading off to sleep, because now i’m going to be heading off in a swirl of happy twirling. i am SO THRILLED for you all, and especially for brooke!

  5. The principal of the middle school is wonderful. He really wants community for all, and every child is important to him. We are so lucky to have him as a principal.

  6. My Facebook friend has an autistic child and I saw your feed once in awhile if she commented or liked your posts. I would read your posts and even though my children are not in “the spectrum”, I could relate. And I love the way you write, think, raise your children, share your thoughts.
    So thank you for the insight into the life of autistic child, into the life of a mom, and family. I read every post 🙂

  7. Can you please share the type of school she is going to? It doesn’t sound like a public middle school the way you are describing it.


  8. “She will have access not to just academics but to the life of the school” is such an important statement. It describes why I moved my daughter from a special ed class that didn’t provide that access to a SE school where everyone is included in everything.

  9. I’m working on creating a new classroom within a public middle school for next year. I *love* the idea of students transitioning into the hallway when the bell rings even if they are coming back into the same classroom for the next period. I hadn’t thought of that before, and yet it’s so perfect (and perfectly natural.)
    Thanks for sharing. I hope we can incorporate it into our routine next year too.

  10. Thank you for sharing this! The thought of my son going off to kindergarten scares me, and I cannot even imagine the day when I will have to send him off to middle school. Thank you for reminding us all that there are wonderful people and programs out there ready to help our children reach their potential in a safe, nurturing, and respectful environment. Our kids deserve the very best, and it sounds as if you’ve found it! Can’t wait to hear what the future holds for your family.

  11. Is there any way the school would put their program together as something other schools could model after? Obviously it takes a special group of people to make it work, but if there was some way they could share what they’re doing so those who want to but aren’t sure how to get it started could have a starting point?

    I mean for THEM to do the work 🙂 and you can just let us know about it 🙂

  12. Hi Jess,
    so glad that you’re all excited about this! Our daughter is getting ready to transition from her preschool ASD class into the kindergarten ASD class at her “new” school in the fall! So far school has been an amazing and positive experience for her. I’m of course an absolute wreck but I know she’ll continue to do great. The substantially separate class has really worked for her and we’re looking forward to her opportunities for inclusion. I’m so glad you and your family were able to find a similar program for Brooke. Here’s to our girls and the new adventures that await them!

  13. Reblogged this on Violet-Colored Glasses and commented:
    “I saw it in the silences as the teacher waited for her students to find the words they were looking for — the silences unfilled with prompts or repetition, just silence. I saw it in her gentle guidance toward discovery and revelation. I saw it in encouragement and then praise, not for naught, but for jobs that were truly well done. I saw it in the smile that greeted ideas, regardless of the format in which they were delivered or whether or not they fulfilled the expectation of the moment. I saw it when one boy got up and walked in a circle because he needed to and not a word was uttered as he sat back down when he was ready.”

  14. Pingback: middle school « Violet-Colored Glasses

  15. I simply cannot believe she’ll be starting middle school! Transitions of this magnitude are so very hard, but getting through them gives us the confidence to get through the next – and to see how far we’ve come. Wishing you much love and success with this transition and the others down the road (but first, this one)!

  16. First, I have to thank you for the honest, thoughtful perspective you share every day. I’m a school based SLP that recently found your blog and I have been pouring through your archives. A little bit of perspective goes a long way and I can tell you that the experiences that you share help to shape the way that I think about the therapy that I provide. I had a question that is pretty specific and a little bit unrelated to your post, but thought I’d put it out there. There are so many important aspects to having an effective classroom, but respect of course is a huge factor. I work with a small, self contained classroom with a phenomenal teacher, aides and support staff. Somewhere along the line, communication and a positive working relationship between the classroom teacher and one student’s family fell apart. This strain has a pretty clear effect on the student, and I can’t help but feel that it’s holding her back. I know that it’s difficult to generalize your experiences to other situations, but from the parent perspective, can you offer any suggestions that might help to repair a damaged relationship?

    • Ashley, We’ve been there. Never with a teacher, but with an administrator, more specifically Brooke’s school-level, in-the-trenches case manager. She lied to us (and others) and trust was completely broken. It got to the point where I actually, for the fist time in my life (and thank God only time) threatened legal action. But as difficult and as toxic as things became, we knew that we still had to work together and that our kid’s school experience depended on us finding a way forward. So we did. It wasn’t easy. We had to swallow our pride and put ego aside, which, when the Mama bear claws come out ain’t easy. She had to start being more transparent and to get over her fear of a superior who had very different motives (and her fear of us once things went south). One day, she called me and asked for my consent to do something that was different from what the IEP prescribed. I said, “If you were asking me this last year, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. But I’m saying no because we’ve lost trust. Because I can’t say yes to something that requires that I trust you not to abuse it anymore. And that kills me. Because that’s not the relationship that I want us to have. But I will tell you this .. I sincerely believe that we can rebuild it and I want nothing more than to be in a position where if you come to me to ask this question NEXT year, I’ll gladly say yes.” And we did. Slowly and sometimes painfully, we rebuilt our relationship. Bottom line, it’s a marriage. And not one that we would always choose to be in. But one that we’re in whether we like it or not, and one that, for our kids, is always worth the work. So I guess my advice is to have them sit down together and work it out. The only way to do that is to put it all on the table and TALK to each other about how they got to where they are and what their expectations of each other are going forward. And to remind them each why it matters so much. 🙂 I hope that helps. And thank you for caring so much. It’s people like you who make all the difference. xo

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