Heads: Rocket Science; Tails: Basketweaving

My son Eric is being kicked out of preschool. Kicked upstairs, really — next year he’ll be thrown into kindergarten instead, stepping into the flow of his next 20 years. Public education, special-needs style. Short bus stuff.

The Transition has been taking place for months, with teams of therapists and others with a flurry of initials and acronyms behind their names smiling wide disingenuous smiles (and who have never met my son until this one brief assessment meeting) and descending on Eric and his classroom to observe him performing important academic tasks like pointing to colors on a page containing a confusing array of seven other colors and buttoning a vest.

I received a report of these meetings and assessments, my son’s lifetime achievements spelled out in stark black and white: developmentally, he’s about two years old. Eric turned five last November.

Which makes the idea of him sitting in a kindergarten classroom sort of ludicrous. Two year olds don’t go to kindergarten. Two year olds stack blocks and sit contentedly in their own poo and dream up ways to get more snacks.

In my kindergarten, Mrs. Fuller reigned like a behemoth battleship, causing me to marvel at the poignant irony contained in her name (fat Mrs. Fuller was definitely fuller than most, at least in my limited five-year-old’s perspective, and my subtle wit caused me no end of amusement in an otherwise dreary kindergarten experience). The rule was, if you needed to use the bathroom you had to raise your hand, draw attention to yourself, and announce to the whole class your inability to “hold it” until after snack. I vowed this would never happen to me, this unnecessary public shaming, and so I began a long and somewhat checkered career of public toilet avoidance.

Eric, my son, has no such problems. He’s still in diapers.  He gets people’s attention by patting them on the arm or shoulder.  He can’t pronounce words of one syllable, let alone two.  He knows maybe 50 words.  Raising his hand and announcing his need to go to the bathroom, while certainly a worthwhile skill to have under one’s belt, seems out of Eric’s reach right now.  Which makes more complicated tasks like using scissors to cut a straight line and writing the letters of his name seem like rocket science.

Yesterday I attended what is known in short-bus circles as “the dreaded IEP meeting.” IEP = Individual Education Plan, a “fluid document” that spells out the special-needs child’s strengths and weaknesses (as determined by this disingenuously-smiling team of therapists who don’t actually know your child yet who are qualified to assess him based on the number of acronyms and initials after their names) and is a list of goals that can be met over the coming year with whatever support services the school district is willing to provide.

There’s a dance going on here. The school district is compelled, primarily from budgetary pressure, to do the least amount possible for the child. The goal is to get the child into the school building, have him able to sit more or less quietly and absorb whatever instruction he can, and not to need much else. The bar is set pretty low.  Everyone likes to see steady progress. It makes us all look good that way, by showing that, look! Eric learned to use steps this year! Go, Eric!

The other partner in the dance is the parent, whose fighting nature is immediately engaged when the phrase “IEP meeting” is uttered. After all, here’s this team of experts saying, “Your kid can’t run or jump? No problem. We only care that he can get himself into the building at this point, and sit quietly for the next 20 years. The kid’s not going to college.” I know Eric’s not going to college. I’m totally okay with that. Eric’s going to have a great life whatever he does, simply because he’s the person he is. But because this IEP team is holding the reins, I feel compelled to fight on Eric’s behalf. I need to negotiate, haggle a better price. It’ll make me feel better. Less powerless. More in control of my son’s future, about which I know I have no control anyway, but suddenly I really want to feel that I have control over what his next 40 years are going to look like. And those 40 years clearly start with this one moment. So, dammit, I’m going to fight. For … something. Anything.

This dance is why there are squads of lawyers who will gladly represent you and your child at your next IEP meeting.

Kindergarten’s short bus alternative, euphemistically named “Life Skills,” is what’s being offered by the acronym-ed team of therapists as Eric’s home away from home for the next 20 or so years.  In this class, students feign such activities as “going to the store” and “setting the table.”  While a class like this may be Eric’s speed now, who is to say that at some point he wouldn’t benefit from a more stringent academic approach? He may write his own name one day. He might read. You never know.

The problem is tracking.  Public schools are notorious for cramming a kid into a peg-hole and then refusing to let him out again.  Ever.  Once tagged as a candidate for a particular academic track, it’s almost impossible to veer away from that track and into a different one.  Tall buildings topple.  Lush rainforests become dry deserts.  Porcine mammals take to the air.

Imagining Eric’s entire future now is even worse than being forced to pick a major in college. The kid is five years old. What we choose now — whether or not we fight for more support for a kid who couldn’t care less because he’s going to have a good time regardless — sets the course for years to come.

I say we flip a coin. Let the universe decide. Eric will be fine either way.