My son is three-and-a-half years old, and he attends a developmental delay preschool. It’s an amazing program, available for children who qualify as having significant delay in at least two areas (for Sam, it’s speech and fine motor, though they are in the process of adding gross motor to this list as well). They get up four days a week, get on a school bus, and go to school like the big kids. There are kids with all different kinds of challenges in the class, and Sam loves each and every one of them–he even has a best friend, and the bus driver tells me there’s a girl whose hand he holds every day climbing off the bus. But though he now has nearly a dozen friends to babble about, I know that his first loves in class were his teachers.
Now, for rhetoric’s sake, I’m going to lump them all together as teachers: the actual teacher, the paraeducator, the occupational therapist and the speech language pathologist. Because when you get down to it, they all teach. At a recent parent-teacher conference, the OT showed me a photo she’d snapped of Sam coloring that robot. It might look like scribbles to you, but my boy has managed to put dots into circles and generally color within the lines, identifying each separate shape and using separate colors. And he smiled while he worked–not the cheesy, you’re-pointing-a-camera-at-me smile, but a real, Look-what-I-can-do! sort of smile.
I can’t get him to do that kind of work for me. When I present art projects, he gets upset at the stricture. Or he’ll do a little but then veer off task and there’s nothing I can do to redirect him. This is apparently not uncommon. As Mom, I’m familiar. He’s comfortable being rude to me. He likes me to fill some roles and not others. He likes to try to boss me around. But at school, these are new and interesting women (not being sexist–his teachers are all female, though he had a male SLP through his birth-to-three intervention services whom he adored), who have that je ne sais quoi of someone who’s dedicated a life to teaching, and a rapport with the little ones, and a whole lot of new and exciting games to play. He gets attention and encouragement in a setting apart from me, where he feels independent and exhilarated, and he soaks it up. And, having met with them, at least three out of four of these women truly care about my child. They share his achievements. They teach him how to fist bump and call people, “Darling.” They make him so happy and comfortable at school that the only real recommendation they have for modifying his behavior is that I remind him not everyone wants hugs all the time, and that hugs have to be gentle because he’s a lot bigger and stronger than he thinks he is.
Every day, when he gets off the bus (I’m also thankful for bus drivers, by the way! They are such sweet people and my son especially loves his morning driver, who has dubbed him “Smilin’ Sam”), he just beams at me. He holds my hand as he walks home and he tells me, in his broken sort of speech, that he had fun at school, and which friends he played with, who might have been absent, what games he played and what songs he sang. He tells me the colors of his friends’ backpacks and if they wore something interesting that day, and he likes me to spell their names on the chalkboard or, though I’ve never seen most of them, make figures of them in Play Doh. He has named some of his Hot Wheels after them: most notably a green race car for his best friend, and a purple car with flames down the sides for the para, Teresa.
The older Sam gets, the more we’re learning about his behavior and the challenges he might face. It can be difficult to cope with, to say the least, but I feel so incredibly lucky that he has these other adults in his life who can greet him each morning with fresh eyes and guide him in ways of which I am not capable. Thank you, teachers, for teaching him to look in people’s eyes and say, “Hi.” Thank you for playing games and singing songs. Thank you for your gentle discipline. Thank you for helping my little boy grow.