During this first Autism Awareness month of the Betsy Devos error – I have never felt more compelled to return to writing. At the ripe old age of nineteen I gave birth to a beautiful, perfect and EASY baby boy. As a young mom I was not overly aware of milestones and developmental targets. When I went to pick my son up from my babysitting aunt’s house one day she casually mentioned that she thought maybe he was deaf. He had passed his newborn hearing test and again passed the emergency hearing test appointment I made as a result of the comment. He was not deaf. But, this was the first twinge of the hard journey to follow. Because Autism is a spectrum disorder with such diverse symptoms – diagnosis is just as diverse. It took years, literally years, to arrive at an “Autism – non-typical presentation” diagnosis. By the time we received the diagnosis it no longer mattered and therefore, very few people aside from public school employees even knew of the diagnosis.
My son is my favorite person in the entire world. He is brilliant – Albert Einstein and Bill Gates brilliant. More importantly though he is a kind, compassionate and caring young adult that pending a life crisis (which can strike anyone at any time) he will without a doubt grow up to change the world. Where we are today took a village of amazing people to achieve – most of these villagers are public school employees. I’m not going to pretend this journey has been easy. I’m not going to say every teacher we have ever had has been over the top awesome. That is not reality or possible. Yes – we’ve had young teachers with too little classroom experience and no real life experience (yet) with students with complex special needs to ever be able to understand my son. Yes – we’ve had a teacher that could just be described as mean and that is putting it nicely. Yes – there has been tears and really rough times where the future did not look so bright for my son. But that’s life and it’s totally okay. As a professional I am social worker. I spend my days working for people with moderate to severe Autism and other dual diagnoses of developmental disabilities and mental health. I cannot be there for my son 24/7 – nor would I want to be. There is no doubt in my mind our public school and it’s staff has helped shape my son into who he is today.
I’ve had teachers call and email at all times of the day and evening with ideas of what could help my son. I’ve had teachers who have developed relationships with him at various points in his school career to help him get through whatever the struggle at the time was. Teachers who have taught him for multiple grades in a row to ensure there were less changes and more learning. Teachers who have thought outside of the box in every way to take a 2nd grader who could not read the word cat and transform him into a 4th grader that is above the state average reading level.
A few weeks into 4th grade my son asked for a 3-pack of Lysol wipes because he started cleaning the classroom on lunch because it was dirty. Immediately I thought that he was using cleaning as a way of avoiding unstructured social interactions at recess with peers and that he was being obsessive over cleaning. Also, allowing him to do this took flexibility on the teacher’s part. This was a new (to him) teacher and I wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Turns out the teacher was totally okay with it and was more concerned that I was buying supplies and didn’t want me to think that she asked him to clean. After a few weeks other students were asking to stay in and clean, too.
At one point there was little business cards made (in total girl handwriting) for my son and his now cleaning crew to give out to other teachers. A few more months passed and my son comes from school and says that the “most popular” girl wants him to sit with her at lunch, and she is checking out books that he likes, and likes the way he dresses. I cringed quietly inside as I never want him to be “popular” and to give up what makes him unique. But, I do want him to feel completely accepted. Initially we were both concerned it was some sort of a set up or trick but it appears to be genuine. Currently, he alternates between where he sits now – sometimes with his old friends and sometimes with his new friends. He has become an integrated part of his school just for being him.
This example is completely representative of what the public school teachers and therapists have created in allowing a child to be himself and grow to shine. This is not written in the curriculum or tested on PARCC or advertised as a social skills training program on a fancy private school website. This is real life and is public school employees serving their students and communities. Piece by piece these experiences have built who my son is.
Public schools are seemingly always under attack. The public wants low taxes and less overall costs. Families often want more options as to where they can send their kids for education. Teachers face numerous cuts – cuts in staff, cuts in supplies, cuts in morale. Then, along comes Betsy Devos, spreading her upper class idealism that private schools are preferred and public schools should further be drained to support these private institutions. We cannot allow Betsy Devos to step away from public schools and shift priority to private schools. The millions of children like my child will be lost in the process. My son is safe at school. An entire village of people genuinely understand and like him. Betsy Devos and American citizens NEED to know how much value public school employees bring to the life of our youth and our future.