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#52

“Like what you see?” Ms. Abrahms asks from the doorway of her classroom.

I don’t know how long she’s been standing there, but I know I have a goofy grin on my face that I know she could see even in profile. I jump a little at her the sound of her voice and answer enthusiastically.

“Yes! Yes, I do.”

Ms. Abrahms has proven to be not just an outstanding teacher, but an amazing person.   I heard through the rumor mill, she actually asked to be his teacher when the principal told the staff he was coming aboard.  She later told me she has a friend who’s son is autistic.  And she really wanted to learn about autism.  Sometimes “fate” doesn’t explain when things like that happen.  I know there is a higher hand involved, simply guiding us to the right people at the right time.

“Good, good…”  She returns my smile and walks to her desk.  She doesn’t seem bothered that I am here unattended. I took advantage of an open door and let myself in to snoop before our team meeting today.

“I hope you don’t mind, I came in early…I love seeing his work.” I say sheepishly at being caught, but also beaming with pride.   She waves her hand in dismissal.

“Help yourself; this room is always open to you.” She begins gathering papers on her desk and I continue around the room.

I only give her a nod as I have my arms wrapped tightly around myself;  Either to hold in my joy or to keep me from snatching his work off the wall and sobbing.   I can always pick out his papers as his writing is messy and his pictures not as advanced as the other children’s.  However, there are a few pictures and writing samples that I notice are similar to his.  I don’t care either way.  I am simply overjoyed at the fact he even has work on the walls; that he is participating and getting the opportunity to learn.

One by one, the rest of our team assembles.  Brie, Toni, Leigh, and then Dan.

“Hello ladies, nice seeing me again.” He says with his charming grin.  They all roll their eyes and giggle politely as they all are too familiar with his lame jokes.  I too, smile at him as we all take a place around the semi-circular table.

I am floating with bliss at the reports of his success: with conversations with peers, with reading, with using the bathroom alone (a feat he could not do at public school-somehow he would hold his bladder: All Day).  I’m also amazed at his interaction with Ms. Abrahms.  She often asks to work with him alone and actually was able to access him with his academic progress.  Something the public school district staff had difficulty doing.  And she did it in a few short weeks.

“He’s not the top of the class and he’s surely not the bottom.  He’s right in the middle.” Ms. Abrahms says matter of factly and then gives a broad smile.  I can tell that she’s proud, and already invested in him…and I want to hug her across the table.

Right in the middle, right in the middle…I keep chanting it in my head.  Who would have thought how beautiful the equivalent of “average” could sound?

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#45

“Yes, Jim, please?” Dan says into the phone.

“May I tell him who’s calling?” A polite voice asks through the speaker.

He leans closer says slowly and loudly.  “Dan and LeeAndra Chergey.” I don’t know why Dan feels he must speak so loudly on the phone.  I put my finger over my mouth to give him a silent shush and shake my head.  I can imagine the lady on the phone pulling the phone away from her face, as I have to do often when I speak to him.  He gives me a frown.  We are sitting in our home office, huddled around the phone.  It’s time to give the public school one last chance to give us what we asked and then give them the news of our decision.  I feel more nervous than ever.  Maybe not nervous, but shaky.  We have nothing to lose here; we’ve made up our minds and know what we want, yet this is our check mate move.

“Hold for one moment, I’ll see if he’s available.  The voice says.

My heart skips a few beats and I try to calm my breathing. I cover my mouth to soften my sigh.  Dan is writing the date and time on his legal pad and looks up at me.  He pushes mute on the phone.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers.

I laugh in his face. “You muted the phone, doofus, why are you whispering?”

He cracks a wide smile as a voice comes over the speaker.

“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Chergey, Jim here.”

Dan jumps to hit the mute button and says quickly.  “Hello, Jim. How are you?”  I’m glad he spoke because suddenly my mouth feels like sandpaper and I feel lightheaded.

“Great, great. Just tying up some loose ends before the district goes on summer break.” He says and sighs with a high pitch that it almost sounds like an ‘aahh’.

“Ah…uh….” Dan looks at me as to who is taking the lead again.  I point to him. “So, Jim, we wanted to speak with you today about the letter we received.”

It has been two months since our last IEP meeting.  We didn’t sign at the meeting as we weren’t sure what we wanted to do. And once I convinced Dan we should put him in private school we were waiting to find one.  Now that we have found a place to start over, we want to give the district one last chance to agree.  They sent us a letter outlining a plan that would allow Dr. Hunter’s aides in for a few weeks then fade them out.  It isn’t what we want and now it’s time to lay it out.

“Okay, go ahead.” Jim says.

“Well, we really were hoping for the approval of Dr. Hunter’s aides at school.  We don’t think having them shadow the school aides and then fade is going to work. I don’t think I have to re-hash the problems we had last year.” Dan pauses for effect, and it is works on me as the memories flood back and my face flushes with anger.

There is a shuffling of paper over the phone. “Um, yes, well, I believe we have discussed that enough.”

Dan looks intently at me as he speaks. “So, here is where we are at…we aren’t willing to keep him at the school if we don’t have Dr. Hunter’s aides.”

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#44

The phone rings as I am typing up an offer for a client.  I see Crestridge  School on the caller ID.  My heart skips a beat.  I take a deep breath an answer the phone.  I know this is it.

“Hi Mrs. Chergey, its Michelle from Crestride.” She says evenly and I don’t know if this is a good sign or not.

“Hi Michelle, how are you?” I say trying to sound casual.

“I’m fine, thank you.” She clears her throat as mine goes dry.  “So, we heard back from our corporate office regarding Ryan attending our school?” She says it like a question.

“Um hum.” I say thinking it a safe way to respond.

“Well…they are willing to try.” She says and it sounds like she’s smiling.

I feel as if I’m free falling for a second.  I respond quickly unable to control my excitement. “Oh! Good! That’s great! Wow, thank you!”

She giggles a little at my gushing, “Well, let me tell you some of the parameters before you get too excited.”Uh oh. “The aides will need to be fingerprinted and screened–.”

“—No problem.” I interrupt.

“And we will do this on a probationary status.” She says this in a firmer tone as if to warn me.

“What does that mean?” I ask, nervously.

“It means, if there are any…issues, ones we feel are not reconcilable, we have the right to expel him.” She says ‘expel’ with a little too much emphasis.

“That is perfectly reasonable.” I say to her calmly.  And suddenly I am calm.  I have such faith in Dr. Hunter and her team I know this is what we are supposed to do.

“Okay, great.  Well, come by to pick up an enrollment package and we will get the ball rolling for next year.” She says happily.

We finish our pleasantries and I hang up and literally jump out of my chair and yelp for joy.  I feel relief as if it’s a tangible thing raining down on me.  I pick up the phone to call Dan and begin to waiver on the verge of tears.  I have these moments once in awhile.  As a mother of any child you have moments that move you to tears, but since Ryan was diagnosed I seem to have them more.  As if carrying around his diagnosis added a physical burden that seems to break me more often.

“Hello?” Dan says and I can tell he’s in his car.

I try to speak and nothing comes out. I begin to clear my throat and instead I sob.

“Lee? What’s the matter?” His voice pitches in my ear.

“Nothing, I…I just wanted to give you some good news.” I say and sniff while I’ll grab for a tissue.

“Are you crying?” He says concerned.

“Yes…” I heave my shoulders and let out another sob.

“Babe…what is it?” His voice is so tender it makes me cry more.

“Everything is fine. I…heard from Crestridge.” I sniff and sob and wipe my nose.  “They are going to let us in on a probationary basis.”

“Really? That’s great!” He says a loudly.

“I know, I know. I’m really happy.” And another sob comes out.

He laughs at the irony and says “Yeah, it sounds like you are thrilled.”

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#42

“Turn left there…through the stop sign.” I instruct Dan.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember.” He says in a mildly gruff tone.

“Okay, wasn’t sure…” I say looking down at my notes. “Michelle Johnson.  She’s the campus director.”

“Is that who we ask for?” Dan says as he turns the car into a parking space in front.

“Umhmm.” I am putting on fresh lipgloss and checking for food in my teeth.

We get out and walk up the many stairs and I am recalling the fun Ryan had here.

“Ry loved going here…they have two swimming pools, but he didn’t like the kiddie pool, he always wanted to go into the big kids pool.” I turn to Dan with a big smile on my face he looks back blankly.

As we get “buzzed” in we walk into the office and ask for Mrs. Johnson.  She comes out of a office with a big smile.

“Hi, Dan-do you remember me? I’m Brad Johnson’s sister—”

“—Yes! Wow, I didn’t put the name together!” he says in a loud voice, shaking her hand with vigor.

I am a little surprised but not shocked as this happens a lot since Dan has lived in this area for so long Seems like once a month someone recognizes the name and asks if I know Dan.  ‘Why yes, we sleep together’ is what I want to say. But I am usually polite and give the proper answer..he is a businessman after all.

He turns to me, “This is my wife, LeeAndra.”

“Hi, it’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Johnson.” I say smiling.

“Hi, please call me Michelle.” She says warmly.

“How is Brad? I haven’t seen him in years.” Dan asks Michelle.

“He’s doing great…still in the area and…” She begins to tell him more details but I tune them out and look about the office.  I hadn’t been in this office as much as the pre-school office, so I want to see what is going on. Michelle then offers to take us for a tour and she and Dan continue to catch up on old times.  I am scanning every inch of the school as we walk.  I see the kiddie pool and then the big pool glistening.  The playground is freshly blacktopped and there is no trash against the fence.  It’s spotless and so lovely.  We arrive at the first grade class and the door is open so we peer in trying not to disturb the class.  There are again 12 kids.  Don’t get excited, chill out.  But it’s hard not to, I fight to keep my pulse slow.

We walk around the rest of the campus and I feel like my heart is going to burst.  It feels so right and I want it so badly….

We arrive back at her office and we sit down.

“So, tell me bout your son.” She says brightly.

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#31

“Dr. Hunter, I really am completely at my end.  There is no part of me that can stand this any longer.  Now they can’t even keep him safe.  When I asked the case manager why they didn’t stop him she said they couldn’t.  So I said, ‘you are telling me if he runs in to traffic, you will just let him go?’.  ‘No, of course not’ she said.  But, they can’t physically restrain him because of ‘certain laws’.” I say in air quotes.  I heave a big sigh.  I am on the verge of tears and have to pull it together.  Each time I think of my baby running off the school grounds, I begin to shake with a combination of fear and rage.

“I just want your people with him.  I just want the safety net of their behavioral experience.  I don’t understand why they won’t let me bring you in.” I say more to myself than her.

“It would take a lot for that to happen.  There are plenty of advocates and attorneys that could help you fight the case.” She says quickly.  She has said this to me a few times before I know how careful she has to be with her advice. But whenever she mentions hiring an advocate,  I shoo the idea away.  We are not litigious people and the thought of things getting to that make me more ill than now.  Plus, do I really want to fight for him to be in a school that isn’t even outfitted for special needs?  No wonder I never noticed and special needs when Jenna started at the school…there weren’t any.  And I know I would have to go to court every year to get her aides back in the school.  It seems ludicrous.

“You could always consider a private setting.  We work in many private schools in the area.” She arches her eyebrows as she says this.

Private setting. My mind is putting these words into perspective.  “As in private school? Can he go to private? Doesn’t he have to be in public school? Because of his disability?” I ask this and hate the way ‘disability’ comes off my tongue so naturally now.

“No, Ryan’s education and where he attends is completely up to you.” She says matter of factly.

“But what about the IEP?” That word always makes my tummy squirm a little. It still  has such ‘Pavlov dogs’ power over me.   I didn’t know we could do anything but what the IEP says.

“You can refuse the academic setting and place him where you like.   We have many clients who have done that.”  She begins to mention some schools she has worked in the past, but my mind is racing.  She then leans back in her chair and folds her hands together while resting her elbows on her chair.  And she waits.

I sit in amazement for what probably seems a long time to her.  I can take controlI can put him in private school and be in charge again.  I can have a say in what is best for him.  No more frustrations, no more telling them about a problem and three months later it begins to get addressed.  I am in awe at this whole idea.  Why hadn’t I thought of it before now? Of course I have a choice.  What I feel right now is borderline euphoric.  In an almost dream sequence I can see Ryan with our therapists at school.  I can see a lunch time with them there helping  and encouraging peer play.  Yes…this has to be it.   All the tension leaves my body and I exhale peacefully like I’ve had a long massage.

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#28

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Kindergarten: the most magical year of school for a child. Its school, but it is fun. Really fun. I, naturally, do not remember much about kindergarten. But I remember Jenna’s. And it is the most precious year. The beginning that almost whispers a promise of what school could be—if you stayed in fairyland forever. But the best part about it to me now is, we are taking my sweet boy there! To kindergarten!! I hadn’t let myself believe it would happen “on time” for him. I always figured he would start late due to his delays. Yet here we are with all the other five-year olds. I am more excited for him than I have ever been for school. This is a huge testament to the last three years of work. Not just work for his therapists, or for us following each protocol as instructed, but for him.
So many people say to me “wow, you are doing so much for him.” It’s a truth I am aware of, but you can lead a horse to water and he still may not drink. We put all the tools in front of him but he didn’t have to do it. And there were times we thought he wouldn’t. We were told by Dr. Hunter, one of his “good indicators” is his desire for approval. He likes it when he gets rewarded. Many autistic children don’t care, and seem to be fine existing in their mind only. But, as his mother, I know he wanted to come back to us. He didn’t want to go to the dark place away from the world. He wanted to be here—with us. For moments like this—at least I try to convince myself of that.
We have prepped for weeks with pictures of his “new” school. His new teacher. New classroom. I created a ‘social story’, to explain to him what would happen. Social stories are used with autistic kids to reinforce a new situation. It’s a simplistic book that has pictures and outlines each step of a new place or activity. The first page says “My new school” with a picture of the school from the front. The next page says: “My new teacher” with her picture. The next page: “my new classroom”, “my friend, Kathy, will help me in class,” etc.  We read it a few times a day to him so when the day comes it won’t be so foreign. He seems to be rolling with it and I am on cloud nine.
The first day finally comes. So much excitement–mostly by me. We are up, dressed and take our “first day of school” pictures on the front step of both kids. Each equipped with shiny new back packs and outfits. We shaved Ryan’s hair into a “faux-hawk” just to give him enough of a rebel image. In case the kids picked on him. He looks adorable and completely normal.

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