This year, like many other mothers, I attended an Open House at my son's school before the first day of classes. Even though my son was entering 6th grade at our local middle school, this was a novel thing for me to do because until this year he had been home schooled. I approached the evening with some trepidation, not quite sure what to expect. Another boy in our neighborhood, one year older, volunteered to go with us. He said he would show us around, help us figure out how to navigate from class to class, help us find my son's locker, and introduce him to the teachers. I gratefully accepted.
When we arrived at the school there was a little bit of mix-up with my son's schedule that was straightened out in the guidance office. While we waited, a very friendly counselor asked my son if he had any questions and made a real effort to help him feel at ease. She talked to him about the cross-country program and helped him think about which instrument he might like to play in the band. She told him about the school play and suggested he either try out for a part or help behind the scenes if he was interested.
Later, I followed my son and our neighbor through the building and watched as teachers and administrators stood in the hall greeting kids by name, giving them high-fives and asking about their summers. There was a jovial, welcoming energy throughout the school and I could see how it felt like a little community. Kids who hadn't seen each other all summer gathered in small groups catching up and looking at their schedules to find out who would be in which classes together. Parents and teachers greeted each other warmly and talked about the year ahead. Without a doubt, I knew my son would be welcomed here. I had worried about how he would manage in a classroom environment after having been unschooled for so long, but the teachers seemed engaging and eager for my son to join their classrooms. They told me about all the fun activities they had in store for their students. They spoke of field trips. They set my mind at ease when they described the wide diversity of students in their classes which include a large number of immigrants and refugees in our area. I began to see how my son might fit in and thrive here. I could see how he would be a part of something, how he would begin to forge the relationships that would imbue the next years of his life with richness and texture.
You might think that I left that event at the school feeling relieved and excited. And, in a small way, I did. But the greater emotions were sadness and grief.
You see, this was not my first experience in this school. My older child, who has a disability, had attended this school for nearly three years. And during that time no one had ever asked him if he would like to join the band or what instrument he might like to play. No one ever suggested that he might participate in an after school activity. They never asked if he might enjoy helping with a play or, for that matter, even attending one. He didn't have a locker. He never once stood in a group of his peers in the hallway. There were no field trips or school dances unless I consented to go along as his chaperone.
Every interaction we had with teachers took place inside a conference room where faces were veiled with trepidation, where all the things my son couldn't do were considered barriers to even the most basic participation.
Over the three years in which my son was enrolled in this very same school, I spent countless hours meeting with teachers and administrators advocating on his behalf. I spent evenings and weekends adapting and modifying coursework. I bought apps that would allow him to participate in algebra and Spanish, loaded them onto his communication device, and taught his teachers how to use them. I lobbied at the district level for more teacher training so that they could get the support they needed. I participated in our division's new Strategic Planning Group for Inclusive Education.
I spent so much time advocating for my son and other children with disabilities that one principal joked that he thought I worked for the school district.
After three years at this school my son graduated from eighth grade, ready to move on to the high school, having only completed three classes. And still, I counted our time there as a success. I believed that the lessons his team had learned about the supports needed to help him be successful in the general education classroom were the building blocks for a more rigorous education.
It wasn't until my younger son started school that I realized how dismally we had all failed.
I knew, of course, that inclusion was about more than being able to participate in the general education classroom, but until I walked those same hallways with my son who does not have a disability, I didn't realize how much my other child had been denied a sense of belonging. I didn't realize how much he had missed out on by not walking the same hallways with his peers, how few people knew his name or anything about him. Advocating for extracurricular activities and programs felt like just one more hurdle to overcome and I didn't realize what I let go of when I thought just being allowed to attend a science or math class was enough. The promise of relationships and experiences, of a community of support, wasn't just denied to my son with a disability, it was denied to our whole family.
I had no idea how much we were excluded until my child without a disability was welcomed so openly.
I had no idea how much we were on the outside until I saw what it looked like from the inside.
My oldest son is now enrolled at the High School, although 8 weeks into the school year he has yet to attend a single class. He missed out on Diversity Day when students and staff wore the clothing representing the many culture represented at the school. We got the pictures in an email. He didn't get the chance to go to the homecoming dance or participate in any of the related school activities. He didn't get his picture taken for the yearbook.
Except for a few administrators, nobody at the school knows his name or that he should be in school and isn't. He isn't missed.
It's difficult to be missed, after all, when you were never included in the first place. And that is a grievous failure for us all.