graduation day
15 August 2004

I was sure I’d cry on Friday. Over the week leading up to it, I kept having to wipe my eyes at unexpected moments. Like when I was parking the car. Or leaving the café to pick up Damian. Or picking up his lunch bag. At expected moments too: watching circle time through the tiny window in the classroom door, the semi-circle of boys on their miniature chairs listening intently to the teacher as she leaned forward, confiding and warm. Or talking to another mom in the hallway, “This is the last week.” “Yeah, the last week. No more driving, how great that’ll be.” And then of course the catch: no more school. And the tears welling, blinking them back.

It’s just preschool, graduation is inevitable as a young child grows into himself, why the big deal?

But it is. How can it not be?

The first time I visited the therapeutic preschool, I watched as a teacher knelt in front of Damian and spoke so gently to him, not minding that he wasn’t going to answer. She spoke with kindness and no judgment. Later, I stood in the sunny grass yard talking to the school director and felt that click: Yes, this woman gets it. Yes, she knows how to do this. Yes, my child will be safe here.

The school lived up to my hopes. How often does that happen? Oh, sure, I haven’t loved every minute, and yes, we’ve disagreed about some things. But overall? It’s a place created with not just caring but knowledge. It’s given Damian a solid foundation. And now we’re leaving. And oh man. That’s scary. Damian will be in a regular kindergarten starting in just three and a half weeks. This was the goal, this was the hope, this is now our reality and such an important step it is. But it also means saying goodbye to a safe haven, to a place where my child is not the aberration but the norm. Where every student has speech therapy and occupational therapy and half of them have floor time too. Where we stop in the hallways and share IEP tales with other parents, get tips and commiserate on our special kind of parenting. Where we nod in sympathy and understanding when we watch a child’s sensory fear play out or when she doesn’t quite get how to say hi yet.

It’s been difficult in some ways, seeing Damian in classrooms where half the children aren’t able to sit still, aren’t able to play with each other, aren’t fully in their bodies. It felt especially hard at first – does he belong here? Does my child truly fit this profile too? Is he like them? How can that be? I wanted to pull him out, to avoid the more compromised children. Not because it would have been better for him –- he wasn’t ready to handle a room full of typically developing children – but because I hated seeing him there. In that room. Implicitly fitting that definition. It was my prejudice; I’m not proud of this, but there is. Or was.

At graduation on Friday, I saw an echo of it. A couple of boys who aren’t graduating kept interrupting the festivities, exclaiming inappropriately, dancing into the middle of the group, either oblivious or overly stimulated by the events of the day. I see those children differently now. I accept that yes, they’re on a continuum that includes my son and the other young graduates. They don’t scare me, don’t repel me. They’re just kids. They have issues. They’re being gently tutored and helped and with time, they too will become better able to self-regulate, to integrate their bodies and their minds, to be more present. It’s best for Damian now to leave this environment, to have true peer role models. Not because this place was wrong for him but rather because it was so right.

Leaving now carries a mix of pride and sadness with it. Damian feels it too. As part of the graduation ceremony, the teacher played a tape she had made earlier in the week: the children talking, the mike passed around the circle so they each had a turn. On the tape, Damian said he felt excited and scared about kindergarten and he said he was going to miss everybody at school. As he spoke, I could hear other parents choke up around the room. It’s a community. We’ve all been through a different kind of parenting, a different set of concerns. Set apart. My long drive a daily trek into that other world. But now we each enter into the mainstream, the regular world of play dates and grades and homework and I think we’re all like Damian, excited and scared. Our kids will be different from the others. Maybe subtly so, maybe their classmates won’t see it. But we will know. We’ve been pushed out of the therapeutic nest along with our children. Now we get to see our baby birds join the main flock. And fly.

I didn’t cry on Friday. I think I’m more ready for this transition than I realized. Which means I feel in my gut that Damian is ready. When we took him out of the little temple preschool a few blocks away from here, that felt like such a gigantic step, such a huge goodbye to normalcy. Now, three years later, we’re back. Not the same school; this will be a big kid’s school with recess and textbooks. But it’s time to see my little bird fly. He may bump into a tree or two, may falter now and then, thrown off course by sudden gusts of wind or jostled by his fellow fledglings, but that’s part of this too, isn’t it? That he be given the chance, that he test his new wings.

Yes, it's time to say goodbye. To throw his paper graduation cap in the air and walk out that front gate for the last time, hearing the click behind us as we step out onto the sidewalk into the late summer softness. Ready for the next chapter of his young life.

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