First day of what was supposed to be an inclusive kindergarten year. We had such high hopes.I sat down to write about how wonderful first grade was for Gage, and realized that I had never really talked about how horrible kindergarten was for him, and us. And in order to understand just how great first grade was, to understand just how much we now love our school, you need to understand where we started, which was absolute zero. It’s hard for me to write about, as I normally focus on the positive. In kindergarten, however, there wasn’t much positive going on…
Kindergarten was a complete disaster: Unqualified substitute teachers in the autism program; a poorly written IEP that had no plan to include Gage with typical peers on anything more than a token level; a ridiculously bigoted kindergarten teacher who sent weekly reports that deemed Gage “STILL AUTISTIC!”; a head of special ed that instructed her staff to collect only negative data to show that Gage should not be included the first time she ever met Gordon and me, and before she had ever met Gage; An eventual filing for due process — a process that began for us in November, when we knew that things were not going right, and ended for us in late May– just a week after the school situation had become so stressful I wished that our family would go over a cliff while on our annual Mother’s Day drive. Finally, we were presented with a much better plan for first grade, but still, a YEAR of education lost for Gage. A YEAR of dealing with ignorance and bigotry. A YEAR!
On our Mother’s Day Trip: Six months after our initial complaints, six months of poor treatment, and my low point of the year. Luckily, the kids are as goofy as ever and unfazed.
And in that time, the emotional toll on Gordon and I was horrific. Active school volunteers in both our sons’ classrooms, we were banned from the school for 3 days before our complaints to the academic manager were heard, and it was admitted that a mistake had been made. Regular kindergarten events like the Halloween party, Christmas party, Valentine’s party, and graduation? We had to invite ourselves to attend. We had to ask permission if Gage could come, even though he had an aide and we would be there, too. Every other parent in kindergarten was allowed to go, all day if they wanted (this teacher liked parties). Gage was allowed to come for 30 minutes if the aide and we were there with him. We were openly mocked by her at meetings for asking that the daily snacks the autism substitute was now giving could be healthy. (“Well there sure won’t be healthy food at my parties!”) We asked for her curriculum so that we could teach Gage at home, since it was apparent he wasn’t getting much class time. She sent us an email in return stating that she would not provide the curriculum to us, because in her opinion, Gage would NEVER be able to do it, and she didn’t see the point. Kindergarten yearbook picture — Gage wasn’t included. Class picture? Nope, no Gage. And graduation? We were told that Gage could come for the 5 minutes that it would take to give him his certificate and snap a picture, because the teacher had not bothered to teach Gage (or give the words to us so that we could teach him) the songs the class would sing, or the words they would say. He wasn’t even allowed to sit with the class, we were told. We crashed it. We lined up with the entering parents and grandparents and went for the whole thing anyway. Gage, his sister, and I sat in the front row of spectators and watched all of his cute classmates do cute Kindergarten things that Gage had been given no opportunity to learn. Since he had no idea what to do, I helped him get his certificate. It was a heartbreaking end to a heartbreaking year, but at least it was over.
The good news of the year was that Gage continued to be his wonderful self, to progress socially, emotionally, and academically. He never read all of the awful reports. He never knew that the teacher didn’t want him at her parties. That she didn’t feel he was worth teaching. He never knew of the special ed director’s plan to sabotage his inclusion. He never knew, and his classmates never knew. Gage was Gage, and the other kids were the other kids, and they went about the business of being 5 year olds, oblivious to the storm. They were cool with each other then, and a year later, they continue to be.
Last day of kindergarten! He made it to the ceremony, in spite of everything.
We didn’t talk about kindergarten for a long time. Both because I was traumatized from it, and because we were afraid of “ruining” another family’s perfect image of their kindergarten year if they found out how awful the autistic kid in the class was being treated. I feel like it is far enough away now. Their memories of kindergarten, good or bad, are cemented. I am still in disbelief that a teacher, a school district, could treat children and families this way. I am still angry. I feel robbed of a year. But the anger has made me determined to do something about it. Nobody should have to put up with the kind of treatment we went through. No matter what their disability. I have been to 5 IEP meetings in the last month to help other families. And one mediation meeting, so far. For free. ALL of them asking for inclusion. I can’t change some people’s backwards ideas, but at least I can stand with these families and tell them that they are right. And I am finding, more and more, that the ignorant and bigoted attitudes like the one we had to deal with are few and far between. There are far more people willing to listen than I thought. Thankfully. Inclusion is coming to our district, one family at a time. The lightbulbs are going on, and the 80’s ideas of exclusion are being extinguished. One kid at a time. Starting with Gage.