Dar Williams’s song “End of the Summer” has been running through my head this last week. My son is off to high school, and my daughter has entered middle school. And it does feel like I’ve sent my children to the moon.
As some of you know, I work with children whose medical needs require a nurse at all times. One of my clients is doing so well, they now attend their district school instead of a “special” school. (I use “they” as the pronoun, even though it is not grammatically correct, so as to not give away my client’s gender–I don’t want any identifying characteristics in this essay to violate their privacy.)
So this past week I took my client to their district school, and I got to experience all the anxiety and fear of entering an alien world when my client entered the middle school cafeteria.
My client sat at empty table. All the other kids filed in and filled all the other tables, and the child I was with continued to sit alone. I stood a little way off–I didn’t want an adult presence to be the reason they were being ignored. Eventually an aide to one of the other special needs kids came over and invited my client to that child’s table. That child was sitting near another special needs kid, and a cluster of physically and neurologically typical kids also sat at that table, albeit crowded down at the opposite end. So at one end: my client, an autistic child, and a child with Down’s Syndrome. At the other end, everyone else. But at least our little group of three wasn’t isolated completely, right?
Well, the following day we headed straight over to our new table. I stood with the two aides and we watched the social scene unfold. No one sat with our kids. Eventually, a lunchroom aid approached some typical kids and guilted them into joining our gang of three. The same thing again the next day–our three started alone, then a few typicals got guilted into joining the “special” table.
Unfortunately, on that third day, a teacher announced that by the end of the week the tables would be “set”. Where you were sitting Friday determined where you would sit the rest of the year. We’d had a week to do our social maneuvering and the window of opportunity was closing.
So of course, Friday found our group of three sitting alone at a table for sixteen. No one was going to sit at that table and be told they must sit there all year. A day or two, sure fine, they can be nice to the special kids–but all year? Social suicide.
I get it; I really do. When I was in middle school, I would have behaved the same way. I had so little social capital, I couldn’t spend it on compassion for someone lower on the social ladder. And I was freaked out by kids who were different from me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to be okay with all kinds of people. Now I have no problem with someone who looks, thinks, or speaks differently. But it took exposure to get there. Most people have to get used to differences before they can embrace them. So young people, with their limited experiences, are really bad at being inclusive. That’s one of the reasons that integration and mainstreaming are valuable. People need to be near each other to get used to each other and eventually accept each other.
But it is hard on these intrepid kids who journey to the moon. All you moon dwellers look at them, see their differences, and shy away. Our little gang of three will most likely sit alone for the rest of the year. They will survive. They’ve survived worse. Still, I want everyone to take a moment to understand just how much courage it takes to boldly go where no one like you has gone before. How amazing you would be if you could look past their differences and your own fears, and really welcome these astronauts.