next year
5 December 2002

When I look at Damian, I can’t believe this is the same fearful, nearly silent child I worried about a year and a half ago. It seems impossible.

When I’m driving him to school and Damian says, "Look, all those birds are sitting on the night light!" and I look and see a huddle of pigeons hunched on the wide crossbar of a street light, I want to hug him for his observation and his words, for the fact that he wants to share this with me, for the fact that he’s allowing me to look through his eyes for that moment.

When I’m driving him home from an afternoon session in the park with Heidi and he says, "Where are all the cars going?" and I say "Let’s see if we can guess. Some of them are going home from work, probably," I cherish the fact that we can interact like this, that I can help him see into other people’s lives for that moment.

He responds, enjoying this game we play, "And maybe some of them are going to a restaurant for dinner." (A choice I’ve given on occasion.) Then adds, "And maybe some of them are going to a friend’s house for a sleep over." (Not an option I’ve ever imagined.) When he does that, I’m overwhelmed with a simple delight, a delight that feels almost absurd. I have a child who can imagine, who can invent, who can interact. Just like most of the kids you meet in the park, the school yard, the street. I feel impossibly lucky, like we hit the jackpot, plucked that brass ring from the center of the merry-go-round, found the pot of treasure at the end of the rainbow and took a luxurious bath in its shimmering gold water.

He’s come so very far, so very fast. But is it far enough fast enough?

Or does that matter?

He’s four and a half years old. Next September he’ll be five and a half. All his age mates, all his May Kid cohorts, are going to kindergarten next year. Will Damian be ready? Damned if I know.

I thought we would simply keep him back a year. His therapeutic preschool has a developmental kindergarten class; he can keep going to the typical preschool as well. But then I started feeling antsy with that decision. Are we underestimating him? Will he be ready for more, for a new challenge? Will it be time for him to immerse himself in the mainstream? Will he be chafing at the delay, if not next year then maybe the year after or maybe when he’s nine or ten and the curriculum is far behind his ability level and his classmates are behind his developmental level? Because his birthday is in early May, he'll be a minimum of eight months and a maximum of a year and seven months older than them. That's a big age gap.

I looked at a book recently on four year olds. The description sounded like Damian in nearly every way. That surprised me. The grandiosity (everything is the best, the biggest, the worst in the ever world). The aggression in his imaginative play (everything is swords and guns and crashes). The incessant curiosity about the world around him. If he’s developing – at least in this way – at the same pace as his age mates, shouldn’t he have them as classmates? And he’s starting to read (very few, very small words) and add (very small numbers, usually on his fingers) and he can put together 24 piece puzzles in a matter of minutes. He’s eager to learn. Shouldn’t he have that opportunity?

I started making phone calls, trying to see what was available for next year through the school district. Turns out not much. Turns out if we want a shadow for him in a mainstream kindergarten class, he has to go his home school. Everyone, without exception, scowls at the name of this particular school. It is Not A Good School. The only other option for a child with an IEP, ie: a child with special needs, is a school which has an early education program for kids like him. Only problem? They’re not kids like him. The school I had high hopes for, a nearby school with a tremendous academic reputation, has such a class but all of the children are lower functioning. Nope, no way. And the school district would probably never place him there, it’s far from the least restrictive environment. They’ll probably insist on the shadow in a mainstream classroom. Which sounds great, but not in that school.

Deep breath. Okay, what else can we do? What about a magnet school? There are at least three elementary schools around the city that sound good – high test scores, happy parents. The competition is fierce. Damian’s special needs will probably work against him. We’d have to enter him as a non-special needs child. No services anymore. On his own in the class. Is he ready? If it were now, absolutely not. Next fall? Maybe. Just maybe. Can we hold our breaths all year hoping and pushing and praying and worrying? The stress would kill me and probably seep into his psyche as well. Not good.

Any other options? Well, there’s always private school. To the tune of ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year unless we get financial aid, which might cut the cost in half. Half of fifteen is still seven and a half thousand dollars yearly. We drive an 88’ Corolla and an ’89 Accord because we haven’t been able to afford the cost of new cars. This would be like a new car every two years. And we still have to get those new cars sometime soon.

Aside from the money? The idea has a lot to recommend it. Small classes, more individual attention, and we can choose a place that takes a nurturing, developmental approach as opposed to the overpowering end-of-year-testing focus in the public school system, all about rote learning and achieving X and Y by Z time. A child like Damian, who might have some processing problems even after his social issues fall away, this child will probably not be well served by the goal-oriented public school approach.

We made appointments to see private schools. We looked at one school. We fell in love with it. Their main tenet: learning should be fun. Learning should be multidisciplinary. Should have a real world basis. You can learn math kinesthetically. You can take a single theme – the ocean, say – and explore it through science, art, history. You can take field trips and pick sea shells for art projects. You can write history papers pretending you're Ben Franklin or a pilgrim crossing over to the New World. I like this school. Very much. Would Damian? Yes, I think he'd thrive here. When he’s ready. Next year, though? Would he gleefully wade in or would he freeze? How can we know?

I talked to the head of admissions, floated the idea of Damian joining the junior kindergarten rather than going whole hog into the kindergarten class. Yes, it's still holding him back a year, but at least he'd be challenged by the new school and have a chance to get used to the environment. She said it sounded like we should wait. That he’s in a good situation now, let him have another year of that and join the kindergarten class the following year if/when he’s socially up to speed.

I spoke to Cheri, who co-heads the therapeutic preschool. She said that they’d just lost a child like Damian to kindergarten in a charter school (the parents moved into the school’s home district so he could get full services). That it was painful to her, because she feels that with kids like this, kids who are eighty or ninety percent there, if you give them that extra time, you can help them get one hundred percent there. The implication is that if you don’t, if you rush it, you risk never making that extra leap. And I can see that. If you limp out of the hospital with a still-healing back, you risk tearing the tender muscles, crunching the still-fragile vertibrae and doing further damage, maybe making the injury permanent. If you wait, if you stay in traction an extra week or month, maybe you can walk out with a wholly healed back.

In his therapeutic preschool, Damian is getting support in every way. His speech therapy focuses now on pragmatics, how to talk and listen in conversation, how to interpret gestures, how to relate both verbally and non. His occupational therapy helps him learn the skills he’ll need to write easily and well (or easier and better). His floor time and class time focus on social fun, on how to open up and play with other children.

Both women are right. We should probably keep Damian back a year, keep him in this most supportive environment. Dan has thought so all along. Boys mature later than girls. All boys can benefit from the extra time. Especially a boy like ours. Better that he be the oldest in his class, with the confidence that can give him, than that he lag behind in his skills and strength.

So I've circled back around to the original plan. This decision feels right. Feels like it opens up the possibilities for later, gives him the best of all beginnings. It allows me to relax, knowing he’ll be in good hands for another year. The developmental kindergarten class in the therapeutic school has far more typical kids than spectrum kids. It will probably work well.

And yet. I see Damian with his new friend Pedro, just ten days younger than him. I see them at the table, telling knock knock jokes that go, "Knock knock." "Who’s there?" "Wufflemorgleberg." Pedro started it, Damian – eyes bright – joined with alacrity. He loves this game. Loves this new friendship with a child his own age, a friendship that seems to involve a lot of shooting and plane crashes.

Maybe he is more ready than everyone thinks. Maybe he’d be stimulated, inspired, excited by the other kids in a new school where he can start fresh. Maybe so. And so I wonder still if we should apply for next year, let the admissions officer decide in February if she thinks he’ll be ready in September. Maybe we should have the directors of both school fill out recommendations. Maybe we should go through the magnet school process (we will anyway, the way the points system works it usually takes a rejection or two before you get accepted) and take our chances.

But what if he gets in? What then? How do we decide? How can we know what’s best for him? Even psychics don’t have a sure view of the future, they only see possibilities, like potential branches of a tree that is continually growing and changing. What branch is right for Damian? Which will best hold his weight through the years? How can we possibly know?

I think we'll stick with the plan to keep him back a year. I just wish I knew for sure it was the right plan. What I do know is that either way we decided, I'd be second and third guessing all the way to September and maybe beyond. Because there is no one right answer. There is, despite all my efforts and angst, simply no way to predict.

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