In a few days, my daughter Hannah will walk out the door of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School for the last time. I’ll cry a little, maybe a lot. I imagine I won’t be the only one.
It will be a final goodbye to the warm embrace of elementary school. Hello, in a few months, to the cold reality of middle school, with its adolescent neuroses, its cliques, its dog-eat-dog social climbing, its exuberant highs and its despondent lows.
Right? Well, not exactly. The tears, at least from me, will not be about the fear of all that — and it’s precisely that lack of fear that this column is about.
Despite the fact that she has Down syndrome — or partly because of it —lots of folks at “TR,” as we call it, seem to know and like Hannah. What I know for sure is this: When it’s time to get Hannah to leave school every day, you need to build in quite a bit of time for her to say “bye” to everybody there. Most kids sprint out the door when school’s over; with Hannah, you’d be wise to carry a crowbar to pry her away.
I am profoundly grateful to everybody at TR for that. When you have a child with a disability, you naturally worry about acceptance. To think of our uneasy feelings when she started kindergarten — and to contrast it with our total comfort now — is to realize how many people have been kind to her along the way. There are too many to name.
Here’s the thing: We are NOT worried about moving to middle school. We’re probably less worried about middle school for Hannah than we were for my oldest son, who is about to graduate from Manhattan High, and my nephew, who’s finishing his freshman year.
For one, we’ve seen that the middle school and high school years here have been extremely positive for those boys. Sure, there are cliques. There’s exuberance and desperation. But somehow it has softer edges than it used to; in any event, our kids have made it through with flying colors.
Another: The kids at MHS just elected a young woman with Down syndrome as their prom queen. That’s symbolic: this is a more accepting world, and a more accepting community, than it used to be. That’s good. And that’s a credit to parents and kids in Manhattan.
But most importantly, we’re not worried about middle school because the teachers and administrators in the public school system here have earned our trust. We had a meeting the other day with the 12-person platoon involved in making Hannah’s transition go the way it should, and it was almost a family reunion. Hannah will go from one group that has known her for most of her life to another that already knows a lot of her quirks. The amount of care and effort involved that handoff is staggering.
I suppose that’s due in part to laws passed to help people with disabilities. That set the stage; I don’t want to get too mushy and forget that. But to my way of thinking, it’s due largely to the fact that the teachers, para-educators, therapists and principals care. They care about their jobs; they care about doing the right thing. Most importantly, they care about Hannah.
So, sure, middle school will also be more business-like. Recess, where Hannah loves to hang upside down on the jungle-gym, will be gone. The meeting with the therapists won’t involve as many board games and goof-around time. Just wandering down the hall to say hi to her old teachers will be frowned upon. And yes, I’m sure Hannah will miss people at TR. I could start naming names here, but I just couldn’t stop. There are lots of you, and you know who you are. She will never forget you, and neither will we.
But I’m not afraid for her. She’s going to be fine.
She’ll give a few last hugs, and then she’ll be excited to walk home with her dog, Bandit. She’ll be excited to have a turkey sandwich. She might say “This is the best day EVER,” which she says a couple of times per week. No reason to expect that tomorrow won’t be even better.
Crying? Yes. There will be tears from the rest of us when she walks out TR’s door. They’ll be tears of wistfulness, and memory, and, most importantly, deep gratitude.