Seven years ago, I brought Ellie to school for the first time. She was barely 3 years old, chubby-cheeked, and desperately attached to me. We’d worked hard to help her to be comfortable away from my side, but with little success. She had so few words then that the world was too big, too scary, and too frustrating. I could understand her, but she knew that no one else really did.
I remember walking her through the halls, her trusting hands so small they needed only a finger, her pigtails bobbing, and my heart was in my throat. How would she get by? Would these teachers, therapists, aides – all these many faces who were about to fill her days – would they get her? Would they see the smart little girl she was, her strengths, her curiosity, her sweetness? Would she open up to them, or would she shrink back? Was I leaving her in a space so foreign and difficult to navigate that it would make her miserable, or was I pushing open the door for her so that her world could get broader?
But we moved forward, and as her teachers reached their hands to her, she rose to the challenge. She toddled into their class and she tried. She learned. She learned to read more, write more, cut and color and paste, add and subtract. She learned to communicate. But just as importantly, she learned to trust them, to share, to wait, to listen, to participate. They did love her, and push her, they picked her up when she struggled and held her when she cried. They appreciated how joyful and full of potential she truly was, and they capitalized on all of that. When it was time for her to graduate from the preschool it was my turn to cry – she had come so far and been so loved! I dreaded taking her out of that cocoon and setting her loose into another world.
But time does not slow down. It does not stop. It does not wait. It does not let you catch your breath.
So we moved on, and she adjusted. Each year since then I’ve held my breath for the transition – a new class, a new teacher, a new para, and maybe even a new friend, although the last seemed unlikely for a long time. And each time, there’s been someone there to catch her, to hold her hand, to learn her ways, to love her enough to make the new room home again. They’ve brought me stories like gifts – pieces of her day, her journey, her adventures; the funny things she’d said or done. They’ve made a safe place for us both.
But for the last two years she’s been given another gift – a stable classroom with the same staff. For two years she's had the same teacher who gets her, and loves her for all of who she is, a para who’s been like a second mother to her, a case manager who is constantly one step ahead of her, laying the path before her so that she never stops moving forward, and a classroom full of kids who genuinely like and care for her. In this nearly magical environment, she has thrived. Blossomed. With the help of these wonderful women she has engaged socially, emotionally, and intellectually. She’s become confident, and out-going. She sets off to school each day ready to really have a great day, and she comes home with stories – actual stories- about all the best parts of that day. And there are usually many. She has discovered the joys of being kind, and actively looks for ways each day to help the kids and teachers around her. And yes, she even talks of having friends now – friends she might like to see over the summer. Friends who like her back.
I've grown to love the little notes and texts her teacher sends me - here is Ellie laughing in class, here she is taking apart an owl pellet in science, or eating snack with a friend. They've sent her home with prizes and gifts they've bought for her - things she's earned from them for hard work, or kindness. They've included her in pizza parties and treat days in spite of her dietary issues, and they've sent home the pictures and notes. They've made sure that she's truly one of the class. They've given me insights, shared resources, let me in to the space they share with Ellie when I'm not around, and offered support to me as a parent and a person. Most of all, they've shared their delight and love for her, and in doing so I find my heart attached to them, too.
This afternoon is the last afternoon she will spend in this classroom, and in this school. As I watch the clock tick down, I fight back the tears for the hundredth time. Is she spending time with those friends right now? Is she hugging those teachers? Is she thinking, as I am, that this is the end of something beautiful, even if (like all ends) it is also the beginning?
She is ready, she says – excited even – to move on to the next school, but I’m not ready. I want to hold on to this rock of safety just a little longer. I want the certainty of knowing she’s safe, and loved, and cherished the way she has been here just a little longer. I want the strong currents of time to pause, right here, and let us breathe in this space a little longer.
But the clock does not stop. The currents are not slowing. Change is upon us, and soon it will wash us away again. Hopefully the new shores will be soft, new arms will open up graciously, and she will land in the next stage of her life with courage and purpose, optimism and kindness. I have to remember to be grateful for today, to appreciate this enormous blessing, and to trust tomorrow to take care of itself.
But the future is an unknown, and I am not ready.