Today, let’s talk about something positive in Dar’s life.
Because Dar was diagnosed with autism at age 2, we knew he would begin at his local school district at age 3. When he started, there were two classes, two options: one that was half-and-half kids with IEPs and kids without, and one that was all kids with IEPs, i.e. all special needs. As an outsider, the schism reminded me a little of the division between the group meeting people and the chronics in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When I was told that Dar’s IEP qualified him for the former group, I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. Sure, Dar is handicapped, but he’s not like those hard cases, I told myself. I’m not proud of this.
After a few months, I was told that Dar would be transitioning to the all-IEP class. It’s hard to describe what a demotion that felt like. No more “typical”s and no more girl classmates. Even his teacher would no longer be the endlessly friendly woman he’d had in the mixed class. This is all a long way of saying that I was biased against Teacher Mike from the get-go. I’m sure Mike experiences unreasonable prejudice simply from people who wonder why a member of the male species is teaching pre-schoolers, and now here’s me resenting him for some kind of equally specious rationale.
Well, Teacher Mike turned out to be one of the best friends Dar ever had. One thing he facilitated was one of Dar’s classmates turning into a real friend, a great friend who I can’t say enough good things about. But Mike did a lot more than that. Outside of Major League Baseball, I’ve never seen a man so willing and able to jump into the catcher’s position at the drop of a hat. The moment Dar started to freak out (at least once every day), Mike would crouch and make the gentlest eye contact with him. He would say “Oh you’ll be okay” and “Oh it’s just such a crisis isn’t it” in very calming ways.
Teacher Mike’s entire demeanor was so well suited to a room of…well, kids who find it difficult to function in the regular world. That voice was as clearly enunciated as it was steady. And he sign-languaged almost everything as he said it. He could laugh, but I never saw him even slightly lose his temper, despite holding kids who were freaking out like Fay Wray in King Kong’s hand. (I wish my record as an educator were as unblemished.) Mike speaks the language of autism and disabilities more generally, which means knowing a lot about what has worked, what might work, and what won’t work.
In a post Team-Edward Team-Jacob world, where being on Team Gaga means you favorited one of her tweets once, Teacher Mike led Team Dar like William Wallace leading the Scots in Braveheart. He came to every meeting and had lots of ideas and suggestions. He showed what was working and what we could improve upon. He came to our house, more than once, just to check out our daily household routine with Dar and to see how the home and school might better support each other. He was not paid for those home visits; he did them because he cared. And they lasted for hours, walking to the park and back, to the point where we, ahem, pretty much had to kick Mike out of our house. All in the name of trying to unlock the mysteries that make up Dar. I believe that it was at one of these where I made some casual joke about Dar’s little brother needing to care for Dar when he’s older, and Mike said something about how you don’t want to put too much pressure on siblings of kids like Dar, and then I realized: Mike is such a sibling. This is what happens. Or not. Every time I see Mike now, I think that this is our other son’s possible future…that’s another post.
Now I’m not going to claim that Mike was Annie Sullivan from The Miracle Worker, because Dar has still not spoken a proactive word. Dar is doing things he didn’t when he arrived at the BUSD, like reaching for things instead of just screaming for them, and smiling at other children, and playing on appropriate playground equipment, and responding to certain commands…but it’s hard to know if I should credit Mike, Mike’s aides, our ABA person, Dar’s private therapist, us, or that it might have happened anyway. There’s no control in this experiment and no way to look, like The Watcher (Marvel shout-out!), into alternate timelines. The goal for wifey and me is to live as much as possible without regrets, without thinking there was a LOT more we could’ve done. Honestly, Mike has helped us to feel this way about the time Dar has spent in his classroom.
Last Friday was Dar’s last day with Teacher Mike. I honestly felt emotional, and not only because I knew that Dar always regresses in transitions, and that he’ll probably lose a few months of progress during his first few months of kindergarten. One of Dar’s peers, who’s also moving on, gave Mike a very sweet good-bye hug, and I tried to get Dar to do something similar. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Dar’s no hugger and gave no sign that he understood what was happening. I almost wanted to hug Mike myself, but I didn’t. All across America, there are people like Mike. We don’t hear about them, like we hear about Jack Nicholson or Mel Gibson or the other people that this post may have reminded you of. But the work these people are doing is in many ways just as important. For little money and less recognition, they’re working tirelessly to improve the best resource we have, our little children. So let this little corner of the internet stand here in tribute to one of the good people in the world.