The wisdom to know the difference


Dear Danny,

Do you remember that time, right before Christmas in the middle of your first grade year, when I quit my job to pursue a career in Special Education and everything changed?

Well, of course you don’t right now.  But you will.

As I write this letter to you, Danny, you are 3 months into your first year in the Gen Ed classroom.  I’ve put off writing to you about it because I have been waiting for the dust to settle; waiting for a satisfying end to a frustrating and difficult story.  We aren’t there yet.

Last year was an amazingly successful year for you, kiddo.  If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed what was happening in that classroom.  I hadn’t expected to hear the words “General Education” for at least 2 more years so as I sat at that IEP meeting, with your team of teachers, specialists and administrators gushing over your progress, I got swept up in the excitement.  We had our concerns, of course, but in the end everyone was on board – indulging in the kind of reckless hope that I’ve come to associate with the best moments in education.

But now…3 months wiser…the truth is that we did everything wrong.  So far this year has been so in line with my doubts and fears that if I didn’t know better I would think we were all following a script – perfecting our lines for a daily performance of the worst-case scenario.  Acknowledging that, there are only two options available:  change the play, or change our parts in it.

And honestly…I like the play the way it is.

One of the side effects of you being in school for the entire day last year was that by the time we saw you again in the evening, most of your energy had already been exhausted trying to hold it together for school.  That is how it should be, of course, but it made for difficult nights and weekends.  I accepted this behavior from you as something I could not change – the price of your effort to be your best where it “counts”.  But then…something unexpected happened.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with you while I was home on maternity leave.  I had planned to take almost the full 12 weeks allowed under FMLA because I wanted to make sure that I’d had enough time with you as well as the new baby.  I knew that this was going to be the biggest transition of your life, and that cutting corners in the beginning was going to make for a flawed foundation.   I expected that it would be difficult to return to work at the end of my leave.

And yet…

I did not plan for the terrifying and dangerous way that your brother came into the world.

I did not know that after Ezra was born I would never see the world or anything in it the same way again.

I did not expect to look at you 3 days later, impossibly taller and stronger than I had left you on the morning of April 28th, and feel with absolute certainty that you were the reason that we survived.

The summer was a challenge – a difficult and necessary series of growing pains and adjustments.  But in the midst of it all something amazing was happening: you were talking to me.  Not all of the time, and not without effort, but more than any other time in your short life I was hearing your real voice.   Maybe it was the shock of a new little person in the house that needed a lot of attention, maybe it was the extra space left in your mind when school was out, or maybe it was just your time.  Whatever it was, you were finding words – in your way – to tell me what you needed.

And in the moments when you couldn’t convey what you needed with the words you could reach, I would hear you call out:  “Mommy! Can you come find me?”

Recently, in school, you have had a few spectacularly bad days.  One of those days, the first one, caused your teachers to feel as though they needed to clear the classroom and call an administrator down to help work through the situation.  You didn’t understand it; you wanted to go with your class when they all lined up to leave and as they sat in the hall resuming the reading lesson that had been disrupted, you paced the classroom – asking if everyone was ok.

Later that evening we tried to talk to you about what had happened but you weren’t interested – you asked us to “turn our voices down”, which is the specific phrase you use when someone is saying something you don’t want to hear.  We let it go but I continued to bring it up over the next few days, just to see if you could tell me anything about what had happened or, better yet, why.   Two days later on the way to school in the morning I asked again, simply, with no leading questions or implications:  “Danny, what happened at school on Tuesday?”  2 minutes of silence later, the response came:

“I’m a fire drill, Mommy.”

These insightful, beautiful, heartbreaking moments of genius…you only say these things to me, Danny.  These gifts have always been entrusted just to me.

So what can I do but receive them?  What else can I possibly do but move Heaven and Earth to make sure I never miss a single one?

This past fall in church we have been talking a lot about the Serenity Prayer – a sermon series that could not have come at a better time in our lives.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In a letter that I wrote to you 3 years ago, on your first day of preschool, I vowed that I would no longer bury my head in the sand and hope from the sidelines.  That I would never again look at any part of your life and assume that it was out of my control to change it for the better.  In the years since I have certainly had moments of wishing that something could be different for you or your situation, but I genuinely believed that we were doing all that we could with the resources that we had available to us.

This summer I realized that of all the things we have offered you, the one resource that you need is the one I never seem to have enough of – the one that is running through my fingers like sand at every moment.

Time.

I could no longer pretend that anything would benefit you more than my time, but I was only given the opportunity to see it because I was home on a paid maternity leave – a limited luxury with a rapidly approaching expiration date.  I spent weeks staring at spreadsheets with all of our bills laid out desperately searching for some way to remove my income and still end up in the clear.  I never found it, so I went back to work and told myself that it was the best I could do.

But…allowing a toxic situation to persist because you are comfortable isn’t serenity any more than making rash, poorly planned decisions is courage.  When I returned to work in July I accepted my circumstances because it was necessary to do so, but I was no longer willing to believe that it was something I couldn’t change.

So, here we are.  I have worked in finance now for nearly 15 years and this Friday will be my last day.  Next week I move on to a new career as a teaching assistant in a classroom much like the classrooms that have taught you over the years.  In time I hope to become a licensed Special Education teacher – a profession that I have felt a calling toward ever since I first placed you into the hands of such a person 3 years ago and realized that she saw you the way I did.

And yes, for now…it will be a lot less money.

But in exchange I will have the privilege of helping my new little friends find their place in school while finally having time to help you find your place in the world.  Only time will tell if these changes are the right ones to make and, even if they are, what is right now may be all wrong later.  If that is the case, then we will pray again for the wisdom to know the difference.  This leap of faith we are taking is made with equal parts peace and panic and, though it comes with no guarantees, I am certain that looking back years down the line I will not regret it.

I will remember this as the time when I realized that happiness was absolutely for sale, and that all it would cost me was a job.

You will remember this as the time your Mommy finally found a way to step out of her nest to come and find you.

We will remember this as the time, right before Christmas in the middle of your first grade year, when I quit my job.

And it changed everything.

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