The weeks prior to school is always a hurried time for parents. Mom or dad have to pull extra time out of thin air to buy clothes and school supplies, register for school and be certain any physicals, etc are completed. This rush is the same for us with the exception of adding a few extra steps. Having the clothes tailored, adding adaptive equipment to the list of supplies, and this year, a couple of extra medical visits to fit in. Running through the city this past week with my child in tow, in the rain, was a bit more stressful than usual. My son is very much like many children: talking a mile a minute — nonstop — whether it be entering and exiting cabs, trying on clothes or standing in the checkout line at Macy’s. It is like one day-long sentence!
Most parents will confess that they might, on occasion, tune out their little chatterbox. It’s not that we mean to, we are trying to parent in 2 or 3 different ways at once at that moment.
Walking down the sidewalk, I could hear my boy drumming on as children do, this time about going to the Cardinal’s game with his best friend’s family.
“They had this…in the park…and we saw…squirrel…ate dinner at…weird homeless lady ….”
I stopped in my tracks.
I knelt before him on the wet side walk and explained the concept which he should already be well aware of: stereotyping. I was shocked and embarrassed to hear words like homeless coupled with words like weird coming from my son. We had a small chat about stereotypes; I especially wanted him to know that words like that can hurt the feelings of others.
We finished our errands and headed home, where there was a message waiting for me on my machine. It was from the principal of his new school and served to immediately raise the stress level to DEFCON 1.
You see, when a child with dwarfism enters a new school for the first time, at a young age, a decision needs to be made about the first day of school: How to handle the fact most people have never met a Little Person before. Considering his head is about where his best friend’s elbow is while standing next to him, it is natural for others to immediately notice him. Options on how to proceed vary according to the situation and the opinions of each family. When he entered first grade, a school of 835 students, the decision was made to simply let nature take its course.
Even though he walked into the school ahead of me, (like he owned the place), and full of complete confidence on the first day, he was left reeling before the first bell rang. He was bombarded with whispers, stares, and questions… a situation which he was not equipped to handle. Several students asked him why he was so short; most asked in a nice way. They were just curious. Almost every child in school wanted to say hi to him and one little girl even insisted he didn’t belong in her class because he was just a baby. I remember leaving him in the first grade classroom and trying hard to look upbeat as I turned and walked away. That evening, a parent letter was drafted and the school was kind enough to send it home with the students. Problem solved. All of the children were informed, rather than surprised, and my son was free to be just another student.
Jax is attending a new Catholic school this year; we had our meeting with the staff a week before to be sure things were in place. The parent and staff letters, both of which explain the basics about Achondroplasia and answer the most frequently asked questions, were accepted by the principal. That was checked off my list. That is, until I received the phone message.
The priest who oversees the schools in the parish, rejected the letter. This is something I have never encountered. I called the principal, knowing that the parents would be receiving their registration packet the next night, Tuesday. School began on Thursday. First I asked why they would reject this request, especially because I had offered to pay all expenses associated with it. She quoted the priest, “If we do that for one, we would have to do that for everyone”. She then added, “We are not going to start sending home letters every time a child gets a hang nail.”
I took a deep breath and remembered my personnel training. I kindly explained the purpose of the letter was to inform, to educate and to avoid a stressful situation on that first day of school. Parents are then equipped to handle any questions their child may have. Children are very accepting, and this usually works very well to insure things run smoothly. She told me they had made the decision to let the teacher of each class read the letter to their class. I reminded her that this was intended for parents, the adults, not the children. Her reply was to let the teachers interpret the letter in their own way.
There is a problem with that. I reassured her that I have the utmost faith in the competency of their teachers, however, due to the vast misconceptions about persons with short stature, if they have not been around Little People, nor are an LP themselves, they may not have accurate answers to give. We talked a bit longer and she agreed to talk to the priest again and ask him to reconsider.
I contacted her the next day, anxious to hear what had been decided. No response came until Wednesday. The request was refused and the parent letter did not go out. The father did leave her with a bible verse to pass along to me, “Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.”
To me, the idea of using that quote in this circumstance goes against the idea of having an education plan set in place, of using step stools, or accommodations of any type. It also leaves the rest of the children UNPREPARED for their first encounter. As a friend said to me, “I am more concerned about the questions which will never be asked.” I requested for the principal to allow me to use that allotted time to speak with each class. Defiantly, she said, “My teachers will know what to do.”
I asked her, “If a child comes to you and asks you “What’s wrong with Jax?”, what will you say?”
“I will tell them that is how God made him and that his bones don’t grow the same way everyone else’s does…” She answered.
“No.” I said. “Your response should have begun with “there is nothing wrong with Jax.”
Needless to say, the conversation ended with her decision being final. She asked, almost as a challenge, if Jax would be able to handle it. I confidently told her that my kid will be fine; he can handle himself. I let her know that it is, however, a disservice to the student body. I couldn’t help but to mention that dwarfism is a bit more uncommon than a hangnail. I added that he may very well be the only Little Person they ever meet in their lives and that Jax’s reaction to a question or comment, if caught off guard, will create a lasting impression to all within earshot.
After our phone conversation, I thought about our day and his comment about the “weird homeless lady”. Had there been someone near us who was without shelter, who heard him and reacted in an angered way– that would have been his impression of every homeless person in America. For Jax in his new school, he will be representing every Little Person to those kids. That is a huge load to place on a child. One which could have been lightened by granting a simple favor. It would have been a kindness, if they would have done that for us. It would have made that first day easier for him and accurate knowledge would have been given to almost 400 people and their families.
I ended this week disillusioned by those whom I look towards to set an example of Christian ethics and also in deep disappointment in myself. I work globally to spread awareness of dwarfism and I failed with my own child’s school.