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Losing out on a lot

Maybe it wasn’t a big deal and we wouldn’t be missing a lot, but I needed to find out so maybe I could be convinced.

I’d been prepping myself for a few weeks for what happened last Thursday. The governor of our state announced that as part of extending his “Safer at Home” order to May 26th due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and private schools would stay closed the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. It meant Nolan would not be returning to the middle school he’s attended for nearly three years. It also meant he would not get to participate in the eighth-grade recognition ceremony that is traditionally held at the end of the school year.

Yeah, it’s a missed milestone in Nolan’s life, but not as painful as if, say, I’d been on the other side of the country when he’d taken his first steps or had uttered his first word. I turned to Facebook and asked my friends whose kids had attended that middle school what they remembered about the eighth-grade recognition ceremony. I half-jokingly told them I wanted to live vicariously through their memories.

One of Cindy’s former co-workers, whose son is now a high school freshman, responded first, telling me each student’s name was called, and the kids who had participated in activities also were recognized for their achievements. OK, I told myself, no reason to get choked up.

Then a woman Cindy and I have gotten to know over the last 11 years because her son is Nolan’s age, attends the same middle school and also has Autism, responded. She wrote she and her husband had bought their oldest daughter, who is now a college student, a new dress before her eighth-grade graduation. There was a school dance. Her daughter posed for pictures with her classmates before the ceremony and joined her friends for pizza afterwards. She was looking forward to buying nice clothes for her son – dress pants, button-down shirt, tie, dress shoes – before this year’s ceremony.

I stared at the computer screen for a moment, then at the pictures of Nolan I have in my office, after I typed that last paragraph. He never would have worn a tie, and his dress shoes probably would have been a new pair of black Chuckies. I know he likely wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at a dance because of sensory overload. Maybe one or two of his eighth-grade classmates would have posed for a picture with him, but I don’t know. There wouldn’t be any invitations to a post-ceremony pizza party. Hell, there was no guarantee he would have made it through the ceremony without melting down or yelling loud enough for the people who live across the street from the school to hear him. His teacher told us at his IEP meeting in late January she was making contingency plans for him to receive his diploma after the ceremony if there were any problems.

Will Nolan be upset or even realize he’s missing out on what should be a special day? To be honest, no. But I know he’s missing out. And yeah, it hurts.

I know being upset about something such as a missed eighth-grade graduation ceremony is selfish considering how many lives this pandemic has affected. And I know very well that we’re not the only parents whose kids have seen their rites of passage destroyed this spring. Cindy and I have friends whose sons and daughters are being robbed of their senior sports seasons and their high school graduation ceremonies. Many high school seniors will attend college and eventually get a well-deserved graduation ceremony when they earn a degree in their chosen field. But there also are many who will be following different paths such as work or the military. They’re being sent on their way with nothing.

For full disclosure, it’s our understanding that Nolan will get to walk with his senior class in 2024 and be a part of his high school’s graduation ceremony. But we also plan to keep him in the public school system until he’s 21 years old, meaning he’ll return to school in September the next three years. There’s a whole lot of unknown awaiting both him, and us, from there.

So I hope you can understand why I’d pictured myself raising Nolan’s arm after the ceremony and yelling, “Yo! You did it!” a la Rocky Balboa after he had beaten Apollo Creed in “Rocky II.” We still have a few rounds to go, but Nolan’s already taken some hard hits and he’s still standing.

In the span of one year, we went from hearing our son read words in an Eric Carle book just after he turned two to seeing him lose those words very quickly to being told by a team of professionals he had Autism to sending him the day after his third birthday to an Early Childhood class at the elementary school in our neighborhood. I don’t want to turn this into an airing of the grievances, but we had our share of challenges – not to mention a seemingly never-ending revolving door of staff – during Nolan’s 8½ years at this school. By my unofficial tally, he had seven different special education teachers, four speech teachers, five occupational therapists, two adaptive physical education teachers, and a multitude of paraprofessionals – 14 alone before Christmas when he was in second grade.

Hillary Clinton said it takes a village. I swear three-quarters of that village worked at Nolan’s elementary school. He had some excellent people working with him. He also worked with some folks who believed in taking the path of least resistance. Don’t want to work, Nolan? Well, OK. Don’t want to go to music or art class? Let’s just do it all in the special education room.

The staff at the middle school Nolan attends has held him accountable and given him tough love, and it’s made a big difference. He was consistently finishing his work – oftentimes with prodding from his teacher or a paraprofessional and weeping and gnashing of teeth on his part, but it was getting done. He was going to his allied arts classes, meaning music and art, and he was consistently staying put. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with Nolan’s teacher, who had never worked with a nonverbal student before he arrived, and there’s the whole raging, cuckoo hormones issue that comes with being a middle schooler. But we can tell the staff loves Nolan and cares about his well-being. And he was having a pretty good eighth-grade school year.

The graduation ceremony was going to be a satisfying closing chapter on this stage of Nolan’s life before he goes to high school. Until it wasn’t.

I’m still processing what has happened, and I’m sure I’ll start bawling at some unexpected moment before Memorial Day weekend. The middle school principal sent a video last Friday to students and parents, and he was on the verge of tears when he mentioned the eighth graders. He promised that they would not be forgotten, and that they all would be remembered.

I just wish for Nolan’s sake it could have been done the right way. He, we, and the rest of the parents and students are missing out on a lot.

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