I stepped back from the kitchen table Tuesday morning – Nolan’s first day of school, and his first day as a high school freshman – and I liked what I saw. This, I thought, is the type of introduction every student who has special needs and is starting a new chapter in his or her academic life should have to it.
Nolan was dressed comfortably in a t-shirt and shorts – no polo shirt with an itchy tag that can drive a young man with Autism and sensory issues batty, and no $30 pair of shorts or pants that might very well have been soiled by any combination of food, drink, or bodily fluids before the school day was half done. He munched on Skittles as one of the paraprofessionals – as it turns out, the sister-in-law of one of my cousins – patiently went over a lesson with him. His teachers showed up at different times to say hello and tell him how much they are looking forward to seeing him in person next week and not on a Chromebook screen.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of the director of pupil services, Nolan and the other students with special needs in our school district will begin receiving face-to-face instruction starting the day after Labor Day. Hearing those glad tidings last Friday was welcome news to a father whose stress level had reached the stratosphere weeks ago. It was welcome news to Cindy, who has repeatedly assured me she won’t anytime soon be cashing in the two ample life insurance policies waiting for her when I arrive at the Pearly Gates or a warmer destination a few floors below.
As for Nolan, who has not set foot in a classroom since St. Patrick’s Day, I know there initially will be some weeping and gnashing of teeth when he returns to a normal school day routine – or as normal as it can be during a pandemic – following four days of online learning. But a return to a routine is desperately needed, no matter how much he might protest. Tuesday was by no means problem-free, as evidenced by Nolan’s hissy fit when I told him it was time for school and the subsequent sore throat he gave me for jamming his forearm into my Adam’s Apple. But he showed that maybe, just maybe, he’s ready to go.
He stayed at the table while I answered the “getting to know you” questions the paraprofessional asked about him.
He returned to the table after taking a short break and watched her go through a simple math lesson.
He was very attentive during science, during which time we both learned foxes grow to be a foot tall, wolves grow to be three feet tall, and they are not related.
He remained patient as dad helped with – OK, did – the fine motor skills assignment. He’d been sitting in the kitchen chair for about 25 minutes straight by that time. That’s longer than “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which, depending on my mood, seems like it’s 25 hours long.
He came back after a break and watched a 10-minute news video without squawking. Letting him eat a can of soup while he watched sure didn’t hurt. He’s the very hungry teenager, and a well-fed Nolan is a happy Nolan.
I briefly chatted via Zoom with his adaptive art teacher, who decided he’d wait until next week to begin the class. Art isn’t exactly Nolan’s favorite subject, so the Monty Python and the Holy Grail-themed shirt he wore Tuesday was appropriate (“And there was much rejoicing.”).
His attention span was pretty much shot by the time we reached his adaptive physical education session, and he spent most of this time either in the can or the living room. But five out of six ain’t bad.
To be honest, I think Nolan’s first day of high school was considerably better than mine, or at least what I still remember after 35 years.
I was the skinny kid with acne who was worried that I wouldn’t be able to open my locker even after practicing the combination a few dozen times. I swear I was the only kid in my gym class who didn’t know how to swim, and the teacher made it very clear everyone – yes, even you, Bey – was getting in the pool this semester. I damn near got flattened by Barb Sloan, dressed like she’d just left the set of Madonna’s latest video, as she raced by me in the hall trying to reach her next class on time. I stood red-faced at the locked door of the science classroom and knocked to be let in because Barb had thrown me off kilter and I hadn’t reached my next class on time.
Kirk's freshman year, fall 1985. He was having a bad hair day, but at least he had hair.
Because a majority of the students in our district will be learning exclusively online for at least the first 30 days of the school year, Nolan and his classmates will have the luxury of having the high school pretty much to themselves. The school he attends is by no means large, but not having to share it with 900-plus other students until at least October definitely won’t hurt. One of Nolan’s teachers said she and the staff will attempt to do as much work outside as possible, weather permitting. The kid loves him some outdoor time, and that definitely will help with the transition.
Nolan has been home with me now for the last 5½ months, and as much as I’ll miss him it’s time for him to return to the school routine I tried like hell to give him this past spring. The high school special education staff is phenomenal, and Cindy and I wouldn’t want Nolan to be in any other district. He had some hellacious days in both elementary and middle school, and we know he’ll have more. But we also know what he’s capable of. I’d like to think that in time the folks at the high school also will see what he’s capable of. Tuesday was a good start, if you ask me.
Hopefully I can step back when the school year ends next June and say that September 1 was the start of something really good. And I was there to see it.