This morning I did a bit of addition and realized something I found rather astounding. This is the first time in the last 58 years that I have not been somehow involved in the rush and hullaballoo of the first day of school – as a student, as an educator, as a parent, or as a parent-surrogate.
That’s a huge chunk of living and a huge chunk of my identity, a situation of which I’m made daily aware. This week I had my allergy shot, administered by, you guessed it, a former student of mine who only recently was able to bring herself to call me Ms. Loni, instead of Mrs. Capshew. Interestingly enough, I don’t even live in a town where I ever taught school, but the vagaries of life have conspired to bring me in contact on a regular basis with those who know me as their “old teacher.” Fortunately, the memories seem to be kind ones.
Formal retirement nine years ago brought with it a whole new set of life experiences for me,too, but not such a great change in my old role. I had always looked forward to being a grandparent, but I had never anticipated having quite such an active hand in the whole business of raising my grand progeny. I foresaw myself enjoying the traditional role of grand-spoiler, but not grand-daily-caregiver. Nevertheless, I pulled up my big girl britches and dove right in when the occasion demanded it, determined and happy to show what a grand granny I could be. After all, isn’t that what grannies do?
At first, I experienced tremendous rewards, so the exhaustion was well worth any petty sacrifices, and I gladly embraced my new “career.” Grandchild number one had been diagnosed with a high functioning form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. That’s why daughter number one reached out to Mom in desperation.
Brae was incredibly bright, but socially inept beyond belief. Our beautiful little grandson couldn’t grasp even the simplest rules of safety, boundaries, etc. He could look at the model’s instructions, without even being able to read at age 3, and flawlessly assemble Legos Star Wars toys labeled as being for children 8 and older, yet he couldn’t tie his shoes until he was 8 years old. The public schools were determined to place him in special education, yet he possessed all the requisite academic skills for first grade by the time he was four.
Certain that Mama would know how to help her boy, my daughter would have it no other way but that she and her husband leave their home in Kentucky and move to Tulsa where my husband and I had retired, so that I could begin tutoring her little boy and could help serve as his advocate so that he could start pre-kindergarten as a regular student on schedule. And so, they came. My plate was full.
Keep in mind that, though I’d raised three successful students of my own, all of whom could read at very young ages, I was and am an affirmed secondary educator. I love little children, but not in great numbers and only if they’re related to me, as a rule. I’m sorry. That’s not to be unkind. It’s just an honest admission. My heart melts at the sight of a cute baby like anyone else’s, but I don’t want to take it home. I’ll gladly find it a home, just not mine. Cruelty to a child is the only crime that makes me question my opposition to the death penalty, in fact. Somehow it seems to me that anyone who could be that perverse is probably truly beyond redemption. So, yes, I love children. I just am not geared for the lack of adult conversation on at least an hourly basis. That’s why I taught Advanced Placement and high school English all my life.
Brae was in safe hands though because he met my selfish qualifications as my beloved, one and only, precious grandson. The mama tiger in me clicked on in full mode the minute their car pulled in front of our house. I got him enrolled in the local school the very next day, and the battle royal was on. Suffice to say, Mamo (that’s me) won the war, and our boy ended up in regular placement in morning pre-K. After lunch each day and when he’d had a couple of hours to unwind, Brae and I spent an hour every afternoon going through a regimen of skills and activities I had worked out that he needed from my research and consultation with friends who were experts in the field. When he was assessed in the spring, B was deemed capable of attending regular kindergarten with a special needs IEP.
He attended public school for three years and made average to above average grades, but, when his Mom and Dad began experiencing their own difficulties at home, we all made the decision to place him in a top notch private school, long-noted for its excellent track record with just such kids as Brae. This school accepts no students who are behavior problems (our sweet boy has literally never been in trouble) and none who have severe learning disabilities. The only students with whom they deal are those with high functioning autism and ADHD, if their IQ tests show them to be capable of average or better work.
Frankly, I couldn’t imagine that such a place existed. I was a bit nervous going to see it. Yet, their rates were as high as any other preparatory school and their college acceptance rate and completion rates were equally impressive, so we gave them a hopeful examination. This place was a godsend! The campus was beautiful, the parents were actively involved in every part of campus life, and the kids were all as quirky as Brae, but the difference was that nobody cared. They were relaxed and happy. The fact that it meant a one-hour commute each morning and afternoon were ruled out of the equation. This was my grandson, after all.
Brae was placed in a class of 8 students. We told his teachers he could hear neon in such lights and it really hurt his ears; would they mind unscrewing the bulbs over where his desk sat? For the first time, we got nary a strange look, and the teacher grabbed a stepladder and immediately popped out four of the tubes. Turns out this was not an unusual request at all. Acute hearing is common among Asperger’s kids. Another boy was very quiet, but just couldn’t sit still. The school had brought in a small rocker for him, and it sat on a small rug to muffle the noise at his seat. Such individualization was the rule.
The very first nine weeks of each of every year Brae has attended school there he has won the elementary school Principal’s Award for outstanding student of the quarter. That’s how happy and how successful he is. The curriculum is rigorous, yet our boy is a straight A student, planning to major in “some kind of engineering,” probably at the University of Oklahoma. Oh well. His Longhorn Papa Tex can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.
In any event, we became Brae’s chauffeur from day one. His parents couldn’t manage the price of the school, but a state scholarship became available, and we’ve covered every other expense. Grandparents do that stuff, too, it seems, because we’ve seen lots of others at his school who’ve done the same.
Since Brae turned six, four more grands have come along, all now under the age of seven. His mommy had two siblings for him, and his aunt gave us two more. They’re all just as precocious as our Brae (of course!), but, thank God, none seem to have the same hurdles he has had to deal with. I cared for every one of them while they were infants. In fact, I cared for Brae and his little brother and sister full time for a number of months while their parents were getting back on their feet. I have been intimately involved with every first day of school, pre-school, pre-kindergarten, and kindergarten. Except for our younger daughter’s little ones, I’ve even bought all the supplies, school pictures, field trips, t-shirts, tuitions, and what-have-you. I’ve gone to IEP meetings, meet the teacher nights, volunteer activities, picking up the sick ones, etc.
I have become exhausted and wept at times, wishing I could just be a granny. Just a granny. Then I’d feel shame, realizing what a trust had been placed in me, that at least I was able to do it, both physically and financially. I’d pray for strength, count my blessings, plant a smile on my face, and enjoy all the bounteous hugs and kisses and my refrigerator full of “I luv u, Mamo” pictures.
Then, the day I’d prayed for came, and a strange emptiness washed across me this morning. My oldest granddaughter started kindergarten; the youngest granddaughter began pre-K. I couldn’t be both places at once, and the big one wanted to ride the bus anyway. She’s delightfully independent. Her mommy had to stand at the bus stop with her and try not to cry. In a word, I really wasn’t required anywhere today.
Oh, I’d have been welcomed either place, and eight years ago I’d have run myself silly trying to be both places, but I’m at a new place now. I can be “just a granny,” like I’ve always wanted. I can let their mommies tearfully tell them good bye, then call me up and tell me how hard it was to let go of their babies. Mmm-hmmmm. Yep. I think I understand. Think is time to go upstairs and make some more little school dresses for my granddaughters.
Probably ought to take a box of tissues. My eyes are all wet for some reason.