Friday, September 9, 2016

A Letter to My Daughter's 1:1 Aide

Tonight I lay in bed, after saying my prayers, thinking about all the things I'm grateful for, things I might need help with, and one single image keeps coming back to me: watching my daughter with intellectual disability and autism walk to my car every day in the flood of middle school students pouring out of the gate. As I search for that red, curly hair, I also search for you--the one person who makes it possible for my daughter to attend school at all--her aide. The image of my daughter walking to the car, surrounded by her peers--but feeling safe because you are there with her. Now that you have begun your fourth year as her aide, I am feeling more and more blessed that you have always been there for her. How did I get so lucky?

I remember how it was before, how I used to worry endlessly about sending my daughter to school. I remember observing her in a general education class at the beginning of second grade, feeling helpless because her wonderful resource placement was pulled from under her during the summer break. My only option was to have her attend a special education class, but I knew that wasn't for her. I also knew, while watching you sit there in that large class, all alone, afraid to look up from your desk, rocking your body back and forth, that sending you to school was doing more harm than good. So by the time Winter break came, I had made arrangements to homeschool you. After several painstaking IEPs, you and I were on a new path together, and I couldn't be more excited. Little did I know that it would be short-lived. Just 3 months into our homeschool journey, I became pregnant with our third child, and I knew for certain that there was no way I could give you the attention you needed to thrive once the baby came. But what choice did I have?

I remember taking you with me to observe the sped classes before the school year ended, and meeting with one of the teachers who reassured me that new classes were going to be formed shortly after the next school began. I knew none of the classes would be right, but I also knew I couldn't homeschool you with a newborn. So I had to trust in the teacher's words.

Your third grade year began, and once again, I found myself observing you in your new classroom setting, this time very pregnant and uncomfortable. The class was much lower than your level, but I couldn't send you to a general education class, either. I thought about how you came alive when I worked one on one with you, and wondered if obtaining a 1:1 aide would even be possible. No, definitely not, I reasoned. All I heard was that they were a nightmare to get, but as the weeks went by, and no new class was formed for higher kids like you despite my many calls to the district, I knew the aide was the answer.

So I brought it up to your teacher/case carrier. No, I demanded--after all, I'm your biggest advocate. I said Julianna needs a 1:1 aide so she can go to a regular classroom. She doesn't like the special education class. She deserves a chance to learn with regular kids. To my surprise, this angel of a teacher agreed with me, and did everything in her power to help--even things that could mean getting fired. She even "assigned" one of her aides to work directly with my daughter to have more evidence that an aide was needed. I still remember her words: "I know exactly who should work with your daughter." And it was you--and as a very pregnant mom I got to know you in those weeks of anticipation for the meeting. I hoped so much that the district would allow you to be her "helper." I saw how much it was benefiting her already, and I finally was beginning to have peace of mind.

The day of the meeting came, where a team of adults would determine my daughter's fate, and though I had been to many IEP meetings before, this one had to be the most nervewracking. We sat around that table, and the special education director read through a series of questions that would either prove or disprove my request. By the end, it was decided that without a doubt, she would get the aide. Literally weeks before my baby was to be born, I finally was at ease with my daughter's placement. No more worrying about sending her to school--she would have someone to help her with not just schoolwork, but with socializing, playing on the playground, being brave, opening a juice box, tying her shoes, and all those other things that did not come natural to her. She was a "mom" to her when I couldn't be.

Some of the directors tried to warn me before signing the IEP that giving my daughter an aide was the most restrictive placement, and the goal is usually to make it the least restrictive. So I tried to explain that for her, it was quite the opposite--that school itself was restrictive for her, but giving her an aide helped her become free to attend. Yes, it might hurt the bottom line for the district, but isn't education about giving every child a chance?

And you are still there, her wonderful aide. You have become a second mother to my daughter. You know her probably better than I do. You come to my car to pick her up every morning, and without hesitation, she gets out of the car and goes to you--that can't be said for many other people. You give her confidence to do things she wouldn't otherwise have confidence in. You ease her fears and anxieties just as mine are eased.

You were there on the first day of every school year, even when it meant leaving your own little boy behind. You were there when you became pregnant with your second child, and my daughter missed you when you were on maternity leave. You came to a private orientation with the vice principal of the middle school before the year started, and as the vice principal mentioned certain things about the coming year, you were the first to say what would work or what wouldn't work for my daughter. You know her so well, that sometimes I'm jealous, but in a very good way. I'm glad--so very, very glad--she has you.

You were there on the first day of middle school, bright and early at 7:30 am, even though your own son was going to his very first day of kindergarten an hour later. You knew how important it was to be there for my daughter on her first day of a brand new school. You could have told me that you wanted to be there to see your son, and I would have understood. But you didn't--you came to be there for Julianna. I hope you know how much that means to me, and to her. I hope you know how much that means you love my daughter and care about her success just as much as I do. Again, how did I get so lucky?

I don't know how much longer you will be with her. I don't know if the district will try to say that she's doing so well in school and doesn't need an aide--much like taking medicine away from a sick person who needs the medicine--and if there will ever be a fight to keep you. You better believe I'll be willing to fight for you. School would not be possible without you there.

And so as I sit in my car, waiting to see that redhead walking side by side with her faithful aide, I want you to know all these things that I could never say in person. I mean every single word. Without you, I wouldn't have as much hope in my daughter's future. And as I look to that future, I imagine my daughter walking across a stage at middle school graduation, and then high school graduation, and I know you will be there cheering her on. Maybe you'll even walk across that stage with her--or maybe you'll tell her to do it on her own, and she will, because she trusts you. I trust you.

Thanks for being there. Thanks for being one of the biggest parts of my daughter's educational career. Thanks for the tears you showed at many awards assemblies in elementary school because you wished that my daughter were up there getting awards like the other kids--after all, you know how hard she has to work--much harder than most. Thanks for helping her become who she is now, for helping her grow in ways that would not have been possible. And thanks for not giving up, even though I'm sure there were times when you wanted to. My daughter might not be able to express how she feels, but I can, and you have gone above and beyond your duties as an aide, because you are much more than that now.