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Adventures in High School

“This year I am going to high school. I will be in nine grade!” my daughter, Amanda, tells anyone who asks. She feels confident taking the next step in her academic career.

I, on the other hand, am having flashbacks to her first day of kindergarten. Shiny, new students lined up in rows outside the school with teachers leading the way—some crying, some nervous, some chatting with friends. They all marched obediently into school. Amanda waved to me over her shoulder and never looked back.

I dragged my feet two blocks home, unwilling to put distance between me and my baby, thankful for sunglasses that hid my tears. How would I survive without her every day?

Amanda was born with Down syndrome, a big hole in her heart, and an airway issue that made it almost impossible to breathe. The first two years were spent in and out of intensive care units at various hospitals. Going to kindergarten seemed a vague dream.

Through her first years I was by her side for her therapy sessions, doctor appointments and even Mommy and Me preschool. I got used to having her around. I liked it. I knew she was safe. I could keep my hairy eyeball on her, or give that hairy eyeball to any annoying, bullying child who deserved it.

To be honest, kindergarten seemed a rude interruption to our routine. My baby would have a “life” without me every day for three and a half hours. I would not be there to protect/interpret/intervene/applaud her every move. I did not like this at all! I did not want her to go. I was not ready.

Typical, yes? But when your child has limited communication skills, added concerns arise. Could Amanda tell me if a student was mean to her? Would she be able to express if a teacher was not including her in classroom activities? No, she couldn’t. I had to trust people I barely knew. It was frightening.

I knew I had to let her go, as all of us who send our children to school do. I volunteered at the library and on field trips to get a peek into daily activities. I chatted with moms to find out what their children were telling them about recess and table time. With great anticipation I waited my turn at parent/teacher conferences.

I eventually got over my separation anxiety. By fourth grade I was happily dropping Amanda off at school for her now six-and-a-half-hour day away from my clutches. I even dared to go to lunch every now and then with friends.

And then middle school was upon us. Parental volunteering seemed no longer welcome. The curriculum became impossible. Mountains of homework were heaped upon students’ heads every night. And puberty!

To assist with my transition, Amanda’s teachers allowed me to attend her school visit. This gave us the opportunity to see her classrooms, lunchroom, gymnasium and nurse’s office—everywhere she would be traveling during her day.

The class bell rang as we stepped through the school doors. What seemed like millions of eighth-graders propelled out of their classrooms. I was awash in a sea of pubescent students. They were loud. They were tall. And when did eighth-graders start looking this mature?

My mama bear instinct was to scoop Amanda up, cover her eyes and head to the nearest closet. How would she not get trampled? How would she not get lost? Visions of her being swept in the current of students ending up in the wrong classroom God knows where danced in my head.

“We keep the fifth-graders separate from the rest of the school,” I was told. “She will be fine,” I was assured. “She is ready,” I was guaranteed.

And she was. I worked in the school store once a month. I couldn’t quite let go. Amanda always gave me a smile and hug when she spied me at my post. I was able to say hi to her teachers and aides, gather tidbits from the day, and stay connected.

Four years flew by and Amanda, like all other eighth-graders, outgrew her surroundings. 

If you ask her if she is excited about going to high school, she will immediately say yes. I, however, have become content in my cocoon of support and sameness. I am familiar with the teachers and staff, the routine, the building. I am not ready to graduate to high school.

The campus is so big. The students look like adults. The clothing is intimidating. The hair and makeup is scary.

Amanda’s high school experience will be “modified.” Her curriculum will be challenging but appropriate. She will not have the academic stress. She will not be as aware of social pressures.

Still, there will be a new routine. Expectations of ability and learning need to be set. She will be among unfamiliar teachers and aides. Once again I have to trust. I feel we are back at the beginning.

But I have to remind myself this is not “Kindergarten Amanda” I am leaving at the front of the high school; this is “Ninth-Grade Amanda.” She holds all the knowledge, experience and maturity we as a team of teachers, friends and family have given her. I pray that will be enough. 

I am sure I will be driving away from the high school building misty with tears, again thankful for sunglasses that hide my eyes. My baby is going to high school. And Amanda will head into the building with a wave of her hand, not looking back but looking forward to her new adventure.

Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.

Photo above: Deborah avanagh photo. Amanda, ready for high school


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