The list of new kindergartners assigned to Room 23 is short: 18 names, including my daughter Mariah's. In California, 18 is a small class. "That's because," another mother tells me, "there's an autistic child in Room 23. She takes the place of four." I file that information away, under Things to Worry About.
On the first day of school, I open the file and spill out the contents. What if Mariah hates school? What if she misses me? What if she can't open her yogurt container? What if they put her on the wrong bus home? And what about the autistic child? What will she be like? More important (and more selfish), how will she affect Mariah's school experience?
I bring Mariah to Room 23. She has her new purple backpack looped over her shoulders like a professional student. She has her lunchbox, name tag, and wears her shirt covered with stars. She's shining in a way that tears the edges of my heart. She's ready.
As I leave, I notice Colleen. She is taller than the other students, very blonde, her light blue eyes striking. She sits with a woman who is her special aide. Colleen wears a gingham dress and a name tag. She is moaning. It is a distressing sound, one you wish would stop. The aide soothes her, but still she moans, a sad, low, earthy wail. I depart feeling troubled, hoping Colleen's unhappiness is not contagious. I worry that Colleen will make Mariah feel sad.
Colleen's presence in Mariah's classroom is a manifestation of an educational policy called "inclusion." Parents can request that their child with special needs be included in a regular class setting, if physically possible, rather than segregated in a special class. With the help of a constant aide and a smaller class, Mariah's teacher is including Colleen in kindergarten. Her teacher is doing a wonderful job. I'm the one surprised and ashamed at the narrow limits of my tolerance.
Not that I've ever resented tax money going to educate special-needs students. In spite of news exposs about the millions spent on severely retarded children, in some cases for their transportation alone, I've always thought, hey, give them a break. Every child has the right to the best we can give him or her, to the most help and compassion and training. I've been blessed with four healthy daughters. But as a society we must reach out and take care of all of our children.
That is, until an autistic child comes to the door of my own child's classroom. Now I don't feel so expansive. Now, I feel protective of the norm, a believer in exclusion - downright mean.
Happily, Mariah and her classmates educate me. They show me the true heart of tolerance and the scope of acceptance, and they do it naturally.
"How was school?" I ask Mariah, after her first day.
"Fine," she says. "I am a square. Danielle is a rectangle. We go to our centers with our groups. I have to wear something yellow in the morning. This is the kindergarten way to sit." She shows me, plopping to the floor cross-legged, folding her hands near her ankles, and looking at me attentively.
"That's very good," I say. I bite my tongue. I want to ask about Colleen.
"The bus has no seat belts," she says. "It's fun."
"Ah," I say. Nothing about Colleen.
"I ate all my yogurt," she says. "I painted a cat picture."
I can't stand it anymore. "How was Colleen?"
"Oh," Mariah says. "She said this all day." She makes a sound like the moan, the exact pitch. "She's nervous," Mariah says. "Can I go outside now?"
The weeks go by, and Mariah says little about Colleen. She talks about the monkey bars at recess, story time, and art projects. She and Danielle are best friends. She does her homework, tracing numbers, or writing her name on school-lined paper, the kind with blue dashes in between solid lines that makes me remember being 5.
Finally, it's Friday, my morning to volunteer in her classroom. I am looking forward to seeing for myself the impact of Colleen on my daughter's class. I sit in the back and cut out construction paper hands and glue pictures onto name cards, and I watch.
What I see makes me a firm supporter of inclusion.
Colleen speaks only with unintelligible sounds, pointing her long bony fingers at things, getting antsy about sitting in the kindergarten way. But the other students don't notice, or mind. One little girl puts her arm around Colleen when the aide, who has a saint's patience, sits her back down. Colleen is constantly reinforced, verbally and with stickers, when she behaves correctly. She gets time-outs when she does something inappropriate. She is evaluated and observed far more than the other children.
Yet, when the other children talk about her, they accept her for who she is. She's a kindergartner, like them. She's just nervous. What I perceive as special treatment, they regard as matter-of-fact, something she needs. Colleen needs those stickers to help her, and they don't, and that's the way it is. They're not being consciously kind. They simply accept her, without judgment or pity. She's their classmate Colleen.
"I got to play outside with Colleen for a couple minutes, when she needed to relax a little," Mariah tells me. She says this like it is an honor to be needed, to be helpful. I realize that's exactly what it is.
Colleen is teaching my daughter more about human nobility than I ever could.
* Valerie Schultz is a writer based in Tehachapi, Calif.