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First and Last Impressions

The hallway is empty now–bare bulletin boards that, just last week, were covered with colorful projects and pictures and sign-up sheets for the end-of-the-year party. The emptiness speaks of the fullness that’s been here the past nine months. This hallway is usually Main Street in the morning, a steady stream of in and out–parents leading the way and little ones following behind, dragging their tote bags, stopping in front of bulletin boards to find their hand print, their leaf project, their construction paper kite with the yellow yarn string.  There it is! The pink one! You made that? It’s beautiful!  Classroom drop-offs and hugs and Have-a-Great-Day!’s. Moms in yoga pants shuffling away to workouts and e-mail boxes, stopping outside the door to catch up–let’s do breakfast, let’s have a play date, let’s remember these preschool mornings forever.

Today it’s different. Classrooms have been cleaned out, projects sent home and the name tags that have personalized desks and job lists and cubbies have been removed to transition this sacred room for next year’s lucky students. The only last bits of this year reside at the table in the center of the room, covered in a summer table cloth, scattered with party treats. There are games, crafts, pizza and cookies; and I volley between Nella and Dash’s classrooms for events–a class photo picture frame craft and a montage slideshow to that ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that always makes me cry. Today is no different.

I realize how much I truly love this place–for its smallness and coziness but mostly its greatness: behind each classroom door is a world leader. A preschool teacher who holds the key to an individual’s entire world of education with the power of a first impression. There will be many teachers that follow–classrooms, policies, tests, memories of projects and field trips, routines, and over the years a cumulative folder that grows fatter with reports. But there’s something about that very first classroom, that very first person who believed in you and knew you not by a student number–but by your first name. Your favorite book. The way you hold your pencil. How you learn. What grabs your attention. How it takes you a little more time but, man, how you shine when you’ve got it.

I learned about the power of a first impression working in health care. In college, I had a number of jobs at the hospital where my dad worked–a hospital well-known for its incredible patient satisfaction reviews. Every employee, from valet parking assistants to cardiac surgeons, went through extensive training to provide exceptional patient and visitor service–to recognize that walking into a hospital automatically presented vulnerability and to recognize and respond to that vulnerability with utmost attention for every single hospital guest. I see you. I know that you might be anxious or scared and that you don’t really want to be here. I’m here to make it better. Assure you, support you, offer you a warm blanket, listen to you, connect you to the right place that can help. As a patient transporter, I was paid a lot less than, say, a doctor. but I was often one of the first people patients encountered as I picked them up from waiting lounges and patient rooms to take them to their procedures. I remember being told–and believing–that I might be the most important person that patient interacted with; that my presence, words and care could be the ones that changed that person’s entire hospital experience into a comforting and calm one. I had the power of a first impression. We learned that patients, without even thinking about it, expect that doctors are licensed, nurses are trained and that machines that keep your heart beating are working properly, but what they judge you on–what their entire health care experience is truly about–comes down to being seen. Feeling valued, listened to, loved.

Education is a lot like health care in that sense. I assume and hope I can certainly expect that my children’s schools are up to code–that teachers are properly trained and text books are up to date.  But what their entire educational experience is truly about comes down to being seen. Feeling valued, listened to, loved. I was reminded of that recently by another teacher and a parent of a child with Down syndrome when I had IEP Tunnel Vision: the document. Make sure it covers everything. Focus on the plan. The wording. The accommodations. The legal rights.

“Remember,” she wrote me, “an IEP is a fluid document that can be changed at any time. What’s better than a great IEP is a great team of teachers behind your student.”

Like health care, I know that I can’t control everything and that little minds are a lot like little bodies. But as we prepare for Nella to go to kindergarten and enter a much bigger world of friends, teachers and experiences that will continue to shape her entire world of learning, I’m comforted by the foundation that’s been laid by a lasting first impression–this little school and a teacher who has taught my child that she is incredibly capable of very big things, and that she is valued, listened to and loved.

I hug her teacher one last time yesterday, unable to let go. “Thank you, thank you,” I whisper. “You’ve given me a gift. I’m not anxious anymore.”

We’re now in the bridge between two sides–the ground that launched Nella into the public school system and the side that will receive her next year. And this week, we venture into another first impression as the principal of the school she’ll attend next year takes her hand and leads her to the kindergarten classrooms so she can explore and get comfortable. “We cannot wait to have her here next year,” the principal assures me. “We’re ready for her, Kelle. She’s going to do great here. We love her already.” With tears, I hug her before we leave. “Thank you, thank you,” I whisper. “You’ve given me a gift. I’m not anxious anymore.”

I know there is much to be done across the country in the world of education, especially when it comes to special needs. I’m prepared for setbacks and frustrations in coming years and understand the power of advocacy and the importance of growth and change. It gets harder every year, I know, and as the gap between learning pace becomes more prevalent and she’s more aware of her differences, I’m expecting it won’t be easy. But right now I have two powerful first impressions that drive our next step and cushion our new beginning.

I wipe my tears after our last goodbye yesterday and take Nella and Dash’s hand as we make our last walk of the year down the empty hallway of the preschool. But wait–I forgot to take a picture. We turn around and pop back into the classroom one more time. “Can I get one last picture of you two together?” I ask her teacher.

“Of course,” she answers as she kneels down and hugs Nella. And just before I hit the button, Nella shifts her eyes to her teacher and I see it–the all powerful look. Her worth, reflected by the one who’s revealed it to her this year.

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Teachers, you hold the keys to our everything. How you see them is how they see themselves.

Later at home, I read the letter Nella’s teacher wrote to next year’s teacher and rifle through projects and reports from the last few weeks. “She is wise enough to know that she’s at a different level than her friends, but smart enough to know that she can fit in,” her teacher writes. “She has a wonderful stubborn streak that reminds you that she knows herself well and won’t settle for less. She is most comfortable being treated as equal and being given the same responsibilities as her friends.” Oh, to have your children seen for who they truly are.

For this little one, I’m so thankful that her launch has her sails full spread, pushed by the wind, guided by those who love her.

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Comments

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  1. Her teacher sounds like a wonderful soul and the world is a better place to have her in it! How fortunate that your family was able to cross paths with her during this time. It sounds like Nella has great things ahead of her next year!

  2. Oh that picture of Nella with her teacher captured it! As did your words.

  3. Such a wonderful sentiment about first impressions. Very moving. And the ultimate first impression in life was of you mama! Her strength began with you and now wonderful teachers carry it through. Wishing you all a wonderful summer.

  4. Marjorie Dineen says:

    Hi Kelle,

    You and your husband and loving family are to be given credit for all that you have done and advocate for Nella and other children. She is the remarkable and spunky child that she is because of you.

  5. Marjorie dineen says:

    Hi Kelle,

    What a beautiful posting. Both you and your husband and loving family should take the credit for Nella being the beautiful,bright,loving and spunky child that she is and for all those you advocate for. Blessings to you and your family.

  6. I cried my way through this post, it reminds me of the final day of my oldest son’s first year of preschool. I cried so hard as we walked away, leaving the two women who built my confidence in his speech delays, comforted him when kids didn’t understand his words, and helped explain to other parents that his way of communicating was by pushing and hitting because he didn’t have many words. I head an unbelievable first impression of school, and every teacher is still held to that standard.

    I love your writing. You touch my soul.

  7. Barbara says:

    Wow! I am in tears! My daughter-with DS will be starting kindergarten this fall as well and while everything in this blog is spot on, the nugget that hit me the most is the gift that the teacher gave you–the gift of calming your parent heart. My little one is mostly non verbal so when a teacher can, with a kind smile and comforting words, take away my anxiety, it’s worth it’s weight in gold.

  8. I’m a bit farther down the road, but school, in my experience, is quite similar to my other parenting experiences with my daughter. When it’s hard, it’s very hard. I’ve recently had a year where I genuinely felt her teacher failed her–in a very deliberate fashion. But more often, she’s been well taught and has thrived. And the gratitude and joy I have felt as a result can’t be matched.

  9. Beautiful <3

  10. Brie'n miller says:

    Watching Nella go from your sweet pregnant belly when I first started reading years ago to the independent kindergartener to be has been a pleasure!

  11. Goosebumps :)

  12. Thank you for this. My youngest wee boy has a significant speech disorder which does and will greatly impact on him when he starts school early next year. It feels like such a step of faith to be leaving the safe preschool environment where he is treasured and loved and into school. So much is still unknown, how will he learn? Will it be a struggle? Will he have friends who accept him like he does now? Will the teachers and parents see his beauty and energy and his dimpled smile? Will they see his innate intelligence or will they just notice the poorly formed and hard-to-understand words?

    My thoughts and prayers go with you.

  13. This is perfection. In my profession, we always emphasize (like you do in your blog) that people just want to be seen. Now that I’m a mom (which is a phrase I’m even sick of hearing myself say), I realize how amazing it is for others to see – really see – who your kids are. I’m so glad Nella had the exact preschool experience that early educators aim for: one that helped her become more herself, one that nurtured excitement about school, one that validated her. :)

  14. Allison Wohl says:

    Kelle,

    My son, Julian, will finish kindergarten this year. I loved your post and remember being there last year. He had a wonderful year with a wonderful teacher who loved him and SAW him. It wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t expecting perfect. We know now that we can all do it together. We can watch Julian climb on the bus with his brother and be confident that he will be received on the other side, guided, and loved. There is no greater gift.

  15. Jill hutton says:

    I’m an early years teacher in England and that made me cry! Such a special photo and that look – the part that makes teaching such a special job x

  16. Jennifer says:

    Kelle, Can I be you when I grow up? Can you be my friend?
    I am a 47 year old mom to my one and only; a 5 year old also starting Kindergarten in the fall. I was worried I would have a DS angel and started following you after Nella was born. She is so lucky to have you and we are lucky you share with us. My angel has a physical deformity and I am worried how the world will accept her. With love I know she will be ok…..I only hope I will be. Thank you for …… you.

  17. This is so beautiful and I feel every word of it, including that damned ukulele sobfest reaction. I’m so weirdly proud of all of you and every single one of us!
    xo

  18. Andrea Hagood says:

    My daughter is starting Kindergarten in the fall too, and you put into words so much of the emotion I’m feeling right now. I was so focused on comforting her at preschool graduation (she sobbed for an hour on the swings at the playground after it was over) that I didn’t really process it on my own until now. Thank you. I also heard that you saw my Vintage Giggles quilt this morning. I’m jealous because I can’t wait to see it myself! :) Enjoy your summer!

    • You’re going to FLIP! It’s so gorgeous and vintage eclectic looking. The combo of fabrics is just beautiful, and the little touches (monograms!) are so sweet. Definitely one of faves she’s made!

    • …and the sobbing on the playground story–oh my heart! Xo

  19. What lovely words about Nella’s teacher and school. Our Joseph also had a teacher who could see him and predict what he would need next, but sadly, she died unexpectedly this spring. Ironically, the ukulele version of Over the Rainbow was played at her funeral. I’m really enjoying your blog and find myself happier after visiting and reading.

  20. <3

  21. I have been reading your blog for years… thank you. As a parent of a boy turning 13 in two weeks who happens to have cerebral palsy and as a former special education lawyer ( OH! The irony of life) I am sure you can imagine my caution when we develop and change and amend the IEP every year. However, there is nothing in that document that takes the place of a loving and accepting teacher – NOTHING. You will have wonderful experiences and likely a few heartbreaking ones, but when you travel the journey with the right teacher, life is good.

  22. What a beautiful post! I am so glad you have had such a wonderful educational experience with Nella and that you are about to embark on another! Smiles from one mama to another!!

  23. Thank you, Kelle, for sharing this beautiful post. I am the director of a Child Development Center for children ages 6 weeks through pre-k. I am going to share this with our staff to encourage and remind them of their important work each and every day. Love from Minneapolis.

  24. As a veteran Kinder teacher who is branching out to teach special education next year, I am moved to tears. I hope that I can give parents the gift you received from Nella’s amazing teachers. Your book and blog was one of the reasons that I chose to go back to school, at the same time I was sending my own babies to college, to transition from gen ed to special ed. You have just helped me create my mission statement! Thank you for sharing all your ups and downs!

  25. Beautiful post, Kelle! Brought tears to my eyes.

  26. Oh, you’ve done it again – tears! But this time it’s personal. I was a school psychologist in a preschool program for four fantastic years (the best of my career) and it was my dearest goal to make parents feel as you felt this last year. Your words and thoughts in your hospital transporter role – that was my mission in my role as a preschool psych. A surprising amount of my work was directly with parents, and I took that work so seriously. I wanted to set the tone for their journey in the school system… To honor the gift of their child and their willingness to entrust us with his/her education, to encourage parents to speak up and partner with us along the way… And to acknowledge while, that this special education journey can can sometimes be a difficult one, and I was there for them as a sounding board or during those times when it felt as though it is more than they thought they could handle. Although I have moved on to a new role, I miss those kids, families, and teachers who created the magic you just described. Thank you for taking me back and showing that somewhere, someone felt the way I would wanted those parents to feel – the way I would have wanted to feel if it had been me in heir place. I have loved watching Nella grow and bloom and I can’t wait to see what amazing things she teaches your family, her peers, and her teachers in the next phase of her education. Best wishes for an incredible Kindergarten experience!!

  27. Oh so very good timing. My daughter is moving on too – onto another great school that I know will honour her differences as well as her sameness.

    But the anxiety! Her leaving brings back the memories of when we first entered the educational system – we had no idea whether she would be happy, whether she would fit in, whether the school community would completely accept her. I finally discovered ‘sleepless nights’…

    Very happy to report that our anxieties were unfounded and she has absolutely loved school. It hasn’t been an easy ride – there are some days when my heart is heavy – like yesterday when we had a meeting with her teachers about the kid pushing away her friends…perhaps in preparation for the move.

    It can be so tough when you know your kid is the only one in the school and you worry about them – are they left out, do they get to join in with everything, is it because they’re six year olds or is it because she’s different questions popping up in your head.

    Although when it’s a good day – the joy you feel in your heart is immense and I always have to remind myself that kids are resilient, that life isn’t perfect and that whatever she has to deal with will strengthen her for this world that we live in. Yours in loving and considerate parenting of special kids, Lil Bee xx

  28. This reminds me so much of my brother. He will turn 21 this summer and just graduated from high school. I still remember the nervousness we all, but most especially my mom, felt with him starting in the public school. Every transition brought a new nervousness… middle school, high school… but he has thrived with every new experience thanks to the wonderful teachers and administrators who have been a part of the journey. I know Nella is off to great things next year! :)

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