The Kindergarten Club

There’s a “Welcome to Kindergarten” newsletter on my desk right now–saved even though I read it and already know everything it says. Scan over the wadded tissue next to it, the tape dispenser, the grocery list I’ll never remember to take with me, the pencil with the broken lead and the three bobby pins I pulled from my hair and left there last week, and you’ll find a small frame with a picture of Nella when she was born. Then and Now, connected by a string of little messes that somehow hold us together.

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I’d like you to know, for no particular reason, that before I started to type this, I played three songs that I drowned myself in the week she was born because, what the hell, she started kindergarten–let’s let ourselves get emotional.

A lot has changed over the past several years, and I’m happy to report I sent my second kid off to kindergarten in a far less helicopter mode than my first–like, I don’t know, maybe more one of those tourist helicopters that casually circles the Grand Canyon and shows the view rather than the Black Hawk that lands and storms the scene with IS SHE OKAY? IS SHE OKAY? IS SHE OKAY? I cried less. I had more to keep me busy. And I’ve been preparing for this one, proactively and purposefully, for a very long time. But this little milestone? Still huge. Still ever bit as emotional and consuming because how the hell else is it supposed to feel when you look at a teacher you only kinda know and pass off your beloved child–the one with a few more challenges than most–with a, “Oh hey, here’s a cooler with my heart on ice. Keep it beating for the next seven hours and then seven hours again tomorrow and then maybe another 180 days after that.”

In some way, I feel like I’ve been getting ready for this day since the day she was born–the release into the wild. It’s what I dreaded in the beginning–sending my baby who has a disability into the great big world of public education where kids who don’t know any better might shove her off because she doesn’t fit into the tiny world of what they know or, worse, make fun of her. Where teachers might not keep trying, where people’s ignorance about Down syndrome (hey, I had it too!) might create a condescending attitude that’s not going to help my child reach her potential, where label makers might put the wrong label on her, where the few boxes designated by policy makers as “Kinds of Students There Are” might not be appropriate for the kind of student she is–which is capable and funny and insightful and caring and full of so much possibility but might need more time and space and tools to show it. Dread isn’t really the word for this new start anymore because I’ve learned so much since she was born, and what we know we are now able to dream for our girl, no matter if she gets there or not, is so beautiful and paved by so much heart and soul from advocating families who’ve been doing this far longer than we have–it replaces dread with excitement and momentum and a deep passion for all that is possible.

Community helps. I call my friend Liz in Austin who’s sending her Ruby to kindergarten too. We compare first day notes, jitters and hopes. We volley ideas back and forth for when’s a good time to introduce conversations about differences to the class because we want them talked about appropriately rather than ignored and allowed to be otherwise interpreted; we want little kids’ natural curiosity and questions kindly welcomed; we want any “different” barriers that might make our kids feel even the teeniest bit alone addressed early; we want to create the community we desire.

Colette calls from San Diego this morning and tells me about her Dexter’s kindergarten plan, and we laugh and find solace in the fact that we’re both nervous–that we sense in each other that underneath all this game time focus, we’re brimming with emotions because we’re so desperately in love with these kids who surprised us, and we want anyone who meets them to learn what we have these past six years. “We’re the kindergarten club,” Colette says, and I want to hug her through the phone and not let go because I’m so glad I’m not alone.

I can tell you about all the scenarios I’ve thought up. I can tell you about the IEP meetings I’ve created in my head and the pretend speeches I’ve delivered to my friends when they offer to stand in as school district staff for practice–how those pretend speeches become so real, I stand up and deliver them preacher style, one hand on heart, one held to the heavens. I can tell you I worry about needs being met, resources available, living up to be what she needs me to be and one of my deepest fears which is probably one of your deepest fears for your kids too–and Dear God, let’s get this off our chests and let it go. I fear that there will be times when Nella feels swallowed by what makes her different–that there will be moments when every student around her “gets it” and she doesn’t, that she’ll retreat to the tiny cave of Alone we all run to from time to time when we feel overwhelmed by not fitting in–a “less than” cave–and that I won’t be there to see it in her eyes, to show up like I’m programmed to do to cheer her on, push her forward and remind her that her brain, her soul, her voice, her speed, her face, her talents, her art–it’s all so damn beautiful, just the way it is. And that all those things belong out in the open, to be celebrated in her classroom, in her school, in her community.

But I know she’s going to find ways to do that for herself. To follow the paths to more independence that her classmates and friends follow too. All of this is going to take time; we know that.

For now, we take the first steps required of us.

Nella has begun kindergarten in a general ed classroom at the same school Lainey attends–the same teacher Lainey had, in fact, and we hope this inclusive classroom situation continues for many years to come. We feel very thankful for her learning situation as of now and for the commitment of all those who work with her. As she grows and I continue to write in this space, I know her educational journey will grow and change as well. I will occasionally share parts of our journey that may be helpful or insightful for readers, but I won’t be sharing every detail, change and window into our unique experience and/or answer every question you may ask regarding her education as, for one, I respect the complex and important relationship between our family and our district, school and her educators.

I will tell you my favorite story from her first day though. I wanted her to sense as much peaceful energy as possible–to share our excitement for a new school and friends and experiences and yet to tame my own energy enough to keep her calm. Don’t make too big a deal of it. So I played the radio on the way to school, like any other day, and sank in to the peaceful quiet in the car, my school-bound babies visible in the rear view mirror–a little bit excited, a little bit nervous. And then I watched as Nella stretched her hand across the seat into her sister’s lap. “Lainey,” she whispered, “Hand.” Lainey took her hand without a word, and the two of them clasped all their worries and excitement together into one sister grip that could contain it all.

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And so I’ll do the same. I’m clasping all my worries and excitement for all our kids and their new beginnings right here into this space–into one sister grip that can contain it all. Put yours in too.

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The verdict is: So far, Nella loves school. Smiles when I drop her off, smiles when I pick her up.

“I think she was far more ready than we gave her credit for,” I tell Brett.

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As for Lainey, she’s chomping at the bit to pick out what Nella’s going to wear every day. “Can I be in charge of it all year?” she asks.
“Can Nella and I chime in too?” I answer.

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All these years, all these little messes we’ve made it through. There is nowhere more promising to move than forward, as long it takes, as hard as it may be.

Thank you for coming with us.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing that. Next February my youngest will start school. He has a significant speech disorder that impacts on his language and as we prepare for this, therapy referrals, meetings with special needs teachers and as I try to contain my crazy Mummy brain from jumping too far forward with the what ifs… what if he’s got a learning disability too… what if the kids laugh at his talking… what if he has no friends… what if no one can understand him… that I need to surrender and trust that the work we’ve done over the last few years and the care that has been given to my older children at the school, will continue.

    Much love.

    • This: I need to surrender and trust that the work we’ve done over the last few years and the care that has been given to my older children at the school, will continue.

      YES. So much yes. I’m with you, sister!

  2. Christine says:

    What a wonderful day! I’ve been reading and following amazing Nella since you first introduced her to the world through your blog. I’m celebrating with her today. You got this girlie and you got this momma…you are all rock stars!

  3. I rarely comment here but I’ve been following your blog since you celebrated 3.21 on the beach. (Of course, I started at the beginning of your blog then and caught up.) Nella’s first day of school outfit is darling.

    I worked as a school psychologist for many years and knew many students with DS. Inclusion was just starting then and it was a messy process. It’s much better now and I know that each one of us have unique learning styles and different speeds of acquiring information. Nella’s going to be just fine. The video of her reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a silly frog-like voice, delighting in her own goofiness, is everything. It shows spark and spunk and awareness and a sense of fun. She was delighted with herself and I hope she remains that way for life.

    Many blessings to you and your family. xo

  4. Kelle, I am so glad to read this post!! Nella will do a great many things!! This is only the start! Tell her Miss Anne says Hi!!

  5. Congrats Nella! And good job mom. My youngest has some significant delays. She has what she likes to say “a touch of autism” coupled with a significant speech delay. Plus she is 2 feet taller than everyone else in her class. If that’s not enough, she’s biracial and adopted by us, a mono racial family. But she has always been cheerful and taken each challenge in stride. Her cognitive skills are actually above average but because of her speech delay, she appears to have cognitive impairment. Now i’m just blathering on, but my point is to say that yes, there will be awful teachers. A lot. Yes, you’ll be fighting for her all the way through with that IEP as they’ll continuously try to take services away. Yes, kids and adults will be mean. But that’s on THEM. There will be many more who will fight for Nella alongside her. And they matter most.

  6. Kelle – with any doubt, when any sort of fear appears – please take a smidgin of the love, support and gratitude from your faceless friends around the globe who cheer you on with all that you do. Sharing your words is a blessing to this world – thank you. xoxo

  7. This was wonderful to read and I would LOVE and appreciate so much if you share how you end up introducing the topic of Down syndrome to the other students. My daughter is beginning kindergarten this year so I will truly be grateful for your ideas! Thank you!
    PS: Nella looks ADORABLE! Kudos to her stylist, Lainey!

  8. Kelle~I’ve loved watching all your kids grow & thrive. I love the way you write & the story you share. I love the community you’ve built around your children & I know that, while we can’t protect children from the hurts they’ll no doubt encounter & grow from, we can surround them with good, loving people who will cheer them on, love them & protect them. So happy that Nella is doing so well & that she was ready to meet the challenges of kindergarten. She’s awesome!

  9. The Lainey/Nella hugging pictures brought tears 😊 Stay strong mama! Congratulations!

  10. Hi Kelle, Awesome post as always! So glad Nella had a great day–way to go, Miss Nella, you will fly high and go far! And I HAVE to say, the love between the two sisters is a beautiful thing! Lainey is so gentle and reassuring with her when she needs it. That says a lot about all of you.
    Great job, Mama and Daddy!

  11. Kathryn Holmes says:

    Hi Kelle,

    I am a kindergarten teacher, 28 years in, and felt every word of this post. I think I can speak for most kindergarten teachers when I reassure you that we LOVE your kids every minute that they are away from you! I would be truly heartbroken if any child in my class felt anything less than treasured for exactly who he/she is. Thanks for the reminder of how important this is every day for every child!

  12. My son was diagnosed with cancer in January. His class sat down and talked with the teacher, counselor, and my son the changes coming and how his differences would look (hair loss, having to be in a wheelchair, etc.). Before hand, I asked him if he wanted to be there and say anything. he chose to be there but not say anything. I was so nervous before worrying about what the other students would ask and how he would feel. Would anyone talk about dying!?! It was so good though!!!! Once it was explained and they asked questions, it was never something his class spoke about again. They were his friends and support. Kids are just so awesome at accepting differences but not thinking less of others for the differences.

    Happy kindergarten year to Nella.

  13. Katherine Smith says:

    My hand is right there in yours Kelle. I hope you feel the strength. It’s such an honour to watch all your family grow, and try, and love, but to watch little Nella fly is really a gift.

    “Birds fly high in the summer sky
    And rest on the breeze
    The same wind will take care of you and I
    We’ll build our house in the trees”

  14. Beautiful words!

    I’m dying to know where you found the dress that Nella wore on her first day?! So adorable!

  15. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words how I feel about my daughters first day at mainstream nursery / kinder. She is nearly 4 and has quad cp, is in a wheelchair and is non verbal but she is sharp as a tack and understands everything. My fears for her at nursery and school are so huge I haven’t even allowed myself to open the box that I have locked them all up in as a survival mechanism. Handing the teachers my heart feels like exactly what I am doing today. Wish us luck! Cara x

    • I know the feeling of a locked up box of fears. And I know that along with the hurdles you will encounter, there is so much love and acceptance and growth for your daughter from school staff, students and an entire community that is waiting for her voice and talents!

  16. DOnt comment often (apart from the occasional song) but the image of your hand on heart speech practice struck such a chord in me, that I wanted to leave a little note. Our stories are very different, but I’ve so been there.

    In fact, I find that those angry heartfelt ones aren’t the tough ones. It’s so easy to go in all guns blazing, and when you do from time to time, it feels good.

    But really, the conversations that dominate this kind of experience, or any kind of difference is the quieter, more awkward ones. The ‘I might be being irrational’ or ‘You’ve had the best intentions but…’ I still practice my hand-on-heart speeches, because they make me feel strong, but I also practice my tenderness and my quiet voice, because it seems to get much more use.

  17. Your post brought tears to my eyes bringing back memories of when my youngest started school, she has health problems and handing her over on her first day, to be looked after by someone else was so incredibly hard. I hope Nella has a fantastic time at school and she is so lucky to have you there always fighting her corner when she needs it. Take care x

  18. Wow! Thank you for a real and beautifully written post. It’s wonderful to follow your familys story.

  19. I big fat puffy heart this. And I love that it looks like Nella decided no braids. 😉

    • I was thinking the same thing about Nella’s braids. So cute! I also love your comment “I big fat puffy heart this”.
      -So Cal Mama

  20. I’m in the kindergarten club too and have been reading your blog for years. Thank you for your words each week. Helped me survive life with babies and toddlers. Now it’s on to school years!!

  21. Megan landmeier says:

    Ah!!! We start the day after Labor Day. I can’t even handle it. So excited but how is ellie in kindy?!?!

  22. I love that Nella is 1 school year ahead of my son! I’ve read your blog since my son Sam with D.S. was born, and it always gives me a little insight into the near future! When my older son started Kindergarten last week, I was a mess! I’m already trying to emotionally prepare myself for Sam to start next year! Good luck to Nella, and thanks for sharing your experience!

  23. ?And then I watched as Nella stretched her hand across the seat into her sister’s lap. “Lainey,” she whispered, “Hand.” Lainey took her hand without a word, and the two of them clasped all their worries and excitement together into one sister grip that could contain it all.”

    ~ ~ I would have lost it at this moment. So sweet. The photos of her and Lainey and her and Brett…. adorable. Her dress is adorable too.

  24. Just as I read the part about Nella whispering “hand” to Lainey and they clasped hands, someone started cutting onions. It’s the strangest thing because I live alone.

    That Nella can reach out without fear of rejection is wonderful. You have instilled hope and confidence in your little girl and that will serve her all her life. That her big sister would take her hand without question, just be there for her, well, that slayed me. Theirs is a bond that is beauty personified.

    Echoing others, thank you for sharing this precious story and all the other life experiences you so graciously tell us about. We are all richer for it.

  25. I was doing just fine until that part about Nella asking for Lainey’s hand — then the tears welled up. As someone who has watched them grow up through your words and your photos since Nella’s birth, I am so incredibly in awe of Lainey and the way she has loved and cared for her little sister. Special girls you have there. <3

  26. I went to a “parent/ teacher meeting” today that was scheduled for me to come to the school. It was me surrounded by 6 people that were teachers, counselors, etc. They were kind and informative. In a nutshell, they told me my daughter needs extra help. I kinda left feeling defeated because we work so hard each night after school. Anyway, reading your blog this morning helped me feel much better so thanks so much.

    • I’m so glad it made you feel better, and I completely understand that little bit of heartache with “needs extra help.” I also know it helps to think about how wonderful it is that we get to receive that extra help. That it could help our kids unlock more gifts to be shared. Now I’m waiting for someone to knock on my door and offer to give me a little extra help. :o)

  27. Catherine says:

    “and remind her that her brain, her soul, her voice, her speed, her face, her talents, her art–it’s all so damn beautiful, just the way it is. And that all those things belong out in the open, to be celebrated in her classroom, in her school, in her community.” This made me cry. So perfect. I can’t think of a better way of putting it.

  28. Cinda street says:

    Our beloved Kansas City Royal’s broadcaster Rex Hudler has a child with Down Syndrome. He is very involved in his fundraiser “Team Up for Down Syndrome”. He talks about his son with “Up Syndrome” all of the time and he is so sweet about it. I think his son is around 17 now. I think you would find the story interesting. Good luck in Kindergarten Nella!

  29. I am having puddles in my eyes..
    Love your family:) I know it sounds funny ..but I do.

    I love that Lainey wants to pick her clothes out..already a sense of style:)
    You all have it:)
    I’d like some.

  30. I’ve loved reading about your family and your beautiful kids since I discovered your blog so many years ago. Thank you for sharing this today — it brought back so many memories of sending my own kids off to that first day of school and now I’m watching them send their kids off. There is just nothing better in this world than family! Hugs to you and your.

  31. I am the 2nd daughter of a family of 4 girls, very close in age – there was nothing more comforting knowing my big sister was down the hall at school – and as the years went on, it was wonderful to have my little sisters down the hall looking for me. The pictures of Nella and Lainey brought tears to my eyes – how beautiful!

  32. Lovely writing….just lovely!

  33. As a parent, one of the hardest things to do is to see them off as they start their journey. Kids are so resilient though. They seem to breeze through most of it. I work as a special needs Para in a public school, and believe me, I feel so lucky to work with these children. They have a lot to offer, and their love is unconditional, but, you already know that. Enjoy the school year and all it brings.

  34. Geri Watson says:

    Be still my heart! Thank you for sharing your family with us. Nella is expanding my world, and her life is beautiful. And Lainey is one very special sister!

  35. Thank you for sharing this – now i’m trying not to cry at work. Haha.

    My son has microcephaly is starting preschool this year. I have all these same worries, fears and hopes for my little guy. I love that you share your journey. :)

  36. Liz Taylor says:

    My little guy started kindergarten this week too. I learned about his special needs just a year after reading Nella’s story and I can’t tell you how much my heart has grown with yours. Thanks for helping us all along. Loves.

  37. She looks so much like you in that first picture!

  38. I am a puddle after reading the hand story and the picking out her clothes all year story. What sister love! I know it is so hard to send them off to school for the first time. Your kids will always do well because they have the anchor of their loving home to take with them everywhere they go. It’s a strength that will take them far and they are beyond blessed to have it. With every blog you post, you amaze me even more with your parenting skills and how hard you work at making a home for your kids. I had a lot of the same feels with my kids MANY years ago, but it was actually the first day of middle school that did me in!

  39. Check this out when you have time, if you’re not already familiar with this artist with Downs Syndrome. He has an exhibit at my local public library with poetry and artwork and it is beautiful stuff!


  40. I haven’t look in for a while, but then I’ve been busy. What a milestone to reach! Hooray! I’m glad you little Nella is enjoying school. My Mother would tell you bravo as well. She know of the battles you may have ahead, she has fought them but if you take them on one at a time, you’ll do fine. Don’t worry for what hasn’t happened yet. Miss Nella will thrive, she will love the socialising, she will love making friends (she will make friends). The children she starts school with, who go through school with her will not really think of her as anything other than Nella. Enjoy watching her learn and grow.

    My brother is now 15 and in the end, Special School was the best option for his high school education. That was one Mum found hard but we all supported and understood that it was best at that point. The other options weren’t great at all. It was hard to give up that fight to stay in ‘normal’ school but he stayed all through primary school and was a huge part of the school and community, and now he loves where he is with new friends. Good luck with the new schooling adventure. I am sure it will have its ups and downs but you have, what sounds like, a wonderful support network.

  41. Stephanie says:

    As a teacher, I think it is amazing that you have already planned to talk to her class about ways Nella might learn in different ways than them and address their questions! I have had students with physical disabilities and am always amazed at how other students quickly adjust to differences better than adults. Once their curiosities are answered and they know how they can help, children begin to treat those students the same as they treat any friend. I sometimes have to stop them from helping too much and allow the students who might need an extra hand to do it by him/herself. One particular student had CP and used a walker. I never once heard a mean comment from any of the 100 third graders he was with at school. It always warmed my heart to watch the way the kids never made him feel different and always made sure he was treated well by others. I hope you share the meeting you have with Nella’s fellow classmates! I’m sure it will go great! (Of course, they are kindergarteners! You’re going to hear lots of random personal stories!)

  42. Good luck for a great school year!

    Can I ask where did you find Nella’s dress from?

  43. This is so beautifully written. Thank you

  44. Thank you so incredibly much for inviting us to join you on your life’s journey. I’ve read your blog for years, and yet this is the first time I’ve commented. I’m literally typing this through tears after reading about where you’re at on this beautiful journey, and the grace you’ve shown in being the perfect balance of intentional and open in parenting your children.

    I too am the mother of three. I am also the big sister of a little brother who had Down Syndrome, and a sister who has epilepsy and significant learning disabilities. Being that big sister has been so extremely challenging at times, and yet, it is the single most character-defining experience of my life. I know love, acceptance, advocacy, ability in the face of adversity, and devotion in a way that I know, without a doubt, I would not know without being blessed by living the life I have. Life is richer, sweeter each day, as its value and delicacy is always vivid and at the forefront. I value motherhood and healthy children in a way that I know I would take for granted without my “big sister” experiences. My soul is richer for having been entrusted as the big sister of two sweet souls who had so much more to tackle every day. I am sure that as much as you worry for Nella, you also worry about the ramifications of your families’ challenges on Lainey, and her journey in life. Let me, as one who has walked in her (always adorable) shoes be the first to tell you, Lainey will be a loving, open, wise soul who will do amazing things in this life. Cheers, Mama. You are doing an amazing job!

  45. Today, I sent my 13 year old, who has Down syndrome, out to a day of firsts as well: first time in public school, first time on a bus with other children, first time outside of the cocoon of a school she’d been safely ensconced in since the first grade, first time with an entire staff she doesn’t know and very few children she’s ever met before.

    And, EVERY single word of this post resonates with me this morning! My daughter is stronger and more resilient than I often credit her with. I know this day will be hard – I had to fight for her inclusion in a school that segregates kids with IEPs. On the upside, the non-special ed teachers seemed really excited, mostly, by the prospect, as if they were eager to include a child.

    No phone calls or email yet…but I’ll see how she does. This could be wonderful for her. Public school provides lots of things that our little charter school could not.

    Thank you so much for this post…it’s a blessing to me this morning!

  46. i must say first of all that i admire your strength and courage and above all your positive attitude which is a challenge to someone like me. I work with special kids and i must admit their life impacts me a lot and the cheerfulness and dedication of parents like you is more inspiring. And with such dedication, your daughter will soar very high.

  47. Melissa G says:

    The “sister hand” that has me with tears rolling down my cheeks. The “sister hand” that at times feels so good throughout life, may that hand help to keep you strong as life moves on oh so quickly.

  48. love this
    and fellas dress
    where from?

  49. Beverly atkins says:

    Oh, my heart. We have come so far. Lainey is so grown up. Nella is so small compared to Lainey. But it was ‘the sister hand’ that grabbed my heart and squeezed tears out and down my cheeks. Thank you so very much for sharing your life with us. What precious love.

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