Well here we are, in school with two kids. If buying a vacuum or signing a birth certificate or choosing a pediatrician didn’t make us feel like adults, then filling out two hundred forms the first week of school and packing side-by-side lunches does. It’s official: we’re not playing house. This parenting stuff is legit.
If the end of last year was Test Preschool Out year for Nella, then this year is the real deal. We’re in the preschool directory and “Nella Hampton” is typed on cute little labels on cubbies and job lists and birthday calendars.
She’s doing really well, and in one week we’ve had a good handful of reminders that the extra challenges she faces are real and present, but that the greater truth of watching your kids learn new things–regardless of their pace and position among learning curves and growth charts and standards–is about the most fulfilling thing your heart can withstand.
The preschool environment is really good for Nella right now, providing an opportunity for her to thrive outside our home, make new friends and learn instructional routines that will soon be part of her everyday life. But the classroom setting also draws attention to her challenges–things we forget that she’d probably be able to do if she didn’t have Down syndrome. We are very good at focusing on Nella for who she is and following her own pace that sometimes we forget–“Oh yeah, most kids this age can have a complex conversation.” We watched an old video clip the other day from when Lainey was three, and I couldn’t believe how well she spoke and interacted with us. You really do forget over time, and while I might not be as bad as the old man in the elevator last week who thought he’d tap into his former dad-of-little-kid days and take a shot at guessing Dash’s age with a, “Lemme guess–8 months?”, I at least have forgotten enough not to make constant comparisons. I love that we see Nella for who she is and that we’re not pressured by what she would be doing without that chromosome, but I also like to keep my finger on the pulse of age-appropriate expectations so that I can prepare her as best as possible for the world that awaits her.
Her classmates responded to an “All About Me” activity last week, answering questions about themselves like what their favorite color was, what they wanted to be when they grow up, their favorite toy, their favorite food, etc.. Her teacher, sensitive and eager to make subtle accommodations, texted me the list of questions the night before the activity, understanding Nella wouldn’t respond to these with verbal elaborations like her friends and hoping that maybe I could send in some answers so her poster would be as fact-filled as her classmates’. While she knows many words and can run to the pantry with a passionate “I want crackers!” to tell you what she wants to eat, she doesn’t elaborate much with open-ended questions and sometimes just smiles and says, “yeah.”
I pulled the list up on my phone and grabbed a torn piece of paper and a pen. We’d try again. “Nella, what’s your favorite toy to play with?” I knew I could make it easier by giving her choices or leading her to pick the one I knew was her favorite. In fact, I could save us all the trouble and jot down reasonable answers without her even being asked, but I wanted her to answer on her own.
“Toy,” she said.
I rephrased it. “What do you like to play with? Can you show me what you want to play with?”
“Play with,” she repeated.
I’d try a different one. “Oooohh–your favorite food. What’s Nella’s favorite thing to eat?”
“Favorite eat,” she mimicked with a smile.
It wasn’t going to happen this way, and Lainey knew it.
“Can I do it with her?” she asked, reaching out to take the pen. “I know what her favorite food is.”
Lainey kneeled down next to Nella, using the same syrupy mom voice she uses when she plays house or teacher or calms Dash down after a boo-boo.
“Nella, is spaghetti your favorite food? Do you love spaghetti?”
Nella smiled. “Yeah.”
In the space after “Favorite Food” on the paper, Lainey carefully wrote “spagity.”
“Is a baby doll your favorite toy?” she went on. “You love baby dolls, right?”
Nella smiled again. “Yeah.”
The questions and yeahs continued until the paper was filled, and Lainey handed it back to me, satisfied with her progress.
“Thank you so much for doing that with her,” I said, “You just helped her with her first homework assignment, you know.”
I would love nothing more than to have a long conversation with Nella–to hear what she really thinks about spaghetti and baby dolls and her sister’s plan for her to grow up and be a singer and a daycare worker who rocks babies all day. I dream of these language victories and how they would help us know our daughter even more. But for now it is what it is.
“Oh, don’t say that in front of Dad,” my sister warned me up north this summer after I dropped the phrase in conversation, “He hates that saying.”
“He hates ‘It is what it is‘?” I laughed. “Why?”
My dad overhead and jumped in. “Because it’s overused to be a cop-out phrase. It is what it is if you accept that. But it is what you make it if you tell yourself it can be more.” Life Lesson Crammer, he is.
Down syndrome for us will always float somewhere between “It is what it is” and “It is what you make it.” Like any parent of any child, we love our child just the way she is…and we’d love for her to reach her full potential which takes some pushing for all of us.
After one week of school, I was pleasantly surprised (okay, I cried) to hear Nella sing her entire preschool prayer, word for word, at bedtime the other night. She’d been spongin’ up the week’s experiences, saving the big moment to show us: You sillies. Of course I can show you what I’m learning. Watch this.
Different strokes for different folks, different paces for different faces. We’re all learning.
I decided if my kids were back in the learning and new experience game, I didn’t want to be left out, so I signed up for an adult ballet class and showed up last week with a couple of friends who promised they too were “inexperienced beginners.” My friend Andrea lost all credibility because, while I was having my crooked plie gently corrected by the teacher, Miss “Ballet Beginner” was Pas de Bourree’ing across the floor all total profesh. But whatever. I’m definitely the most inexperienced (translated: hilarious-to-watch) dancer in the class and wouldn’t know a rond de jambe if it kicked me in the face, but I’m learning and it’s fun, and my body’s being stretched past what I thought it was capable of–sore muscles to prove it. I’m pushing myself and watching the moves of the other dancers in the class, knowing I’ll pick things up as I go.
Before floor exercises last week, our teacher suggested the less experienced dancers (cough cough, Kelle!) join a group of–well, let’s just cut to the chase here–people who don’t look like asses out there. Knowing clearly which group I belonged to, I scooched a little closer to the two dancers in front of me who obviously had some dance instruction under their belt.
“How long have you been dancing?” I asked one of them.
“Since I was two,” she answered.
“Whoa, you beat me,” I admitted. “I just pretend I’m a ballerina in my kitchen when I play classical music.”
The music started and I followed her lead as our group glided across the wood floor to the other side. I was happy I wasn’t dancing alone even if I couldn’t keep up. Different strokes for different folks, different paces for different faces…we’re all learning.
I made it through class and look forward to more practice, more stretching, more learning this week.
Oh, and my ballet friend? The one whose lead I followed? I noticed something a few minutes into class. She has Down syndrome too.
I’m so excited for what this year holds for Nella–it is what we make it.
I expect great things.