As a parent of a child with special needs, I sometimes wonder what my kid’s days are really like when she is away from me. Not as recorded in an IEP or a 504 plan. Not filtered through someone else’s report. I want a chance to simply stand by and watch, undetected, as my child goes about her day.
I want to see what my child with Down Syndrome sees.
One day, I had that chance. Her school scheduled a field trip, which included a bus ride to the city, tours of an art museum and outdoor sculpture garden. I’m all for mainstreaming, but this was too big of a day to just let my daughter go and participate freely with the other kids. There were too many variables. So I signed up to be a chaperone. “Not just a regular chaperone, though,” I said. “I just want to be in the background to give Stella as much freedom as the other kids have. I’ll stand back and just be there if she needs me.”
Not a helicopter parent, just a safety net.
The day started off beautifully. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the crowd of eager 3rd graders lined up to be paired off for an art scavenger hunt in the sculpture garden.
Do you remember what 3rd grade is like?
Picture a pile of nine and ten year olds, waiting to be matched up in pairs. Shrieks of joy ring out when a friend’s name is called, smiles all around. I remember that. I also remember that sinking, third-grade-girl feeling of gloom when my name was not matched up with a good friend. This day, I stood on the edge of the crowd, watching the pony-tailed girls in the class skip off, smiling, hand in hand for the scavenger hunt. I held my breath, wishing that for my daughter.
But Stella was paired with a boy. Let’s call him Mark. I wondered how well Mark knew Stella, or if he was displeased. Let’s face it; above and beyond the whole boy/girl barrier, a scavenger hunt is a race, and Stella is prone to meander and mosey. Whoever Mark was, he would definitely not be coming in first place. What would his reaction be? I have to be honest. If I had been in his place, I know how I would have felt. Anticipation, excitement. My fingers would have been drumming and the butterflies racing. ‘Grab the clipboard and run! Others are ahead of you - work hard and win!’ would have been running through my mind. Competing was more important than curiosity in third grade.
But I am a grown up now. I am accustomed to slowing down and waiting. It’s not so bad. I watched, unnoticed in the background, as Mark organized a clipboard, a pen, and the worksheets for the scavenger hunt. Here we go.
Mark then turned to my quiet little girl with Down Syndrome and said, “Here, Stella. You’re really good at writing, so you start out as the note taker. We’ll take turns.”
“Okay,” she said, brightly smiling up at him.
Off they went. Other kids raced ahead, searching for sculptures. Mark walked slowly with Stella.
I followed them through the sculpture garden as they worked through the checklist, absolutely in awe of the way the two kids worked together. Mark was kind. He was happy. He was accommodating without any hint of impatience. He encouraged her to write what she was able, and didn’t erase or adjust any of the answers that she wrote down.
He was amazing.
Stella, of course, was every bit as wonderful. I might be a little bit biased. She amazes me every day with her compassion and gentle disposition.
Together, these two calm and curious kids strolled through the sculpture garden, experiencing art, taking it all in. At the end of an hour, they lingered at “Woodrow,” a great bronze horse sculpture that appears to be built from sticks and branches. I had been staying a few steps behind them with my official chaperone badge, quietly watching over them. But then Stella called to me.
“Mom! Mom! Come see!”
“It’s a beautiful horse, Dear,” I replied, walking up close to the kids.
“No. Not a horse. It’s a nest.” Stella said.
“Yes, it is built like a wooden nest, Honey. But it’s definitely a horse. See?” I showed her the nose, the eyes, the ears. “It’s a horse.”
Stella took my hand and shook her head.
“No. Come closer.”
Then she and Mark pointed out what they could see and I could not.
There really was a nest. A small bird had built a nesty home, deep within the heart of the Woodrow sculpture. Wisps of twine fluttered from between the great cold bronze sticks. The bird nestled there, warming her eggs. Two quick, shiny eyes stared back at me.
How could I have missed that? In keeping my distance, I thought I saw things for what they were. Proper perspective, you know. Powerful sculptures. But I wasn’t really seeing anything from that far away. My perspective was all wrong. I got down on my knees, next to the kids, and watched the bird’s feathers fluff in the wind. This bird within her nest was a perfect little miracle, hidden away in the thatch of tangled metal. We watched and wondered together, feeling the art come alive. The horse Woodrow could have whinnied, and it wouldn’t have surprised me. It was real.
The other kids from the class began gathering in the distance. The scavenger hunt was apparently over.
We were last, but we were the absolute, clear winners.
I want to always win the way that these children do. I want to meander through art and through life. I want to see what is inside. I want to take time to be curious, to look for the truth which is subtle and sometimes hidden away. I want to see with eyes that see kindness and compassion, not competition. I want to see what my daughter with Down Syndrome sees.
“Hey,” said Mark, hopping on one foot as we walked back toward the waiting buses. “Why did Stella call you Mom? Don’t you just work here?”
I had just spent an hour with this kid, watching his courtesy, his open-mindedness, his wonder and his patience. I saw his curiosity, his empathy, and his respect. He was nine years old, and he was an outstanding human being.
All that, and the little guy didn’t even know that I was her mother, watching over them.
That is just what I always hoped that I would see.