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The Lesson I Learned Again, the Day I Cried in My Car

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When my daughter Zoe was little, I looked to the doctors to forecast her future. After all, they had the clinical experience from thousands of patients, and I was the first-time parent of a special needs child. I would cover Zoe's baby face with kisses, all the while wondering, "Will her words ever come?" "Will she ever walk?" The doctors were uncertain.

As Zoe grew older, she missed "milestones," yet amazed us with her tenacious achievements. We learned to embrace her uniqueness, and I found peace with the fact that as her mother, I knew her the best.

As Zoe prepared to enter kindergarten, I had to fight for her full-time aide in the public school system. Her health issues and need for safety demanded it, but it was a time consuming battle. Her pre-K teachers were caring, concerned and prepared a plan for her kindergarten education. I was excited to tour the classroom -- until I did. Immediately I knew Zoe's "team" had underestimated her abilities. I left the school stunned, set out to do my own research, and found the right environment for her in which she has thrived for the last six years.

Fast forward to middle school transition, and my girl, with multiple disabilities, has more than "found" her words. She asks me often why kids stare at her and tells me she wants to "walk" places that her body just can't. She likes Monster High Dolls, and uses her iPad to catalog the ones she wants. She looks forward to recess time with her friends and baking at home. She has continued to progress at school, with the support of an awesome team providing a specialized education plan that includes PCI reading and Touch Math. She has just begun multiplication and tells me "math" is now her favorite subject.

At Zoe's recent IEP, her team recommended her middle school placement to be at a different local middle school, which offered a self contained program providing Zoe the level of academic challenge she deserved and the social component of classroom peers. Her current neighborhood school is three minutes from our home, and extends to middle school. Zoe would leave this school, and her typical peers that have socially accepted and included her since kindergarten. However, I agreed this program sounded perfect for her needs.

I know her team has her best interests at heart, so I was "on board" and looked forward to doing a walk-through of the new school and the proposed classroom. Despite different obstacles, I pushed for this, making it happen. I arrived at her new school excited, eager and smiling. When I left an hour later, I was sobbing. Usually I act pretty professional and not over-emotional, yet I couldn't even hold it in until I exited the school. I started crying as soon as I left the "classroom." The school psychologist glanced over at me suggesting I was having a hard time with the middle school transition and that we go to her office where she kept the Kleenex.

Eventually I found the words to question what I saw.

I found the words to advocate for my happy, confident child who would not respond well to the cold, impassive, impatient scowling teacher I witnessed barking replies to the 16 special ed students she was "teaching" with a messy hard-to-read overhead image in an overly dark classroom. A classroom that held discarded chairs piled against the wall and unpacked boxes. Obstacles that would make it difficult for Zoe to get past in her wheelchair or walker. The classroom walls that were sparse and held a few crookedly hung education materials that were unreadable to the passer-by. I stood in the classroom for over 20 minutes, watching her assistant grade papers in the back of the room, while the teacher attempted to circulate between all 16 students that needed a higher level of assistance. For the time that I spent there, I didn't see one positive interaction between the teacher and a student. A few students worked on iPads in the back of the room, where the teacher would visit, pause, type in a word or two and move on, while other kids tossed pencils, ate snacks and were quickly reprimanded when they became impatient waiting for her help. I watched her hastily urge students with obvious physical and intellectual disabilities to hurry. When the teacher was summoned over to me for an introduction and asked to summarize the program, her words were not only impatient but unfriendly as she challenged "What-do-you-want-to- know?" with plenty of attitude.

She referred to her students as "kids," remarking "I have one kid" here and one "kid" there. The total environment was negative in every way, not just influenced by the verbal attitude of the teacher, but also by the overly low lighting, unkempt classroom floors, overflowing shelves, and sparse walls. It was dismal, with not a bright color or positive vibe to be found. It was like the class the school forgot.

The school psychologist agreed the students' needs called for greater hands-on assistance, as she cited "budget cuts" to explain the lack of proper teaching balance. Aides were taken from that class to perform other functions that day. She went on to defeatedly admit that with the recent override not passing, next year would prove to be even MORE challenging, and yes, she was actually resigned to the situation worsening. When I questioned the overly dark rooms, due to Zoe's severe vision issues, she insisted that there was another legally blind student in that room, and the kids seemed to prefer the low lighting.

When I questioned the teacher's attitude, she defended her slightly, explained her as gruff, but insisted her students end up performing.

Eventually I stood, and said goodbye, already trying to forget my imagined image of my daughter in that classroom. I got back into my car where I sat and cried, cried so hard that when my husband called me, I could barely speak. I wasn't sure at that time what my options were, but I knew that environment would have damaged my child, in a variety of hard to imagine ways. What if I had just agreed to the placement, that sounded so perfect on paper?

Those images, that classroom, have helped me advocate for creating the right individualized education plan for Zoe to continue at our local neighborhood school with the peers that have been kind to her since kindergarten and the therapy providers and nurses that have known her for years. The images from that day gave me the strength to ask her caring transition team if they have ever visited that classroom and spent time in that environment --and then suggest that they really should. What I saw that day has given me the strength to make phone calls and advocate for parents of special needs kids to visit the classrooms their kids are transitioning into -- urging them to spend time, meet the teachers, sit in the classroom and experience the environment.

The lesson I learned again is there just isn't a teacher, a doctor or other well-meaning professional who definitively knows what is "best" for my child. As Zoe's mother, I see her as the whole child she is: her spirit, her strengths, her abilities.

It has been a long time since I have cried as hard as I did that day.

One thing I know for sure, though -- I am happy to have cried all those tears, rather than see Zoe shed just one.

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This post originally appeared on Special Needs Mom.