As I walked my youngest into his classroom on the first day of school, I was eyeing the kids inside and silently begging, “Please be kind to my son.” His sweet teacher must have picked up on my efforts to hide my concern under my smile and quickly came over. “How you doing, mama?” she asked. I nodded, not trusting myself to open my mouth, and handed her the book we had discussed at orientation earlier that week, titled Being Different is Awesome by Ryan Haack. I flipped through the pages with her, highlighting the parts I thought would be most age appropriate for preschoolers and watched her eyes light up. “This is perfect. Thank you so much for bringing it in. We’ll all read through it together at our first circle time today.” I nodded again then turned my attention towards my little guy. We found his cubbie, and I tried to get a read on how he was feeling. As I watched him slowly make his way from center to center, my mind flooded with memories of all the ways we’d prepared for this day over the past year.
He seemed confident and brave, even engaging with the other kids. It was so hard not to lose it. I watched as he approached his classmates and their eyes immediately went to his “difference.” I watched as one little girl reached out to touch his arm, and he pulled back, moving on to another part of the room. I held my breath, wondering if she’d say something. She didn’t.
I was about to walk away and leave him to respond to the questions and curious glances on his own. We’d been preparing for so long but, dear Lord, he’s only three! Am I terrible for leaving him? Should I stay with him for his first day to help him field the curious glances and pointing fingers and words like “gross” and “creepy?” Calm down. It’s only preschool, after all. Kids don’t bully other kids in preschool, do they?
His teacher again reassured me that he was in good hands, and they would discuss the awesomeness of being different at circle time. I put on my “everything’s great” face and kissed my sweet boy goodbye. He hugged me hard, and I squeezed back. I made a beeline for the door and barely made it to my car before the sobs took over. I tried to distract myself by posting a “first day of school” Instagram picture, but found it hard to read my words through the tears.
The next two and a half hours crawled by. I was certain that during his time at preschool I’d morph into some super human machine, cleaning every inch of my house and grocery shopping at the same time. Not so. I paced through my living room and sat on my bed staring at the wall, all the while wondering how circle time went, and if his new classmates were kind as they talked about the visibly different things that make my beautiful boy unique. Maybe I could ask the school to install a Nanny-Cam?
I pulled into the preschool parking lot ten minutes early and waited for the teacher to open the doors. I could see my boy’s dark hair through the window. He was first in line to head out the door. My stomach flip-flopped as I waited. This was it. This was when I’d see the fruit of all the effort we’d made these last months. Speech therapy, anxiety-coping exercises, giving him language to explain his physical differences and stand up for himself if needed, and practicing behavior in small group settings. We’d been working so hard for this.
The door opened and he came flying out at me. His face took my breath away. It was a smile I’d not yet seen before. His lips were pursed together but his grin spread ear to ear. I smothered his head with kisses and got down low in front of his face. “How was it, buddy?” I could barely get the words out. “I good, mama,” he said, barely opening his mouth to maintain his smile. His was a face beaming with pride. My son knew, just as well I did, all the work that had gone into the day. He knew he had conquered a lot in those last two and half hours. He felt accomplished and proud and it was beautiful.
I know my heart will endure many more “first days.” We’ve got 14 more new classrooms to brave over the course of my son’s schooling. Not every teacher will be so accommodating. Not every group of students will be innocent and easily-distracted preschoolers. My son will face bullies and have to choose his response. My prayer is that, somehow, he’ll be able to tap into the pride he felt on his first day of preschool and hold his head high through whatever comes his way.