Part 10 of an 11-part series about Life With Jessie (written in the early years), first broadcast on CBC radio in 1997/98 and re-shared here as part of 31 for 21. The series will be re-shared and posted here on the weekends through the month of October 2012, as part of the 31 for 21.
Jessie is six years old. She has lost her first tooth, can write her name if you help her with the s’s, mastered the tuck jump, told me to change my attitude, and is learning to read.
One day last month, as we were approaching the school yard, Jessie looked up at a street sign and stopped. “Mommy. Look. I know that word! It says school.” She beamed from ear to ear. “School. I know that word!” She had stopped underneath the sign that said “School Bus Loading Zone” and the delight in her eyes mirrored a sudden revelation that she could read not only the word, but the world.
Nothing, however, quite matches my pride as I watch her learn. She has a sight vocabulary of at least 100 words and we just moved into families of words: the “at” family, as in cat, hat, mat, and bat. What amazes me is her ability to play with word order and meaning. The unrestrained delight in her eyes as she turns a simple sentence into a silly one by switching one word and then waiting for me to laugh.
I spend my evenings cutting out pictures, writing words in bold black print, creating books, and making up games. That Jessie would read was never a question, at least not in our minds. Our house is filled with books and if any child had it in her genes to read, it would be Jessie. Reading and writing is what both Dan and I do for a living (if you could call it that) and for sheer pleasure. But I never thought it would be this easy or this much fun.
Some people would say, well, ya, sure, but she’s high functioning. I’m getting tired of that phrase. Sure, integration works for her because she’s high functioning. High functioning . . . just exactly what does that mean? Sometimes it means that it’s more difficult for other kids to figure her out. Because at six, kids are into mastery. Who’s better than who. And there’s a general order that they have figured out that is closely hooked to age. When you lose your first tooth, when you turn six, all these rights of passage are tightly tied to the ability to do something. To read, to ride a bike, to draw a figure, or write your name.
Pushing Jessie on her tricycle the other day we met Tim on his two-wheeler. “Why are you pushing Jessie?” he asked. “Because she’s just learning,” I replied. Tim looked at me for a moment, then up at his Mom for support. “She can’t ride a bike? But Jessie is six!” This is inconceivable to him.
If Jessie were just always behind, if her effort and difference were just a bit more pronounced, I sometimes think the other kids would have an easier time of it.
“How come Jessie can read?” asks Tess one day at our house. She was a little put out because she’s used to being better than Jessie at most things. Having finally figured out that even thought Jessie turned six before she did, Jessie was really like somebody a bit younger, she now had to reassess her whole world because Jessie could do something that she couldn’t. I could see her little face struggling with this new view . . . exactly where, then, did Jessie fit in? That is the million dollar question, and the best “educational opportunity” any of us will ever have.
For Jessie continues to be an enigma, a child who is and is not a peer. She knows her colours in French better than most of her classmates, can recognize a variety of birds, can read many of the signs around the classroom, but she can’t ride a bike, doesn’t run very fast, and still grabs toys as a way of getting attention. She can, however, do the “Macarena,” a kind of line dance that’s a bit hit in the school yard. And while the Macarena might never show up on her IEP, it’s an important part of her education. An education that she could never get in a segregated setting.
The hard part is not so much in the day-to-day things, but in the things that go on outside our immediate lives. The undercurrent of cutbacks, legal battles, dealing with therapists, preparing for grade one, making myself clear.
There is an air of desperation these days, that makes me very nervous. People are losing their jobs, school boards are claiming that they can’t afford the services our children need. Never mind that integrating children into their neighbourhood schools actually costs less than putting them in a segregated setting. Parents are being told that their child can get an integrated placement, but they can’t promise any supports. But without supports it’s not integration, its dumping.
Jessie would never survive and thrive the way she is without supports. I am so proud of Jessie, of her classmates and her teachers, and of the school community. But there are moments when I get this weird vision that Jessie and others like her will only be this weird blip in time, this strange generation of kids who grew up and went to school together and learned something about meaning and value and caring. I shake my head and clear my eyes. I cannot believe that what we’re doing in not right, is not a step forward, and I can’t bring myself to think that at some point Jessie or the children following her will be forced into segregated settings. Settings that maximize their difference, that deny them the day-to-day opportunity to make friends, to feel good about what they have to offer the world. It’s not that we don’t struggle with how she fits in, it’s that we’re taking the chance to figure it out. Whitout that struggle, we would not have the moments that make it all worthwhile.
The best moment, the moment I would trade all others for, is the moment when, hidden in the closet behind a sheet and amongst the pillows and stuffed animals that I was ordered to supply, Jessie and Claire got the giggles. Singing funny troll lullabies in their own imitation of how a troll would sing, they began to giggle with each successive phrase as each one topped the other in silliness. Nestled there among the pillows in the dark cave of the closet, they wriggled and giggled and I stood quietly in the hallway, holding that moment to my heart. They are so few and far between and I want, more than anything, Jessie and her friends to know what these moments feel like. Moments of connection and delight. Moments when Jessie’s sense of humour and playfulness are appreciated and treasured.
That night, as I was tucking Jessie into bed, she turn to me and said, “Mommy, I like happy endings, do you?”
I do Jessie, I do.
Jessie and Claire went through elementary, middle, and high school together. Claire received funding to do a documentary about Jessie, and has gone on since then to study film in Toronto. Here is a link to this first short documentary, done in 2007.