Jessie is in junior kindergarten at St Margaret Mary’s school. What a simple straightforward sentence. I can say it and people nod and smile. Off to kindergarten—how fast they grow, how cute, how wonderful. Off to kindergarten, like I’s just another step, one that happens naturally, without effort.
But, just like Jessie’s first step, it has not happened without a great deal of effort, angst, and emotion. Generations of effort, angst, and emotion in fact. Because if this were 1964 not 1994, Jessie would never have been allowed in our local school, would never have had the chance to play and learn with her neighbours, and would probably not have shouted “I’m not your friend anymore, at me when I told her it was time for bed. Oh the delights of integration!
I look at the picture of Jessie’s first day at school and cry. There is nothing in the picture itself that would make you cry, just a proud little girl with her backpack standing on the front steps, ready, just like any other child for her first day of kindergarten. She has not yet got that ticked off look that she gave me when I was hovering too close at snack time or helping her to line up for recess. The look that said—get out of here mom, I know what I’m doing and you’re bugging me.
And while Jessie knows what she is doing and is perfectly confident about where she belongs, I still cry when I look at that picture. It represents five years of struggle and growth. Five years of questioning our own values and figuring out what we believed in. Five years of getting to know Jessie and finally realizing that all we wanted was for her to have the ability and opportunity to feel at home in, to have a sense of belonging, to a community.
When Jessie was born and we were told that she would have to go to a special school, a segregated school for children like her we didn’t question it. Let’s face it, school was the least of our concerns at that point. And while it’s still true that Jessie belongs in school with children “like her,” what has changed is how we define “like her.” Like her doesn’t mean other children with Down syndrome or a developmental delay. Like her just means other children—her peers (some of whom may, or may not, have a disability or even Down syndrome), her neighbours, her friends.
We’ve learned to look at Jessie’s needs, not just her special needs. And the ones that take precedence are those that will contribute to her sense of self and belonging. Those that will give her the chance to lead a challenging and rich life and will allow her to share her very unique gifts.
When she was small, I was committed to the idea of integration for Jessie and for anybody else who had the courage and energy to fight for it. I knew that integration meant that Jessie would be able to reap the benefits (and the heartaches) of being a part of our community.
But maybe the point is that our community, our schools, need to have the chance to reap the benefits (and the heartaches) of having Jessie as a full-fledged participant. The focus shifts from just Jessie and her needs to include our needs as a community. While Jessie needs to feel a part of our family and our community (and that’s a pretty basic human need) our own family, our friends, and our neighbours, deserve the chance to re-evaluate and strengthen their own feelings of acceptance, love, understanding, and self-worth.
I’m passionate about this issue, not just because I love Jessie, but because I‘ve seen and felt the effect she has had on others, myself included. She offers us the chance to build caring, creative, and fearless communities from within. The problem is, some people see inclusion as a product. It works or it doesn’t. But it’s not a product, it’s a process. And like all processes it can be messy.
Those first few weeks of school were hell. Not that anybody would have noticed, because I was so very careful about being nonchalant, relaxed, easy going. I felt this tremendous pressure to just kind of go with the flow and keep all doors open. Jessie is the first child at St. Margaret Mary’s with a developmental delay and I wanted to make sure that I appeared relaxed and comfortable enough for everyone else to take their lead from me. But underneath I was a seething mass of tension and fear.
What if . . . the kids make fun of her, no one understands what she’s trying to say, she pushes all the time, they don’t tell me what’s really going on in the classroom, they don’t give her enough time to respond . . . But St. Margaret Mary’s has lived up to its logo: the little school with the big heart. Soon everyone (all 115 students and 6 teachers) knew Jessie and all the other children in junior kindergarten. Her peers and big buddies run to greet her when she enters the school yard and they don’t even seem to mind that she won’t look them in the eye. When Jessie pushes, she gets pushed back; when she grabs a toy in the sandbox, Alex has figured out that she just want to join in and finds a way to include her.
The big joke in junior kindergarten this week is “1,2,3,4,5,6… banana!” All the kids are saying it and I’m sure none of the parents get it. But when it was Jessie’s turn to do the calendar, she began to count the days, got a little bit lost, and then turned to her classmates, grinned, and said “banana!”
When I see how the other children in her class and in the school have just taken Jessie in as part of their lives, I begin to relax a bit. And thank God for great teachers like Betty Clough. Great, not because she knows a lot about special needs or Down syndrome—which she didn’t before Jessie entered her class—but great because she knows a lot about children, and cares about them. I get the feeling that together, we’ll be able to figure things out and make this year a success for Jessie, her classmates, and the school.