The morning after the events of my last post Karin and I still didn’t know what was going with Liam’s first day of school and whether or not he would be afforded the orientation process that all the other incoming kindergartners were having. I had been hoping that after hearing the messages I had left the day before I would have recieved a call early in the morning but when I didn’t hear anything by 9am I knew that wouldn’t be the case. So Karin and I went to the school to park ourselves in front of the principal’s office until we could speak with her about our concerns. The school pre-k program social worker (poor thing) didn’t have any idea what she was in for when she walked by and waved hello.
“Can we talk somewhere, right now?” I asked.
Anyone who knows Karin and I knows that we are not confrontational people, but when it comes to the full throated advocacy for our son and his needs we will be as confrontational as we need to be, and we have a lot of practice. The medical field has trained us well with, daily rounds in the intensive care unit, family meetings, and the lifelong coordination of multiple specialists Karin and I have more practice than most at setting expectations with the professionals in charge of Liam’s care. We have to.
Liam’s life depends on it.
The meeting was tense. Tension brought on entirely by my anger at the situation and the fact that I am a big, loud oaf when I’m angry. There of course was no violence or inappropriate language, but I could tell by the look on her face and by the taps on my leg by my wife that I may have gotten louder and louder as I listed my grievances. I really didn’t want to start Liam’s school career being the angry dad but it was necessary. After Karin and I laid out our case for why changing Liam’s school schedule at the very last possible moment, and denying him the chance at the orientation process offered to the other incoming kindergartners was unreasonable, unfair and quite possibly illegal, the school social worker brought the principal over immediately and helped to facilitate a quick meeting. The principal, while understandably busy given that it was the first day of school met with us quickly. It was a shorter meeting than I had expected but that is to the principal’s credit. Understanding that we were angry even though she didn’t yet understand why, she accepted that a series of mistakes were made on their end and instead focused on what she could do to make it right.
Liam’s orientation was scheduled for 10:00 am the following day.
A few times a month Karin or myself (mostly Karin) will discuss treatment options with Liam’s neurologist over the phone. Explaining symptoms, relaying changes in medicine doses, what to watch for to see if they’re working, and what to do if they aren’t. Just as often, Karin or myself (mostly Karin) will speak to our pulmonogist over the phone to discuss breath volumes, peak inspiratory pressures, and overnight oxygen settings. Misunderstandings and mis-communications over the phone are luxuries that the Olson family cannot afford. We take notes, we ask questions, we make sure we understand what is expected of us and of Liam. It is a relationship that we have built by open and honest communication. A relationship that we need to have with Liam’s educators as well.
Friday morning Liam was able to meet with his teacher, the principal, two of his therapists, and the superintendent of schools for a tour. He was able to see the lift that the school department is still working to get operational, but also to check out the alternate route that he’ll have to use in the meantime. It isn’t ideal but they’re trying, I think they know now that I won’t let them forget about it. The orientation, from what I hear since I was at work, I wish I could have been there, was great. Liam was able to meet the first and second graders that will be in his class with him this year. The principal and his teacher explicitly discussed with Karin what the most effective means of communicating with each of them will be moving forward and they even thought of some things that will help Liam’s nurse do his job easier at the school.
They really are trying.
I don’t believe for a second that someone intentionally or maliciously decided to deny something from my child or his classmates. It is, after all, reasonable to change Liam’s first day since there are first and second graders in his classroom, and that way they can begin their daily routine a week earlier. But the time to make that decision was three months ago so that those same kids can have their orientation process and the expectation can be communicated in plenty of time. Three months ago when they could think through all of the issues it may or may not create for the portion of the student population that even the slightest change might effect in ways that people not living this life may not realize. Three months ago, NOT the day before. No one meant for this to be unfair but it was, and it’s my job to point that out to them. And I don’t feel bad for pointing that out to all of you as well while it was happening.
I had no problem writing about all the wonderful parts of Liam’s interactions with the school system in our town thus far. His first steps, his making friends, his wonderful penmanship, and even the first time he got in trouble.
It’s why I also had no problem writing about their mistakes when they let us down.
72 hours ago I had little hope for a positive and exciting first day of school celebration, but the actions of the school in the days following, showing us that they really are trying to supply everything they can for his education, as complicated as that is, have turned me back around.
We’re excited about Wednesday again, and while I don’t think I have anything to say I’m sorry for, I do have to say thank you.
Understanding that families do come in all shapes and sizes, who among us don’t remember hearing some version of it?
“You go to your room and you just wait until your father gets home and hears about this!”
Being told when Liam was only three weeks old that he’d never reach the developmental level of even a toddler, I never thought we’d have to use that phrase in this house. I knew then that he’d prove them wrong and boy has he, but discipline is one of those “universal” parenting skills that held little importance for us.
“There are no spoiled kids in intensive care units” people in the NICU and then the PICU say, and for us, once we brought Liam home, it became “there are no spoiled kids on ventilators.” And it worked, for a time. As long as he was breathing, Liam would not hear the word “No” or “now” or the phrase “because I said so” until he was almost four years old.
So it’s our own fault really. Don’t let that cute smile fool you. Liam can be just as much the brat that any other five-year old can be.
Truth be told, I couldn’t have been prouder to hear that Liam had been pulled from his classroom and into the hallway by his teacher to discuss why he was misbehaving in class. The kid who would never be able to communicate. He almost got a Yellow Card (and we all know you don’t want something like THAT on your pre-kindergarten permanent record). But of course it wasn’t in the fact that he was ignoring his teacher and not participating in his schoolwork but in the how he did just that.
Among Liam’s many super powers is his ability to avoid obligations (dr.’s appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, family functions) by sleeping or pretending to be asleep. He hasn’t realized yet that his heart rate monitor betrays his brilliant performances every time. He does it because it works. This time though, Liam decided to push boundaries by actively, alertly, and fully aware of his surroundings and behaviors, refused to make eye contact with his teacher and moving his head around in an effort to NOT look at the activity she was presenting to him. Non-compliant and proud of it, in every way that a non-verbal, low-muscle-toned five-year old brat can be.
Let me be clear, Liam loves his teacher. He perks up when she is around and the work that she has been able to do with him has been absolutely staggering. It’s in that love and respect that I think lead Liam to push those boundaries as far as he could. It’s because of her love and respect for him that I think she pulled him out of class to discipline him. Ventilator or no. seizure disorder or no. Global developmental delay or no. Liam is held to the same standards of effort and participation as all of her students and if she were to let him slide because he was cute. Or because he has special needs she is doing him no favors.
The concept of obligation is a tough one to teach. But it’s a lesson every one of us needs to learn, so when I got the full report from Liam’s mom on my return from work at the end of the day, Liam and I had a nice long talk. A talk about respecting the teachers and the adults in his life. About work, about effort and participation. We talked about what he did wrong, and what he needed to start doing from now on. I didn’t have to work to hard to figure out what to say either. Most of my own “wait until your father comes home” moments came on report card day, where I would get a lecture about work, about effort, and about participation.
The next day I was home from work and was able to go with Karin to pick him up from school. His teacher came directly over to us as he and his classmates exited the building. ” Well thank you for whatever you said to him last night. He had an EXCELLENT day today! He worked so hard with me when I asked him to.” she told us.
I guess he learned his lesson. Must have been that whole afternoon spent with the guilt and the anticipation of a punishment of some kind.
Just waiting for his dad to come home.
Like most parents of 5-year-old children we get a lot of arts and crafts projects sent home in Liam’s backpack. Most of them obviously the result of “hand over hand” writing and crafting. That’s ok with us. We came to grips early in Liam’s life that he wasn’t going to be making us any crafts or writing us any letters.
We picked Liam up from school about fifteen minutes early on friday so that we could take him to a doctor’s appointment. Liam’s nurse barely had him out of the doorway when he started he shouting at me. “He did such great work today! He worked so hard! Wait until I show you what he did in class today!” Liam’s nurse is not the most excitable gentleman you’re likely to meet and so the enthusiasm was evidence in and of itself of the importance of what we are about to see.
I can’t tell you how much class work we end up finding ourselves when going through Liam’s backpack long after his nurse has gone home from the day. Not only did he want to show us this work, he started showing Karin and I this page in the van, before we even had the tie-downs on his wheelchair secure.
“It started with this worksheet.” He told Karin and I while we secured Liam’s wheelchair. “He was doing some hand over hand on numbers until he did this number one all by himself!”
“That’s when [Liam’s teacher] got really excited and ran to get some more paper. She wanted to see how far she could push him and the only support she gave was to keep her hand at his elbow so his arm would stay on the table and not fall off.” He was speaking faster than usual now “The marker stayed in his hand on his own and he moved his wrist and hand on his own.” That’s when he pulled it out of the bag to show us.
From left to right. 1…2…3…4…5.
You might not see it. and you know what, I’ll admit that the 4 might be a bit of a stretch but it looks pretty damn good to me.
It’s things like this that Karin and I wish we could show to every doctor and resident who saw fit to tell us everything that Liam wouldn’t do. Everything that he’d never accomplish. Everything that’d be impossible for him to learn.
Because as a close friend who also is a parent of a child with some special needs often tells us — Everything is possible — the impossible just takes longer.
Liam and his best buddy W, the nurse I mention above. The photos are selfies that W has taken and shared with us. It would be a HIPAA violation for him to share them in any other way. But not if I do.