It is a classroom, one of many on the hall. As is true of each classroom, there is a sign next to the door. But where most of these signs offer a number and a letter - indicating the grade and the first letter of a teacher's name - this sign offers only a 3-letter acroynm.
Three letters. What they stand for is not relevant, because it is a bureaucratic acronym built around a bureaucratic name. But we know what they mean. This is the special education room. One of two in this school, dedicated primarily to serving children on the autism spectrum. This room is for kids in the K-2 range.
This is our son's room.
Like the majority of the kids who come here, he is only in this room for part of the day. Roughly half of his school day is spent in a regular first grade classroom, where he follows the curriculum and participates in circle time and art and music. Where he goes to recess. Where he goes to lunch. He is supported by an aide - one he shares with another little girl - who only steps in to lend him a little help or offer redirection when he needs it. He still struggles greatly with peer-to-peer relationships (as is common for children on the autism spectrum), but he is - by and large - a part of the class. The applicable term is "mainstreaming."
The rest of the day, he is in the other classroom. The room with three letters. Getting specialized instruction on parts of the curriculum that he might have trouble following, as a result of his difficulties following verbal directions and filtering out multiple stimuli (the sights, the sounds, the movement of a normal first grade classroom) to focus on the teacher and his task. To accommodate his nature as a visual learner.
It is a good program. We are aware that that this is a tragically rare thing, and we are far beyond grateful that he is a part of it.
Most of the other boys and girls in his classroom are similarly mainstreamed. But not all. There are a couple of children who spend all day, every day, in the three-letter room. They are beautiful children, with significant challenges, who are doing their best. Every day, when I drop my son off at school and watch the other schoolkids playing together with such effortless ease, something inside me splinters a bit. (It aches every time.) Every day, when I see these other children from the three letter room come in, clinging to their parents or drifting on their own around the periphery, I'm grateful for what I have.
Last week, my wife took the day off and went in to the three-letter classroom. They have a program where once a month, a parent comes in to the class to read a few stories, walk the kids through some kind of craft-making exercise, and add a little excitement to the routine. Last week was our turn.
My wife took this task quite seriously. She is an outlandishly talented and brilliant woman, but one who has never had an artsy-craftsy thought in her life. Subsequently, she spent nearly a full week doing research -- trying to find some kid-friendly craft that she could not only master herself, but replicate successfully in a classroom and teach to a handful of 6, 7 and 8yo special ed students. She combed the dusty corners of the interweb. She carefully weighed the pros and cons of the suggestions of dozens of FB friends. She begged me to help; I failed her completely.
In the end, she settled on marshmallow snowmen. Fragile, seasonally-correct totems held together by thin and brittle toothpick chains, brightened by color-heavy buttons of gumdrops and faces rendered in slender lines of frosting. The morning of her presentation, she successfully created a prototype: a happy little figure, sitting on our kitchen counter. He lasted all of five minutes before my children fell on him and, in a moment out of Tennessee Williams, consumed him.
That afternoon, while I was at work, she called me. Told me that it went wonderfully: the kids loved putting together the snowmen, and listening to the stories she read, and just having her there. My son, for his part, kept walking over and laying his hand gently on her arm, as if unable to believe that she was actually there.
The next morning, she emailed the photos she'd taken of her visit out to the other parents. The photos show these beautiful children in their element: laughing, talking, concentrating carefully on constructing their project. A few parents emailed back to thank her; a few remained resolutely silent.
And then, she got an email from one of the other mothers. Her son is one of the children who spends all day, every day in the three-letter classroom. He is unusually tall for his age, and handsome in the way that you know will carry through to adulthood. A perfect visual blend of his parents, who moved from the far side of the country not long ago to be here, to have their son in this program. His father is tall, handsome and athletic. A physician, working in a pressurized, high-acuity field. A man who would inspire jealousy, if he were not also absolutely friendly and down to earth. His mother, little over five feet tall, beautiful and kind and infinitely gentle with their son, their only child. A few times, we have tried to schedule playdates with them. Each time, their son's behavioral issues have gotten in the way and cut the event short, or ended it before it even began.
They know so few people here.
"Thank you so much for the pictures. He came out of school so HAPPY. He said, "Look Mama, a Frosty the Snow Man!" He was so proud of it.
I just love it. Thank you."
My wife said to me, "I read that, and I melted."
As snowmen are wont to do.