Friday March 11th was the best day Frank and I have ever spent together. Like always, he woke up smiling, eager to start another day of adventures. He ran into school and immediately sat down in the big circle with his friends. He said “goodbye” to them and his teacher when I picked him up. He even used their names. He explained and demonstrated how to make a peanut butter sandwich during speech therapy and played quietly with foam letters during the St. Joan of Arc School Lenten Souper, spelling as many words as he could. He was the perfect date during my St. Patrick’s Day party shopping trip. (His favorite part was checking out the vegetables.) He fell asleep in my arms when we got home.
Although this was a good day for Frank, it wasn’t a typical day. Sometimes he chooses not to listen. Sometimes he chooses to wander. Sometimes he chooses to be difficult rather than cooperate. Because of his developmental delays, Frank’s behavior can be unpredictable.
Fortunately, Frank was born to the right mother. I might not be the most organized person in the world, but I am flexible, patient, calm, and compassionate. I possess all the characteristics required to raise a child with special needs, and that’s why God gave Frank to me.
Don’t get me wrong. Taking care of Frank is far from easy. Sometimes it’s exhausting. It’s a constant game of testing limits (his and mine), adjusting expectations, on-the-spot problem solving, overcoming heartaches and celebrating small victories. I am his teacher, his coach, his cheerleader, his security guard, his advocate, his voice. Frank has taught me that the kind of love a mother has for her child with special needs is almost as great as the unconditional love God has for all of His children.
Over the past few days, I’ve had to make some difficult decisions about Frank’s future. During what was supposed to be a fun sports class, Frank couldn’t leave the cones alone that his coach had set up for a slalom course to the basketball hoop. He kept interfering with the other kids’ game, so we left. Since this wasn’t the first time Frank struggled to understand the rules, I had him permanently removed from the class. I want Frank to have the chance to gain social skills in a group environment, but this wasn’t a good situation for him, his coaches, his teammates, or their parents.
I cried the whole way home, not only because he couldn’t make it in the class at the gym, but also because Patrick and I have decided that St. Joan of Arc’s preschool isn’t going to be the best place for him, either. As wonderful as SJA’s preschool is, between his IEP and the admissions testing, we don’t think Frank is quite ready for such a rigorous program. Frank has made remarkable progress over the past two years, but he still has a long way to go.
I had imagined seeing him in his uniform, and teaching him how to paint, and watching him on the playground next year. I knew that if there was a problem, I could be there in an instant. When you have a child who needs you, you want to be close to them, too. But, sometimes in pursuing what we want for our child, we are missing what he really needs.
We’re searching for a more suitable environment where Frank can get the kind of attention he needs. It’s not easy. His language and social deficits make it hard for him to perform at the same level as his peers. But, the more time he spends with kids his age, observing them and engaging with them, the more he will grow. Since he’s been in a three-year-old preschool program, I’ve even seen progress in the way Frank plays with his brothers. (Hopefully he will be equally kind to our new baby.)
Finding a teacher who is willing to put in the extra work it takes to work with a child like Frank is the hardest part. Not everyone has what it takes to teach students with special needs. It requires more patience, more flexibility, more effort, more willpower, and more kindness than it does to teach “normal” kids. Special education teachers embrace the opportunity to grow and help someone else grow, knowing that the moments where you want to tear your hair out are soon followed by moments of incomparable triumph.
Frank is named after my grandfather, Frank A. Chrest, who was a gifted special educator. I wish he was here now to give me advice about how to be a better parent and teacher for Frank. I like to think that he passed along his gift for working with the most challenging students to me. It’s what grants me the fortitude to reach the kinds of kids that other teachers dismiss. It’s what enables me to understand Frank when it seems like no one else does. It’s one way I can approach others with open arms like Jesus did.