It was a hot, humid, miserable August evening when I pulled our teal minivan into the parking lot by the school with seven-year-old Matt sitting peacefully in the booster seat behind me. We were headed to kindergarten orientation, his second, as we had decided for him to repeat kindergarten. He could adjust better this year. He was much more familiar with the school than last year and had more language skills. We reviewed his school routine at home with a picture book we had made how to hang up his coat and backpack in his cubby and go to his seat.
Tonight our big goal was to greet his teacher, Mrs. Cooper. We would find his cubby and his desk but the real feat was going to be Matt greeting his teacher with all the other people present. He had practiced greeting her over and over and he was ready.
I looked at him in my rearview mirror sitting quietly behind me as I put the minivan in park. “Matty. Here we are at school.” I slipped out the drivers’ door and opened his.
“We are going to say ‘hi’ to Mrs. Cooper,” I reviewed with him as I unbuckled him. “Say ‘Hi, Mrs. Cooper.’”
He looked at me with his big brown eyes and his mama melting smile and said, “Hi Mrs. Cooper,” and giggled as if it were the funniest thing to say.
We were going to do this. Greeting Mrs. Cooper would be huge. He had practiced countless times and could say it on cue, it was the next step to do it in the presence of others. I just knew he could do it. No one had worked harder than Matt on this greeting.
Sweat was beading up on my forehead as I unbuckled him from the 5-point booster seat restraint and helped him down from the car with a firm grip on his little hand so I wouldn’t lose him. We crossed the asphalt parking lot and entered the school from the playground entrance closest to the little kindergarten section.
Matt had prepared for three years in an intensive behavioral program at home before his first year of kindergarten. Now with a year of half-day kindergarten behind him, kindergarten would be a full day this year. If it progressed like last year it would be a quarter of the year before he could actually stay at school for the whole day.
Other families with wide-eyed kindergarteners entered ahead of us, passing by the big box fans in the hall heading to the left to the kindergarten classrooms. There were a few know-it-all older sibs in the herd pointing out where the hall went to the right and telling them about the cafeteria and the principal’s office.
We located Matt’s cubby on the way toward the classroom.
“See! Your cubby!” I over acted the excitement and encouragement.
He understood little language, but did understand very short phrases. He didn’t really understand ownership, but we were working on that. Our agonizing decision to hold him back for a second year of kindergarten weighed that kindergarten was really the only year of schooling that was heavy on social learning and the major deficit in autism is social. We wouldn’t be doing Matt any favors passing up athe opportunity for a year of a social curriculum.
“But what about how he will stick out from his classmates when he is older?” we were asked. I just repeated what another parent in my shoes had answered at her school. “My son has autism, do you really think being bigger than his peers will make him stick out any more?” I left out her cleansing, cackling laughter of acceptance but treasured it in my heart as I echoed her brilliant insight.
We waded through the swarm of kids and parents as we approached the classroom. I spotted Mrs. Cooper alone behind her desk in the front of the room surveying the crowd. No one else was vying for her attention. Perfect. We would go for it.
I switched my hold on Matt to gently but firmly gripping both of his shoulders to steer him up to Mrs. Cooper. She knew what we were attempting and we made eye contact as Matt and I stepped up in front of the desk that was behind more box fans.
Before I could open my mouth to suggest the greeting Matt made his pointer fingers rigidly straight and jammed both pointer fingers straight into the box fans and then straight up his nose.
In an instant I had a bleeding shrieking child in kindergarten orientation.
Without any obvious reaction I calmly took a breath and a tissue from the box on Mrs. Cooper’s desk and kept the blood from clothes, floor, and furniture. The shrill short shrieks were not the cries of a typical kid. Just one more way that Matt was different.
May God bless Mrs. Cooper who remained cool calm and collected as if this were nothing out of the ordinary.
“Do you think we could do his self-portrait at home?” I asked, looking for a way to smoothly exit.
“That is a great idea. I will get the materials.”
Without batting an eye Mrs. Cooper floated off to gather the supplies at Matt’s desk.
The bleeding was slowing down, and the shrieks were tapering. I had noticed that the box fan blades had stopped immediately when Matt stuck his fingers in. Thank goodness for safety fans. I would look things over more carefully in the car, no need to make more of a spectacle here. I didn’t know if his fingers or his nose or both were bleeding, but the car would be soon enough to look.
I kept my eyes on Matt or Mrs. Cooper. I didn’t think I could handle the expressions of the parents and kids. No one wanted a kid like mine in the class.
Mrs. Cooper brought the papers for the self-portrait and I thanked her quietly before we briskly exited.
Matt was calmer as we approached the minivan and I helped him in and buckled him securely before I took a good look.
I could laugh then. Fingers, nose. I could handle that, I smirked darkly to myself. I was a plastic surgeon.
Up in his booster seat I got a good look at everything. Matt’s fingers were fine and the blood had been from his nose but there was nothing that needed medical attention. No skin tears, just some dried blood.
“Are you okay, Bud?”
No answer. I tousled his hair affectionately.
“Mama blow your tears away?”
I blew a gentle breeze over his face with several breaths and I could see him relax. I smooched him on the forehead.
“You are okay,” I reassured him, hoping to see his little smile again.
“Just a little mistake, Bud.” I watched his expressionless sweet face.
“We can always try again.”