It’s not like jeans shopping. First, rather than piling into your arms several pairs, in the end you can only pick one.
Second, and more importantly, rather than selecting from a wall of fancy cuts and colors—the skinny jean and the boyfriend jean and the capris, the dark rinse and the acid-washed and the intentionally distressed/torn jean—you might be choosing from only two options.
That’s what my husband and I had for Fiona. Two options. And let us be clear. The fact that we were given a choice in kindergarten felt sort-of miraculous. Like any family in America, we live in a particular zone, and that zone slates Fiona to attend a particular elementary school. I didn’t expect we’d have a choice. But teachers expressed concerns about how our slated school would suit Fiona. Based on its size and layout, teachers suggested the school might take away some of the independence my girl has gained in preschool. They encouraged my husband and me to go take some tours.
Elementary school #1: In a wet snow, we compete with other parents for on-street parking. After doing a few laps in my car, I end up parking a block away. My husband meets me there with the girls and snags a better spot right in front of the school, but he and the kids still have to cross a snow-sloppy, trafficked street to get to the school’s main door. He holds Fiona’s hand.
Before the door, another obstacle: a handful of steep steps downward. Our two-year-old, who’s getting pretty good at steps, has to hold the rail. Fiona, who’s not as adept yet as her sister, makes her wobbly way, nearly falling before we catch her. Once inside the building, I’m told there’s a handicap accessible parking space and a ramp at the building’s other entrance, but that entrance is quite a ways from the kindergarten classrooms. Fiona might have trouble walking that distance.
We take the tour. There are three kindergarten classrooms, all empty now after the close of day. The chairs, pushed beneath circular tables, are for giants. No, the chairs are for average-sized kindergarteners. But Fiona is the height of a two-year-old. The world is not made with her body in mind, and few things make this more apparent than a kindergarten classroom. She darts into the room anyway, roaming among the circular tables (each about as tall as her) with a smile on her face. “Friend,” she signs with her hands, gleefully.
“Yeah!” I say. “You’ll make friends here.” I choke up—at the risks of her learning here, and at the potential joys. This much we know: she will be included with her typical peers next year. We’ll have to get her a special chair, I note.
We head out of the kindergarten wing and take a long walk down a ramp. We pass the school counselor’s office. A woman inside sees my two girls and notes that they’re both far too young to be attending kindergarten. “You won’t be coming here any time soon,” she says.
“No,” our tour guide mumbles and gestures to Fiona. I walk away before I have to hear the gasp, or the My God she’s so tiny.
We visit the special education room, the art room, the music room. We pause to let the girls bang on drums. In each room, Fiona roams wall to wall like she owns it, grinning, approving. Sometimes she signs “friend,” sometimes she says “school” on her talker. Fiona walks to the end of the first floor with a smile on her face.
But on our way back—past the special education room, past the counselor’s office, up the ramp, and toward a flight of steps that leads to the rest of the school—fatigue sets in. For her small body, this is a gargantuan place. Today’s a high-energy day for my low-tone kid, and still she’s getting sluggish. Mid-ramp, she pauses. “Come on, Fi,” I say. She wavers and then carries on, no longer smiling. We eventually reach the bottom of a flight of big steps. I hold her hand as she overcomes the first one. It’s higher than her knee.
In this school, only the kindergarten and first grade classrooms are on the first floor. All the other classrooms are upstairs. “What do you do if a kid’s in a wheelchair,” my husband asks the tour guide.
“In that case,” he says, “we have to move their class into one of our first-floor rooms.”
“Really?” my husband says. “There’s no elevator?”
“No. We ask every year. But they never give it to us.”
Who is they? I wish I had asked. Here’s the confusing thing about the Americans with Disabilities Act. This building is Fiona’s slated public elementary school. The building is not accessible. A person in a wheelchair could never reach half the school. I don’t get it. Isn’t the building required to be accessible? No, apparently not. A quick Google search tells me this: If the building was built prior to the passing of the ADA, “removing barriers” would have to be “readily achievable.” Whoever they is, they don’t believe an elevator would be “readily achievable.”
Holding my hand, Fiona struggles with each step, wavering, tipping backward, nearly tumbling. I pull her forward again and again, catching her. Without someone beside her, this flight of stairs would be deadly. Our tour guide is at the top, waiting for us. When we reach the top, we look down a hallway of classrooms, but we don’t go in—each door is a gateway to an impossible land for my daughter.
I carry her back down. I think about how a teacher would have to carry her up and down. I think about what kind of “inclusion” experience that would be. There goes Fiona, the carried one. The steps are a deal breaker.
Elementary School #2—The short version: A handicap parking spot is right out front. To get into the building, there is no street to cross. To reach the front door, there are no steps we must climb. There are two shallow steps up, but a ramp also leads to the entryway. Once inside the building, we only have to navigate one floor. The school is small. A tour through the entire building does not fatigue my girl. (She signs “friend” here too. She even enters classrooms in progress, eager to join.) The decision is an easy one. We pick elementary school #2.
We pick. We had the opportunity to pick. Because there’s room in elementary school #2. And because Fiona’s team members are awesome advocates for her. And because the administration at school #2 was amenable. Without one of those three things, Fiona would attend an elementary school where she couldn’t safely access nearly half the building.
This road, friends. I shake my head at the amount of leaping it entails. The risks. But there are possibilities too. My girl’s giddy signing of “friend” reminds me of those. I shake my head and I take a breath and I bow my head in gratitude for all the grace. We have a world that doesn’t quite fit my girl; but we have a girl who’s happy to wander it anyway.