It takes a village to raise a child.
People say it so much that it sounds cliche, but if you have a child, then you know it's true. What you do as a parent is important, but you can never underestimate the power and influence of the other people in your child's life - especially the people who are with him when you are not. You choose some of the people in your child's village; others are assigned to you. You hold your breath, hand over your child to the village elders, and hope for the best.
I've been thinking lately about how much courage it takes for parents - any parents, but particularly those whose children have developmental challenges - to trust the village that is the public school system. I've been thinking, especially, about two different public school villages: the village at the regional elementary school that Bud attends and the village at the Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Florida, that Alex Barton attended.
The villages are a study in contrast, though my hunch is that the boys in question may not be. I don't know Alex Barton, so I don't know what his school year was like. My sense, though, is that this year in Kindergarten, Alex, who is in the process of being tested for Aspergers Syndrome, exhibited some combination of aggressive behaviors, verbal and physical outbursts, emotional dysregulation, anger and defiance. So did Bud in his second grade class this year.
As I said, I don't know Alex Barton. My only information about him comes from this mind boggling news story. I'll sum it up for you: It seems that Alex's Kindergarten teacher, at wit's end with Alex, adopted an intervention strategy straight out of the reality television program Survivor. She gathered together her class of five-year-olds and held a tribal council, in which each child was encouraged to tell Alex exactly what they thought of him and his behavior. Then the children were asked to cast their votes on whether or not to keep him in the classroom.
They voted him off the island.
The day after Alex's horrifying experience at school, I joined Bud and his classmates for a field trip to a farm museum. As we prepared for the trip, I wondered how it would go - How would Bud manage the dramatic change in routine? Would my presence at a school event be a comfort or an additional source of stress? And I wondered what I would see in the interactions between Bud and his classmates. Out of necessity, we have kept my presence in Bud's classroom at a minimum this semester - a quick kiss goodbye at the door each morning with no time to linger to watch Bud with his peers as he settles in to his day. So, I wondered how Bud's classmates were reacting to him these days, after a year of witnessing what was probably startling and possibly troubling behavior from him.
I was surprised by what I saw.
Bud and I had a completely different farm museum experience from the rest of his classmates. While they gathered in small groups to learn about milking cows and raising chickens and churning butter, Bud and I set off on our own, seeking out the places that were quiet, peeking at cows from a distance, making sheep noises to each other, and walking, walking, walking, walking towards emotional regulation as we tried to work out the jitters and find a way to settle in.
But though Bud and I did not spend the day with a group, we were never outsiders. When we passed children on the grounds, they greeted Bud. They engaged with him when he responded to their greetings, and they gave him space when he didn't. By noontime, we'd found a rhythm and I convinced Bud to join a group from a distance, for just a few minutes. He stayed near (but not with) the group, and then, with a little encouragement from his teacher, worked up the confidence to reach out and stroke the downy feathers of a remarkably docile chicken.
Later, we joined the larger group again for ice cream. Bud's friend Kelly plopped down on the bench beside him, asking about his ice cream and reporting on her own, and then, when the ice cream was finished, she raced out to the field with some other children to roll down the hill. Without prompting from me, Bud ran out to join them.
Then Bud asked his teacher if she'd play hide and seek with him. She readily agreed and ran to hide while Bud closed his eyes and counted. Several children saw what they were doing and asked if they could join in. Tom was one of them. When it was Tom's turn to be "it," he closed his eyes and counted while Bud pulled me over to "hide" with him behind a slender birch tree which left all but a tiny bit of us in plain sight. Tom finished counting, looked up, and looked directly at us. Then he turned and walked in the other direction and said, puzzled, "I wonder where Bud is!"
Tom's words weren't striking - but his tone was. He wasn't playing down to Bud. There wasn't a hint of condescension in his voice. He didn't sound like an older boy playing with his baby brother. He sounded like an eight-year-old playing with another eight-year-old. Tom got it. And when he "discovered" our hiding spot a few minutes later, the thrill of the find was genuine for all three of us.
Later that day, when the field trip was over and Bud was at home with Nana, I met with the school team about Bud's IEP for next year. I recounted the story of our day, and especially Bud's interactions with his peers and his game of hide and seek with Tom. They smiled and said they were glad that I got to see what they see every day. Then one of them offered, "That's what inclusive education is all about."
And that's it, isn't it? That is what inclusive education is about. It's what all education should be about. It's what should be at the heart of the villages that raise our children. All of our children.
But it wasn't at the heart of Alex Barton's village.
In the midst of a difficult, troubling year, Alex Barton's teacher called his village together and rallied them against him. Bud also had a difficult, troubling year and, interestingly, his teacher also called his village together for a tribal meeting. Unlike Alex, Bud was not there for the meeting. And the agenda for Bud's tribe's meeting was distinctly different: one of the special ed team members came in to talk to Bud's class and help them understand Bud a little better - help them understand the things that are difficult for him, the things that are easy for him, and the things they could do to support him through the challenging times. Like Alex's village, Bud's village came together. But Bud was embraced instead of exiled.
Because that's what inclusive education is about.
Inclusive education recognizes that it takes a village to raise a child. It recognizes that Kelly and Tom and the other children in the class are an important part of the village that is raising Bud. And - more to the point - it recognizes that Bud is an important part of the village that is raising Kelly and Tom and the other children in the class. They need each other, and they know it.
Our children's lives should not be played like a game of Survivor. The real-life stakes are too high to take our cues from a reality game show. Our kids need to know that survival doesn't mean pushing others down and fighting to be the last one standing. They need to know that survival - real survival - means that we all emerge, triumphant, standing together at the end.
Bud's tribe has spoken. I hope Alex's tribe is next.