Bud's been in third grade for over a month now and he seems to be off to a terrific start despite a few - er - speed bumps we encountered early on.
Let me back up. It all started sometime in early August, when I got a letter from the school department notifying me that because of a necessary shift in bus routes, Bud's school day would be starting a half hour later than it had in the past. Like most people, I had a knee-jerk reaction to the unanticipated announcement: "That won't work. I can't get to work that late." So, before I did a moment of problem-solving, I dashed off an e-mail to the special ed department inquiring about the accommodations that are made for students like Bud who take the bus - Is there a bus aide?, I wondered. Is there a "special ed" bus? I wanted to gather as much information as I could as I formulated a plan. I got a quick response from the inclusion coordinator, who said she'd look into it.
The weeks passed and I realized that my initial reaction was the kind of panic that's borne of unexpected change, and was not routed in any real need for me to arrive at my office at a particular time. I rearranged my schedule to accommodate a later drop-off for Bud, and promptly forgot about my earlier inquiries.
Fast forward to August 26, Bud's first day of school. I was unsure about what to expect from Bud. For the entire second half of second grade - from January till June - Bud cried nearly every day at drop-off - big, soggy, woeful, sad goodbyes that started each day with a broken heart for both of us. I'd seen a turn-around, though, in summer school - four mornings a week that Bud enjoyed and looked forward to. By the end of the summer, most of our drop-offs were tear- free. And besides that, Bud seemed to be looking forward to third grade; he seemed ready for it.
He was in a cooperative mood as we got ready for school that morning, and I was feeling hopeful about making an easy transition. It was just about that time that I looked out the window and saw it: there was a full-size school bus in front of my driveway. I walked outside tentatively and the bus's big doors opened.
As I walked toward the bus, I called to the bus driver, "Are you here for Bud?"
She said she was.
I walked to the door and said, "There must be a mistake. I didn't know you were coming. Bud's autistic - he can't really manage a bus."
"Yes, that's why I'm here. He's the only child on my route."
I stared at her, blinking, while the sentence registered. Then I stepped up and glanced down the long, vast expanse of empty bus.
"This whole bus is for Bud?" I said.
"Yes," she answered.
I looked down the long aisle again. The seats and floor were pristine. I sniffed. The air was full of new bus smell.
"Is this a brand new bus?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered.
"They sent a whole brand new bus just for Bud?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered.
I stood dumbfounded, struggling to make sense of what was going on. I knew I couldn't plop Bud down on the bus and send him merrily on his way. But, my goodness, they'd sent him his own bus, for heaven's sake! It felt ungrateful to simply send it away.
"The thing is," I said, "Bud is a kid who needs preparation. He needs to know what to expect. And I didn't know you were coming."
"Somebody should have called you," she said.
"Right," I answered, "but they didn't. And so I've never even mentioned the possibility of a bus to him. We haven't talked about it at all. I mean, there is just NO WAY that he is getting on this bus today."
"Well, maybe he'd like to just come and look at it," she suggested.
My mind raced. Was that a good idea or a bad one? There was no way to know.
"I'll go get him," I said.
I went back inside and approached Bud. "Hey, Bud," I said as jovially as I could. "There's a school bus outside! Do you want to see it?"
"Okay," he said, following me outside. As we hit the driveway he began to suspect that something might be afoot and he added, "I don't want to ride a bus."
"No, not today," I said. "Today we're just looking at it." Bud climbed on board and the bus driver introduced herself. He walked down the aisle and looked around. He remained calm.
"Maybe someday you'd like to take a bus," I said.
"No," he replied.
"Well, not today," I said. "Maybe someday." We said goodbye to the bus driver, then piled in the car, now running late on the first day of third grade. As we drove, I could feel Bud's anxiety rising.
"I don't take a bus to school," he said. "I just ride with Mom." I assured him that he was right, and I didn't push any further. Despite that, his anxiety was high enough to produce tears at drop-off, so I left his classroom quickly and went off in search of someone from the special ed team. I found Bud's OT in the hallway and gave her the run-down on the bus situation. We quickly brainstormed - Would riding the bus be a good thing for Bud? Was there a way we could make it work? Could we create a social story? Maybe I could ride with him the first time? Or even the first week? The team set to work creating a plan and said they'd contact the bus company.
As the morning progressed, my anxiety grew. Questions and fears raced through my mind. Did the bus have seat belts? Would somebody be waiting for Bud when the bus pulled up at the school? What would the bus driver do if Bud started crying, started panicking, started screaming, started throwing himself around the bus? What would happen if there was a thunderstorm while he was on the bus? And what about global warming for heaven's sake? Could I really justify the use of a whole school bus just for transporting my child to school???
After a few agonizing hours, I called the special ed team back and left a lengthy voice mail message. We didn't need a bus. We didn't want a bus. What we needed was a smooth transition to third grade, and we didn't need to complicate it by throwing Bud a bus-shaped curve ball. I told them to stop the preparations and to call off the bus.
The next morning we were into the final stages of getting ready when I looked out the window and saw the bus back at the end of the driveway. I said nothing to Bud, but slipped out the door, gave the driver a hundred apologies, and sent her on her way. She asked what my concerns were and I gave her the run-down, but told her that, ultimately, it was just too big a change for Bud right now. Someday, maybe. But not now. She was terrific, and said she understood completely. She said she'd let the bus company know, and gave me the manager's phone number in case I wanted to call to talk about options for the future - in a month, in January, next year. I thanked her again, tucked the phone number into my bag, and promptly forgot all about it.
The next day was bus-free and Bud and I finally started to establish a new third grade drop-off routine. Over the next few weeks, we fell into a regular - though perhaps not yet easy - pattern to transition him to his school day. Things finally started to feel predictable.
I was more than a little startled, then, when one morning about three weeks later, as Bud climbed into the car to go to school, I opened the garage door to find a mini bus parked at the end of my driveway.
"I don't want to take a bus!" Bud cautioned. I just shook my head and walked down the driveway, sure that somehow the driver had made a mistake and was at the wrong house.
She hadn't, and she wasn't.
I told her about our earlier bus confusion, about the concerns I'd had, about the decision we'd made to scrap the bus idea entirely.
She knew about my concerns. She said they'd sent a small bus because they knew that a large one was too scary for him. They'd created a three-child route because riding alone was too overwhelming. What else could they do, she wondered, to make this work for us?
My friend Kiki would call this "too helpful by half."
I thanked her profusely, gushed at their accommodation, and gave her the old "it's not you, it's me." I told her that he just wasn't ready to take another big step, then I sent the bus away and drove behind it all the way to school.
Later, the manager of the bus company called me. She apologized and said that she'd intended to call me the previous week to talk about the new plan, but had obviously forgotten. She wanted to know if there was anything else they could do, and then told me she'd make a note in the file that said that I would call them if I wanted to revisit the transportation issue.
That was two weeks ago. Now Bud's back into the new routine - the one in which he greets Ms. Brett, the wonderful paraprofessional who requested to stay with him in third grade after working with him through a very difficult second grade year, by walking through the school door each morning, seeing her, and groaning in a loud voice "Oh no! It's YOU again!," then tugs at my sleeve and pleads half-heartedly "No, Mama, wait, Mama, no, no, no," until I leave and he cheerfully walks to his classroom with his good friend Ms. Brett, ready to start another great day at school.
So, as I said, all things considered, Bud seems to be off to a terrific start in third grade. I can't help myself, though - now that a couple of weeks have passed and we're into October I keep peeking out the window as we get ready to leave in the morning. Call me crazy, but I just feel certain that any day now they'll be sending us a chauffeured limousine.