Today is the first day of school. For Ryan, not yet 12, it is his 10th!?!? first day, including three years of special-needs and inclusion pre-K at one of the other elementary schools in our town.
You would think it would be old hat for all of us by now, but it is most definitely not. Ryan is moving up to a new school this year. A new routine, new teachers and aides, new kids, and for the first time since pre-K those many years ago, a bus ride. We’ve done everything we can — tours of the school, meeting teachers and administrators, talking to him about how his fears are normal — to ease his anxiety, but nerves are still running high. And not just for Ryan, but for Veronica and me as well.
He was so sad the last few days of summer, openly expressing his concerns about the new school year. He is very afraid of getting bullied and picked on, even though apart from a few isolated incidents, that has not been part of his school experience. He is worried about controlling his temper after a few meltdowns at camp this summer even though, again, that has never happened at school. No amount of soothing talk from his parents could calm him.
And yet, there was my boy at the bus stop this morning, anxiously greeting friends he had barely seen all summer. He was social, he was excited, he even smiled. We waited nervously with the other parents. When the bus arrived, right on time, we waved goodbye — Ryan having told us in advance there would be no public hugs our kisses — and watched him climb the steps to the bus to face a new challenge head on — just as he has had to do so many times in his life already.
I worried about so many little things. Would he know where to go? Where to sit? Would anyone want to sit with him? The bus was quite crowded, his being one of the last stops. Just before he stepped on, without even looking back, I heard him ask a friend, one of the few in his life that has been to our house and had Ryan over, if he wanted to sit with him. I exhaled as his friend said yes.
But as we watched from the curb through the tinted windows, we could see Ryan shuffling toward the back of the bus, looking for a seat. And then he was shuffling back toward the front. I cringed. I thought he was asking the driver, who sounded impatient in telling the kids to settle into their seats, where he should sit. For an instant, all my fears felt like they would be realized.
But no, Ryan had found an empty seat in the front. He and his friend slid in and sat down. And with that, the door closed and the bus rolled slowly away.
The bus is carrying our hopes and dreams for a good school year. It represents the hard work and love of dozens of teachers, therapists, aides and administrators, and most especially of one incredible not-so-little-anymore boy. Nearly a decade of work, toil, joy, sorrow, anxiety, frustration, progress, regression, sadness and triumph has gone into getting us to today.
The bus represents everything that is new and different and scary about this year. Past experience and positive early interactions with the new child study team give us every indication that it will be OK. Veronica has worked her connections and will no doubt charm herself to favorite parent status with the team. Ryan’s aide of the last several years has a “spy” looking out for him. His resource room teacher from elementary school stopped by to wish him luck and give him a pep talk yesterday.
And yet, with so much new and unknown, I can’t help but feel like Ryan today. Every time we have reassured him in recent weeks that things would be OK at his new school, he would respond with “but what if they’re not?”
It’s a question that has no satisfactory answer, not for a child on the autism spectrum with anxiety in overdrive. Only a positive experience, repeated over enough days to turn the new into the routine, will put the question to rest.
This time, it’s the same for Veronica and me. He’s ready for this, and we know we have done everything we can to put him in a position to succeed. We will quickly address any new challenges that are sure to arise.
It will be OK.
But we will worry about what happens if it’s not … until it is.
It is what we do.