As I've come to learn with Miss Paige, sometimes I can't always predict what's going to be happening in our lives, and how our lives will evolve. Even more important than that, I've come to learn that its o.k. that life is full of forks in the road and changes to our path as we go along.
If you had asked me a few years ago about inclusion in school, I would have readily jumped up and stated that every child should be fully included in their regular classrooms with their same-aged peers, regardless of their intellectual or physical abilities.
I'll even go so far as to say I could have probably quoted you the specific laws which protect our children, and allow them to be in regular classrooms.
And I still maintain that belief. The reality is that it is my hope for Paige that she does learn to function in a "normal" world. I fully believe that people with Down syndrome have gained leaps and bounds in our society because of the efforts of parents who have come before me and absolutely insisted on integrating their children into regular classrooms.
Further, I believe that it is not only of great benefit to Paige to know and learn from "typical" peers, but it is also of great benefit to her peers to know and learn from her.
I think it is a fantastic lesson for children to learn a bit of humility; to learn that its not always about the fastest, smartest, best all the time--sometimes its about letting someone have a turn no matter how long it takes, or offering a helping hand, or a kind word to another human being.
Sometimes, its in our "un"equalness (for lack of a better word), that we discover the real truth -- just how equal we all really are.
But...I have strayed on my total integration path this year.
We were offered the opportunity for Paige to spend half of her day with her "typical" Grade 2 peers, and half of her day with a "Living and Learning" class where she would be with 5 other high needs children. This class concentrates more on the lessons of daily living--self-care, such as dressing themselves, cooking, talking about good food choices, and adds things such as their various therapies--Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, PhysioTherapy, etc. They also work hard at interacting with one another, and learning skills such as sharing and compassion for each other.
Of course, this opportunity did not come without hesitation from me. How much would Paige, who herself is severely speech delayed, gain in a class room where only 2 of the 6 children were conversational? How much learning could be done for children who's needs were so vast and varied?
Each child has a full-time aide in addition to the classroom teacher. All of the aides work wonderfully together, and have great relationships with one another, and with all of the children in the classroom. And the classroom teacher is just phenomenal--she truly loves all of the children in her classroom, and works hard to help them in every way she can.
One of the activities that the kids from L & L do is to go to a therapeutic swim class every other week. It is amazing to see Marc, who was absolutely terrified of the water at first, be so excited and want to jump right in now. And three of the kids, including Paige, are now swimming independently.
All of these positive things that Paige is offered is one of the reasons I know we made the right choice for her.
But, its not the big reason.
The big reason can only be explained when I tell you about last Wednesday. Last Wednesday, I arrived to pick the kids up for swimming (I take some of them in my van).
As usual, Marc greeted me at the door with a HUGE grin, "Paige's Mom, Paige's Mom, are we going swimming?" Yes, Marc, today we are going swimming!!
And as I showed him how to fingerspell his name, like I do every time I go to the classroom, he laughed a big belly laugh, like he so often does.
As I'm standing waiting for the kids to get ready, I see Paige and Brooke in the smaller play room of the classroom; Paige is taking Brooke toys to play with, and although neither of them speak, they are interacting so well.
Damien, who's spoken language consists largely of repeating what you've said to him back to you again, brings me over a book where he has written "I like to watch TV." I read it to him, and he says, "I like to watch TV, I like to watch TV" as he's reading it back to me, he asks for his picture to be taken. Damien will do just about anything anyone asks of him if they snap a picture of him doing it.
We go into the hall, and the kindergarten class from across the hallway is in the corridor. Paige immediately scans the crowd for Taylor, one of the little girls she has made friends with this year, and escapes for a quick hug. Taylor, although 4 years younger than Paige, is a bit taller than her, and jabbers along to Paige like she's just another kid in the hallway...she doesn't seem to notice or even care that Paige doesn't talk back.
As we are leaving to go to my van, Paige is with me and her aide, and Brooke is behind us. Brooke has a lot of problems with her gait, and is not very steady on her feet. Her aide, and the classroom teacher are holding her hands. Paige goes over to Brooke, and gives her a big hug. Brooke lights up with a big smile and gets all excited.
We start going down the stairs, and Paige is holding my hand. She's not so steady on her feet either. At every step, she stops and checks to see if Brooke is still coming.
When we get to the bottom of the stairs, Paige reaches back and takes Brooke's hand to help her along.
When we get to the pool, Paige's friend Emma is already there. Emma greets Paige with a big, deep "PAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYY" in that funny little voice that is so sweet coming from her tiny body.
Paige and her give each other a big hug, and Paige says, "awwwwwww" to her.
Then, Emma goes over to the little table that is in the play area, and takes a chair to sit in. But, she doesn't forget that "Pay" is there with her. She gets her a chair too. Paige goes to sit down, and gets a book to look at, but she, too, remembers Emma, and takes her a book as well.
The two of them sit at the table and babble in a language that I'm convinced makes perfect sense to them--they are lost in their world of just being best friends happy to see one another.
There are many more examples that I observed that day among all of the children. Their communication skills are absolutely amazing--to the point of them even realizing which kids like hugs, and which ones don't.
Its a wonderful world to be a part of, even for an afternoon. What a blissful escape from the "reality" that so many of us crave for our kids with DS. No one notices ears that are too big, or glasses that don't stay pushed up on the nose, or hair that isn't quite perfect. No one cares the brand name of your shoes, but they sure are interested if they are shiny and red, or light up when you dance with them.
And when a social grace has slipped away from one of them, they are wonderfully forgiving of one another. Sometimes its not easy for one of the kids to remember to wait their turn or not to throw something that shouldn't be thrown; but the mistake is quickly forgiven and forgotten.
And in this world, because nobody is perfect, it seems as if everyone is.
Paige still does well in her regular classroom too--although, as we expected, the differences do get greater as she gets older. But the differences are mostly academic.
Socially, Paige remains very included in her school. She waves to everyone, and everyone in the hallway says hello to her. At recess, there's always a whole gaggle of kids who come along and take Paige's hand and include her in a game of London Bridge, or take her to the swingset and fight over who gets to push her.
Her classmates have never known a classroom without Paige in it, and do not see it as anything other than a part of their world too--exactly as I had hoped for.
The amazing thing is, Paige gets to be a part of two worlds..."Italy" and "Holland" and I get to go along for the ride.
I can't wait for the next fork in the road, to see where that tiny hand takes me.