“Normal,” what a word. Most of us strive for it. We compare ourselves to others who seem more of it. We change the definition based on the times. In most people’s eyes, my son will never be normal. In fact, there’s never been a time in history where he fits the definition. If he wins an award, it was just to be nice and not related to his merit. If he makes an educated statement, he must have heard it from someone else. My son, my world, has Down’s Syndrome.
Brett has always been obsessed with school. As a little boy, his older sister would make him sit at a desk and teach him using a small chalk board, pretending she was the teacher and Brett, along with his stuffed animals were her class full of students. Brett especially loved when his sister would pretend to be a strict teacher. She would put her hair in a bun, put on her glasses, stare at him and say, “Okay class! Pop quiz” at which point, Brett would groan and pretend to pull his hair in frustration like he saw all the students do on T.V. This was Brett’s favorite game, even after he started attending school himself and why I believe he’s so captivated with any television show that takes place in a classroom.
At this moment, I’m watching my son. “Saved by the Bell,” his absolute favorite show, blares on the television as he stares at the screen, his eyes wide with amusement. His hands are flapping, while he rocks back and forth. A laugh escapes his mouth as he states the dialogue he has memorized. At 15 years old, he is constantly rewatching shows that I would watch at his age. “Regular,” (another wonderful word I could go on about, but won’t at this time) high school antics are taking place for Zach Morris, the teenager my son longs to be.
At home, I don’t believe Brett ever thinks he is different. He goes, thankfully, to the same school as his siblings, picks at the vegetables I force him to eat during dinner, and makes sure his laundry makes it to the hamper every night. At school, it’s a different story. He is in what is called an 8:1:1. Unfortunately, the language used for special education isn’t “normal” either. 8:1:1 means Brett’s class consists of eight students, one teacher and one teacher assistant. That doesn’t include the speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, school psychologists and behavior analysts that are continually in the classroom as well. Summed up, he’s in a special education life skills class and unfortunately for him, not like any of the classes depicted on any television show I have ever seen. Of course, that includes “Saved by the Bell.”
Brett’s lucky he’s able to be in the same district he would have been in if he was “normal.” The only thing that doesn’t work; Brett is able to see the other classes. The “normal” classes. He peeks through windows and sees classes with thirty students learning at the same time with one teacher. Chemistry labs with beakers, sinks and creepy reptiles that he would love to learn with. Gym classes where there are teams playing soccer and basketball at such a fast pace, he can’t keep track of the ball and the most important place, the cafeteria, where shenanigans take place and students aren’t being watched every second by a teacher.
Brett’s teacher, Ms. Clark is amazing. She makes sure her class is included in as many “normal” school functions as possible. In the three years she’s had him, he’s played on the school’s unified basketball team and had the opportunity to read his favorite book, Green Eggs and Ham to a preschooler BY HIMSELF, which he boasts about proudly. She makes sure her students vote in class elections and are represented in “Battle of the Classes,” a huge event each year that the whole school participates in. In the classroom, each student learns at their own pace. Brett can now add and subtract using his fingers, something he couldn’t do three years ago. Most importantly, he has learned life skills. He can wash and fold his own clothes, make himself something healthy to eat, use the phone and shower independently, making it possible for him to one day move out to an assisted facility if he chooses. He gets to choose! He will get to feel like a “normal” adult!
Brett’s class does not have the antics normally seen in a classroom. As we know, most classes don’t ever see the conflict resolution of a sitcom, but his class is so far removed, he feels he is missing out. His class has bathroom accidents, meltdowns where children are told to “use their words,” and sing a-longs like a preschool classroom. They color and cut and glue, practicing their fine motor skills. They watch cartoons for “Fun Friday” in the afternoon if they do all their work that week. As much as Brett loves his class, he knows it is not a “normal” high school setting.
“When will it happen in my class?” Brett points at the television asking about some tomfoolery that just took place.
“Someday sweetie,” I hope, praying that I’m not lying to my son unintentionally.
There are many things Brett’s teacher helps him experience. Once he wanted to go to “The Max” with his friends, so she took the class on a field trip to a diner where the students had to order independently (with a visual picture menu, of course) and used a calculator to figure out if the bill was correct. Brett came home that day ecstatic stating he shared fries with his friends just like Zach.
Class size regularly saddens him. He often asks Ms. Clark, “Where is the rest of the class?” or “Why only eight chairs?”
“Don’t worry, the whole class is here,” she answers before she speaks to me about why this question is being asked in the first place. When I tell her how Brett feels, Ms. Clark is the one who’s saddened.
“I’ll fix this,” she confidently declares, “tell me more about this Zach Morris.”
“Okay,” I laugh, realizing how old I am because Ms. Clark doesn’t know who Zach is!
A few weeks later, Ms. Clark calls me excitedly, “As you know, Brett has excellent behavior! How about he sits in Ms. Ackerly’s art class instead of working in the cafeteria? Maybe a couple of times each week; whenever the class is working on a project he’s capable of completing. I’ll give up my lunch and sit in the class if he needs assistance.”
I think, with tears pooling in my eyes what this would mean to my son, to have some “normal” moments using HIS definition. “That would be amazing.”
Success is an understatement on how well Brett feels when he is in art. He comes home with the best stories.
“Did you know Jenny is dating Chris? They were holding hands under the table,” he exclaims and can’t believe the public display of affection during class.
“Henry threw paint and went to the principal,” he speaks seriously. “I think he gets detention!” Scandalous!
“Evie asked if I’m going to the dance. She will dance with me,” he blushes while practicing his moves in the full-length mirror in my room!”
Soon after, Brett raises his hand during art.
“When is the pop quiz?” he asks innocently.
“Oh, don’t worry Brett, we won’t give a pop quiz.”
His face falls, but he holds it together. When the bell rings, a single tear slides down his face.
“Oh hun, what’s the matter?” Ms. Clark asks, pulling him aside with a supportive hand on his shoulder.
He takes a deep breath and sighs. “No pop quiz in art.”
“Do you want a pop quiz?”
He nods, “Like Zach Morris.”
The best teacher in the world calls me the next day and has, as usual, an amazing idea.
The last week of school is here. Ms. Ackerly tells all the art students to take out their notebooks. Brett looks around. He never brings a notebook to this class, but Ms. Clark saves the day and takes a brand-new notebook out of her bag. He smiles as he starts copying the notes from the board. They are reviewing color mixing. Realization draws on his face. He knows this!
“What do you get when you mix red and yellow?”
Brett raises his hand high in the air wiggling his fingers.
They review for the next 10 minutes. Then, Ms. Ackerly with her library bun, picks up her glasses off her desk, places them on her face and looks at the class sternly. Some of the students have small smiles on their faces, glee trying to escape, but they hold it in, getting ready for their acting debut. Ms. Clark slowly lifts her phone to video Brett’s reaction as Ms. Ackerly slams the book she is holding in her hand on her desk.
“Okay, class! Pop quiz.”