“Stupid is a SAD word. Dumb is kinda like saying STUPID.”
Katie had asked me to come into her room “to talk for just a moment, Mama”. A moment quickly gave way to an hour. Little Miss didn’t need to talk, she needed to TALK.
“Like when I have play dates over who don’t really know maybe, and they look at Brooke with that ‘she’s so WEIRD’ look. You know that look, Mama? The ‘why is she so WEIRD’ look? Or like when neighborhood girl was over and she said, ‘You know how your sister is so dumb?’”
Don’t let her see it.
“You didn’t tell me about this, honey. What did she say exactly?”
“Well, we were playing and she just said, ‘You know how your sister is so dumb?”
Damn it, I was so hoping I’d misheard. I was praying she was going to say, “You know how your sister pits her plumb? … hits her drum? … sucks her thumb?” Anything but that. Damn. Damn. Damn.
“So what did you say, love?”
“I told her that she’s NOT dumb at all. That she’s actually really, really smart and that if she said stuff like that ever again she couldn’t be my friend.”
We talked for a long, long time. I gave her some words that she might be able to use next time. My sister’s brain works differently than yours and mine, but that doesn’t mean she’s not smart. It just means that some things can be more challenging for her. We spent a lot of time detailing Brooke’s challenges and talking about the strengths that are actually wrapped inside each and every one of them. She started repeating them back to me.
“Ooh, like how she can repeat anything just like she heard it – what’s that word for it, Mama?”
“Right, echolalia. It may seem like it’s not good now, but when she speaks Spanish like Dora it sounds just like someone who grew up speaking Spanish instead of like us which sounds like, well, you know, someone who is just trying to speak Spanish.”
“Exactly, love. Exactly.”
And I tried to drive home the fact that she didn’t have to have those kinds of conversations alone. I told her that Daddy and I would always be there to help.
“But, Mama”, she said. “I DO have to handle it alone. I mean, maybe I don’t really, but I’m just telling you, that’s what it FEELS like.”
“Oh, honey, I know,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even. She’s the one reporting back from the front lines. We’re just sitting safely inside HQ drinking coffee and talking strategy. What the hell do we know? “I know it feels like you have to do an awful lot by yourself. I understand completely why you feel that way. But please, please know that you have a lot of people who can help.”
I ran through a list of people at school. The social worker that she adores, her teacher, the inclusion facilitator – the wide and caring and wonderful network of people who can HELP. And I came back again to me and Luau.
Luau and I talked that night and into the next morning. We agreed that we needed to talk with neighborhood girl’s mom. It then took us three e-mails, two phone messages, two outside consultations and five actual conversations before we decided how we wanted to handle it. “I need to ask your help” is the approach we decided on. “I’m sure you can imagine how hurtful those words would have been to Brooke had she heard them and how hard they were for Katie to hear. We’re sure she didn’t mean to be hurtful, but children can say some difficult things when they don’t fully understand a situation.”
It took a night’s sleep and lot of restraint to get to that point. “I need your help” was NOT our first reaction. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to be hurtful” sure as hell wasn’t mine.
The next morning, Katie hung out with me while I showered, as she so often does. “Hey, Katie,” I said, trying to sound casual. “I talked to Daddy last night and we both feel that its important for us to have a conversation with neighbor girl’s mom, OK?”
She nodded and said, “Yeah, I understand.”
I called the school social worker first thing in the morning. She was wonderful. “I’ll pop in and give her my schedule so she’ll always know where she can find me,” she said. She promised to make it seem like something she had already been planning to do as a matter of course.
I tried to push it out of my mind for a while.
I worked on the notes from our first inclusion committee meeting. I looked at the words on the screen that described the meeting for those who hadn’t been able to come.
We each talked a bit about what inclusion means to us – from honoring and respecting every individual’s contribution to the community to celebrating one another’s unique strengths and making the effort to look beyond the surface and to really get to know one another and understand each other’s stories. We talked about learning from one another, creating an environment in which every member of the community feels welcomed and empowered. It was a thought-provoking exchange and hopefully the first of many.
I organized some of the ideas that had come from our brainstorming session. I looked them over with a new sense of urgency. This stuff matters. It will make a difference. It has to.
I was grateful that we had already designated Sunday Katie Day – the yearly celebration of all things Katie. Not her birthday, not a holiday, simply Katie Day. The one day a year upon which the entire clan is subject to the whim and wish of little Miss Katie Delicious. She’d been tweaking the schedule all week long ahead of the big day.
~ Wake-up when I get up. Even if it’s before 6:45, I can go in to your room, and you can’t say it’s too early cause it’s KATIE DAY!
~ Cuddle time – with no books and no shows – just CUDDLES!
~ Breakfast – decorate-your-own-pancake bar (NOT THE FROZEN PANCAKES, Mama – HOME MADE ‘REAL’ PANCAKES with icing and chocolate chips and pink sugar and you can’t say that’s gross and no way can I have that stuff for breakfast cause it’s KATIE DAY!
And on it went …
And thank God for all of it. For things to DO, a difference to make, the things to look forward to – and for knowing that we would soon be celebrating Katie in all her Katiest glory.
Because otherwise I might have drowned in the thought that it took two adults – two adults who are steeped in sensitivity, two adults with a pretty decent grasp of human interaction, two adults with a lifetime of experience - three e-mails, two phone messages, two outside consultations, and five actual conversations to figure out how to handle what my 8 1/2 year old deals with on the fly EVERY SINGLE day.
These kids are carrying