A few years ago I listened to a story on NPR about the concept of a “right of passage.” The commentator said that often in this culture we miss the true rights of passage – the meaningful ones – and instead celebrate strange holidays and events. Today I witnessed what may prove to be one of my son’s biggest rights of passage during his childhood. Today, after 4 years of homeschooling my son, I dropped him off at a district school for his eighth grade year. Below is a letter that his dad and I wrote for him, our hopes and wishes for him as he goes through this transition.
Two days ago, I walked into the kitchen and you asked me if it was okay to use the last of your dad’s half and half in your coffee. I noticed that you have been using the same coffee cup for a few weeks now – the Wright Brothers cup from the Smithsonian museum. It was a bit of a shock. When did you become a coffee drinker like your parents? When did you start using the same cup each day – again, like your parents? Sometimes it’s these little things, the inconsequential ones that begin to become prophetic signs – in this case, they are signs that you are no longer a child.
It seems like only yesterday that I was dropping you off for kindergarten, fully aware that your autism mixed in with the current state of school may have varied affects. It was with a bit of a heavy heart that, four years later, I made the decision to give up my full time career and bring you home to homeschool. It proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. It cemented us as a family in ways that otherwise may not have been possible. That cement was necessary as we then were able to be with grandma through the cancer and the grief of losing her. And now, with grandpa as his mind shuts down due to Alzheimer’s.
Somehow through all of that, you, who at one point struggled to sit in a desk and spent most of a school day spinning in the back of a room, have now become a man of character and integrity. As your dad said, you teach us whether we want to be taught or not. And in no way can we lay claim to who you are now. And, it’s in those little things, those inconsequential things that point to the amazing person you are becoming as an adult.
When I asked your little sister what she would miss most about you going back to school, she said your science lessons. You have always tirelessly developed science lessons for your two sisters that included readings, custom designed worksheets, and field trips into the backyard or local park. And the best part, you act as though there is nothing you would rather do in the world at that moment. When your little sister grabs your hand, I see how you hide your annoyance and hold onto those sticky fingers despite a true fear of germs. You have a heart of service, even when you are in a leadership role.
You showed that heart of service in another “inconsequential” way. July 4th, after fireworks, we were sitting around with friends talking and you asked, “Mom when do we leave tomorrow?” I said, “I don’t know, why?” You responded, “I just want to be sure I have enough time to vacuum the whole cabin.” Because, that is part of who you are. That is part of how you contribute to the well being of your family and it is a beautiful thing.
It occurs to me now that you are kind of like a best-kept secret. You quietly have been serving your family in these ways and now, it is time to push that out into the community. You knew it was time, you made the choice to go back to school and I support you 100%. We know there will be bumps in the road but if anything, you have shown us that you can deal with some of life’s biggest bumps with the patience and grace many adults don’t even possess.
Our big hope for you though – as you start school – is that you keep that insulated individuality you have formed alive. We see how your ability to think differently has made you unique and creative in ways that are special to you. We hope that in the face of increased conformity and the influence of popular culture, you continue to think outside of the box and choose empathy and compassion over “being cool” and being ordinary.
Perhaps though the biggest sign you are ready to move on is how you regard your autism now. I remember when it used to embarrass you, this thing, this “disability” that others have used to define who you are. Rather than use it as a banner, you used it as a point of dissection within yourself at a very young age. You use the knowledge about what autism is to push yourself beyond it when you must but also to recognize the strengths within yourself that being different brings. This summer you said you don’t like to see your autism as a disability. You said that if there was a “cure” created for autism that you would not want it, because you would not be who you are without it. The wisdom of that level of self-acceptance still makes your dad and I catch our breath.
So that brings us back to today — when I went to drop you off. They were starting the school day with an all school assembly in the gym. “Parents are welcome to attend” they said. But, it was no surprise when you looked at me and said, “I got this, mom.” I will admit it; I started to cry as I watched you walk away.