"My son was asking if Zach can hear? Is he deaf?"
The question catches me off guard. "No, he can hear," I explain to the mother of Zach's classmate, "but he is language delayed and he is behind in social skills too."
"Oh," she says, "I was just wondering."
"Sure, no problem, I'm glad you asked." This reminds me that a visit to Zach's first grade class is overdue.
Just a few days later I visit the class to talk about Zach's differences. Having spoken to the teacher, Mrs. W, ahead of time, I have a sense of what the other children are noticing and questioning about Zach. I am prepared with an array of simple drawings to illustrate my points and I've brought along a book about bad habits.
I walk into the classroom and Zach comes over to me and says what he always says when I show up at school. "Get your backpack and go home?" Sweet boy. "3 o'clock," I remind. "Mom is here to read a story."
The first graders are sitting on the area rug and I take my place in the rocking chair. Zach tries to sit still on the back row but ends up pacing around the room. I begin my story about Zach by explaining that their school is named for a boy who was different. A boy whose body didn't work the same as theirs and he lived in a bubble. A boy who was different. "Zach is different too," I tell the attentive classmates. "But first let's talk about some of the ways he is the same."
Using the simple drawings I talk about how Zach has a family who loves him, a big brother too. Hands shoot up. "I have a big brother!" someone blurts out. "Me too," another adds. "I have a sister but she's little," another admits.
Oh good, audience participation. "Yes, lots of you have brothers or sisters and that's just like Zach. That's one way Zach is the same."
I talk about how Zach is learning so much this year and that he really likes to read. I mention his favorite books and a few kids are compelled to mention theirs. I share some photographs of Zach doing some "normal" things, things they might do too. The photos grab Zach's attention and he paces my way to take closer look. Zach riding a horse, Zach playing baseball, Zach on his scooter, Zach with his brother. Same type of pictures the other kids might take. Same.
"In lots of ways Zach is the same as you, right?" I ask. They nod yes. "But let's talk about some ways that he is different." And with this I launch into a list of differences and offer explanations without ever mentioning a diagnosis. I start with the obvious- Zach's lack of language. Simply put I tell them Zach just doesn't have as many words as they do. "He's still learning and he has more words than last year but Zach needs extra help to learn words." I look at the four classmates who were with Zach in kindergarten and they confirm that Zach does know more words than last year. "Zach sometimes leaves the room and goes to another room just so a teacher can help him learn more words." Zach comes over to me. "A present?" he asks. "No, Mom is talking to the class, it's not time for a present."
Next I bring up eye contact. "Have you noticed that sometimes when you talk to Zach he doesn't look at you, he doesn't look at your eyes?" A resounding yes from the crowd. "It's like he's not even listening isn't it?" Yeah. "Sometimes Zach isn't looking at your eyes because he is thinking and for him to understand what you're saying, he has to look away," I explain. "But sometimes he really isn't listening. He's daydreaming, thinking of something else and that can be frustrating for you. I know because it happens to me all the time!" They giggle.
"Have you ever seen Zach get really excited about something?" I ask. Lots of nodding. "What does he do when he is excited?" Many students begin whipping their arms around perfectly mimicking Zach. "That's right! When I get excited about something I clap or cheer but when Zach gets excited he whips his arms around and sometimes jumps up and down. He is so funny when he does that, isn't he?" Yes they all agree. He's funny, not weird, not strange, funny.
"And have you noticed that Zach sings songs and talks about TV shows when he should be working?" Oh yeah, they've noticed. I explain that Zach has a big imagination, same as you, but instead of keeping lots of thoughts inside, like you do, he lets them all out. Different. So when he's thinking about a birthday party, he starts singing the Happy Birthday song and when he's thinking about a favorite cartoon, he says all the words to favorite episodes. A few kids throw out characters they've heard. Thomas the Tank Engine, Barney, Handy Manny, Wow Wow Wubzy. One boy says, "Zach really likes Mickey Mouse." Someone agrees and adds that Zach sings the Hot Dog Dance song alot. I mention that Zach does a great Goofy impression and I hear it randomly at home. "Gowsh," I say in my best Goofy voice. The kids crack up.
Zach climbs on the bean bags piled behind the rocking chair and I continue. " I know that you've asked Mrs. W about Zach's fingers so let's talk about that. Do you know what a habit is?" I explain that Zach started biting his nails months ago and that led to biting his fingertips. The kids are very aware of this because the behavior is intense and the intervention has started. The kids noticed the specially designed chart encouraging Zach not to bite. If he doesn't bite his fingers for a specified time, he earns stickers which are traded in for time of the computer. "It's just a habit," I explain. "Like tapping your pencil, twirling your hard or chewing your lip but the teachers are helping Zach with his habit because it keeps him from doing his work." They nod. They get it.
I glance at the clock and begin wrapping things up. I finish by saying that Zach is so special because he is different but that they are special too. "There are lots of things I can teach Zach and there are lots of things Mrs. W can teach Zach but you are extra special because you teach Zach how to be a friend. He is watching you and learning from you everyday. He likes to come to school and he loves it when you play with him, especially chase at recess. So you all are very, very special."
A kind boy from last year's class raises his hand and I call on him. "When I see Zach on the playground, I open my arms and Zach comes up and I give him a hug and then I say 'Come on Zach!' and he chases me." I have managed not to get emotional as I talk to these children about Zach's differences but this beautiful, simple illustration of compassion and friendship nearly does me in. I take a breath and say, "You are a good friend."
Finally I read a Berenstain Bears' book about breaking a bad habit. Zach takes interest in the book for a few seconds then roams a bit more. He is anxious when I'm in the classroom but always settles down after I leave.
I thank the kids for listening and for being good friends to Zach and they are prompted to thank me for coming in to read. Zach asks once more, "Get your backpack and go home?" I kiss him and say "3 o'clock".
The day is coming when the kids won't be so kind, right? Isn't there an age when discrimination takes root and one child's differences are good enough reason for another kid's bad behavior? I've heard some heart-breaking stories from moms of children who are different. It gets harder as they get older they all say. But for now my Zach is a different dolphin swimming in a sea of goodness.