The First Day of School
Nearly ten years ago my wife and I stood in the parking lot of Hermansen Elementary and sent our little boy to school for the first time. Nobody wept. There was no gnashing of teeth, wailing, or sack-cloth and ashes. AJ's first day of school was full of the promise of new adventures, new friends and accompanying sleepovers, new books to read, realms of knowledge to acquire, and numerous parent-teacher conferences down the road.
Just the night before, we met with AJ's new principal and teacher, visited his classroom, and enjoyed a bit of ice-cream with the other parents while the kids worked out a sugar-frenzy in the cafeteria. Afterward, Jennifer and I quietly lurked until we were the last ones in the classroom … we wanted to speak privately with AJ's first teacher. We wanted to prepare her for out son's unique intellect paired with unstoppable hyperactivity.
Nothing, it turns out, could have prepared her. Or, really, us.
On his first day, we both escorted our boy to school. We did the hugs and kisses, we reminded him to be good for his teacher, to obey everything she required, and we released him into the government's parenting embrace.
Three hours later, we returned to pick our boy up, and the the moment AJ's teacher spotted us, we heard: "Oh, you're AJ's mom! We … uh … need to talk."
AJ's first day in class had been a raging success — about that even the Special Ed teacher agreed. He interrogated the teacher about the automatic bathroom lights (“What happens if the filament breaks?” And, “What happens if the fluorescent gas becomes inert?”), corrected his teacher's use of language (“It's a ‘backpack,' not a ‘book-bag!'”), gave a great deal of instruction to other students (“Hey, that ‘Z' is backward!”), he wreaked havoc on the toys, and at one point scattered puzzle-pieces (“We all had to help clean it up.”), and enjoyed a minor territorial skirmish (“Some kid stole my seat!”)
The teacher and support staff already knew his name. And ours.
At the end of that first day we captured AJ's memories while the events were still fresh in his mind. That unscripted and only lightly edited 24-minute interview is included below.
The First Last Day of School
Then, only nine years and one week ago, AJ enjoyed his very first last day of school. He will never have another day like his first day in school, and he'll never have another day quite like his first last day of school. I wanted to make it special by recording an interview with him. It's great to listen to how his growth in confidence, to hear his enthusiasm for knowing learning, and to marvel at how much difference nine months can make to a little boy.
AJ's First Last Day of School
Nine Years Later
Listening to our interview again almost a decade later, I am struck by how naïve and innocent I was as a father. I had no idea how much parental involvement would be required of me and my wife if we wanted to see AJ truly succeed in school.
I also had no idea how hard it would be to step back so that my son could learn how to fail on his own.
That first year of school, AJ's kindergarten class was probably the easiest year of schooling my son ever enjoyed—but not because of his mastery of the material (listening to his interview, his seventh-grade sister remarked, “Did they teach him all that in school?” No, we're pretty sure he was born knowing the names of all the planets.) In reality, that first year was easy because Kindergarten really didn't require that much parental involvement … AJ already had mastered so many of the concepts he would encounter in Kindergarten that he sort of coasted through, and we did too. But as AJ rose in the ranks of school, we needed to become more and more involved.
Within a year, medical and psychological professionals informed us that AJ was “on the spectrum,” that he had what is commonly known as Asperger's Syndrome, a collection of autism traits that presaged great social difficulties for AJ and many challenges to his executive function — his ability to get things done. Over the years we have spent hours a day coaching AJ to complete his homework, and we've spent hundreds of hours coaching AJ's many teachers in how to work with the unique expression of Asperger's that is AJ.
There have been many victories, but there have also been a few failures — and the failures, themselves, are victories, too. Because success never comes without failure, AJ has had to learn on his own what failure feels like, what causes failure, and how to recover from it.
And at every step of the way, his mother and I have worked closely with AJ's schools to not only teach him how to succeed in the real world, but how to succeed at dealing with failure and missteps along the way. Sometimes, it seems, the best thing a parent can do is step back and withhold our intervention as our kids stumble off to a painful learning experience. If we haven't prepared our kids for failure, how well have we prepared them for success after all?