Several months ago, Lil Z and I were at playgroup at Red Hill Special School. I was chatting with one of the administrators. We were reflecting on how far Lil Z had come. When she started playgroup at around 1 1/2 years old, she screamed through it. She was by far the youngest – and the most disabled. The only session that she enjoyed during that first year was when we went swimming – and even then she only enjoyed it until the other children got in the pool.
Her second year in playgroup, she started off screaming, but a very calm teacher and a much smaller class worked in her favour. She still didn’t enjoy it, but for the most part she tolerated it. The school physio arranged for her to spend more time in the pool – which she loved, even when there were other children in the pool. She didn’t like the sensory room but she reluctantly started to enjoy music therapy. One of my proudest moments was the last playgroup session of the year, when Lil Z sat on my lap and was very obviously engaged and enjoyed the music.
January 2014 marked the start of her third year in playgroup. She was now the oldest in the group. She was no longer overwhelmed by the other children. She enjoyed music and bouncing on the trampoline. The school physio and our au pair fitted her in a walker and helped her to inch around the playground. Lil Z’s tolerance of playgroup is a rare example of her development and I cherish it.
But then the administrator surprised me. She told me that in the July term, Lil Z would be old enough to start Pre-Prep (in Australia, this is the equivalent of preschool and usually takes place the year before a child starts school. It’s not mandatory, but most children do two or three days a week to prepare them for school).
What?! Nooooo, I think you’re mistaken, I said, she’s just turned three. But the administrator said that at the special school, they start children at 3 1/2 years. Yes, Lil Z wouldn’t be quite 3 1/2 in July, but she thought Lil Z could handle it. And they had a great Pre-Prep class for her, with just two other children (both with multiple disabilities) in it.
I resisted the idea – I just didn’t think it would work. But when I told QB about it that night, he thought it was a brilliant idea. WHAT?! But she’s my baby…
I realised that I didn’t actually know what Pre-Prep meant for Lil Z. Sure, I knew what Vegemite had done in her Pre-Prep class, but how did that translate to a special school? Or for a girl with such limited communication abilities. So, QB and I set up a meeting with the school.
By that point, I’d compiled a mental list of all the reasons it was a bad idea. As I went through the list with the school officers, I realised that in their experience Lil Z is hardly unique. She needs at least one or two naps during the day, I pointed out. But of course, so do many of their students, and they’re used to them grabbing naps throughout the day. She has seizures, I declared. Of course, so do many of their students, and all the teachers are trained to deal with seizures and the school has a nurse for emergencies. Halfway through my list I realised that I really only had one objection: Lil Z is my baby. She was ready to go to school – I was the one who wasn’t ready.
So, over the course of the next two months, I shifted my mindset. This was a good thing for Lil Z and I was going to be positive about it… even if it killed me.
In the end, it didn’t kill me.
Lil Z looked so grown up in her school uniform and matching bow in her hair. She was miserable and cried all the way to school, but calmed down once we arrived. We went down to her classroom and she sat and watched the other little girl in her class play in the sandpit while her teacher and I had a long discussion on medications, emergency procedures, feeding protocols, and who they should call first – the ambulance or me. Not your typical ‘first day of school’ conversation, but obviously nothing new for Lil Z’s teacher.
The school physio, the deputy-head, the principal of the school, and her playgroup teacher all came to welcome Lil Z and celebrate her first day of school. A plan was even formed that if she became inconsolable, they’d call the physio (Lil Z adores him) to give her cuddles. And the teacher assured me that if Lil Z was unhappy or not coping or unwell, she’d call me immediately.
During all the excitement and discussion, Lil Z fell asleep. She was relaxed and happy, so I gave her a kiss and left. Brave face for the school, but a few deep breaths when I got in the car.
I kept my phone close all day, but the school never called.
QB and I went to pick Lil Z up early – we’d arranged with the teacher to collect her about an hour and a half early since it was her first day and we weren’t sure if she’d cope with a full day. When we sneaked downstairs to her classroom, she was a bit grumpy. She was finishing off her lunch and was obviously ready for a nap. The teacher reported she’d had two cat-naps during the day, but had spent most of the day awake and happy. She’d enjoyed music and playing outdoors. In short, she’d coped better than I expected.
Best of all, Lil Z was so happy when she got home. She had obviously had a good day – and was happy to be home. She slept well that night, too!
So, the first day of school went better than I expected. Lil Z might be my baby, but she’s also ready to cope with one day a week at school.
I miss my baby, but I couldn’t be prouder.