In Australia, the school year ends in early December and the summer holidays run until after Australia Day in late January. So, here we are getting ready to go back to school. Vegemite starts Grade 2 next Wednesday and Lil Z returns to pre-school the following week.
In past years, the start of the school year hasn’t exactly been my finest hour of motherhood. The first year, it was a shocked “we have to buy all the books and school supplies?! That’s normal in Australia? Errr… no, we didn’t get the letter…” followed by a dash to the school shop. The second year, I knew what I had to do, I just missed the order deadline by a few days, which meant Vegemite had to start school without anything (apart from some cobbled together school supplies)… again.
This year, I ordered everything early. Even book covers (if anyone can explain to me what is so necessary about covering all your child’s notebooks – not text books, but notebooks – in contact paper or plastic covers, I’d love to know, since it seems like a total waste of time to me. But hey, who am I to deny Vegemite her covers?). Even name labels have been designed, ordered and arrived. Even the special new water bottle I promised Vegemite months ago that I would buy her for Grade 2. Vegemite, showing the school-loving tendencies of one of her favourite book characters, Hermione Granger, has enthusiastically labelled everything, organised her pencil-case (several times), and started to review some of her books (enthusiasm for running writing is high – I had to take her handwriting book away to prevent her from starting early on it). And now the whole lot is sitting in a box in the living room, awaiting delivery to the school on Tuesday.
Neither Vegemite nor Lil Z has grown enough that they need new school uniforms (yet), so we’re good to go there, too. Everything is even washed and hanging in their closet.
That left only one last thing to sort out: school shoes. Vegemite needed a new pair of black mary-janes for her formal uniform and Lil Z needed a new pair of trainers. So, when we had a few hours to kill on Thursday – and everyone was desperate to get out of the house because it has been raining all week – I decided to load everyone up and head to the mall for a bit of shoe shopping.
We went to a shop straight away that I knew carried both trainers and school shoes. Once upon a time, I could wander for hours in the mall with a contented Lil Z asleep in her pram. Those days are over, and she now usually gets cranky pretty quickly – especially if you’re not moving. So I wanted to get the shoes sorted as quickly as I could.
When the salesperson called our number, I explained what we needed for both girls, and suggested we start with Vegemite, since she was “the easy one”. There isn’t that much variety in black mary-jane school shoes – buckle or velcro and a few different brands with slightly different fits is about as exciting as it gets. Within five minutes, Vegemite declared that she wanted the same brand as last year, but with a buckle instead of velcro. Sorted.
Then, things got kind of wonderful. The salesperson knelt down beside Lil Z’s stroller and said hello, introduced herself, and asked what kind of shoes Lil Z wanted. I am so unused to people making the effort to talk to Lil Z, that I almost thought she was talking to me. Then I worried that she didn’t realise that Lil Z was non-verbal.
Of course, Lil Z glanced at her then looked away and rubbed her eyes (her favourite defence mechanism). This is often when people give up with Lil Z. She rarely gives anyone a direct look – not only because she is shy around strangers, but also because her visual impairment means she can’t see as well if she is looking straight ahead as she can out of the corner of her eye. But the salesperson continued chatting to her, asking about school and what shoes she would need.
I was kneeling on the other side of Lil Z by this time (realising how unusual it is for everyone to be on her level, rather than talking over her head) and explained what she needed.
The salesperson then measured Lil Z’s feet – getting down on her level and explaining what she was going to do before doing it and chatting away to Lil Z (and Vegemite, who wanted to help with the measuring process). Then she disappeared off and returned with two different trainers she thought might work for Lil Z.
She showed the first pair to Lil Z and then slipped them on her feet. Lil Z responded by curling her toes under, but the woman fastened the shoes and sat back, waiting for Lil Z to relax. After a moment, the defiant toe curling was forgotten and we could check the fit. Then she repeated the process with the other pair, still including Lil Z in the conversation, despite getting very little encouragement from the girl herself.
We decided on a pair of Asics that were a lovely shade of raspberry with neon yellow detailing but then Vegemite asked if they came in blue, saying that Lil Z’s favourite colour is blue. This isn’t strictly true – Vegemite’s favourite colour is blue (thanks to “Frozen” for weaning her off pink) – but whatever. So, off she dashed to find a blue pair. I wasn’t convinced with the blue, so the salesperson suggested we let Lil Z decide. She held one of each colour in front of Lil Z and waited for her to respond. Unfortunately, no amount of encouragement was going to get Lil Z to stop rubbing her eyes and show a preference, so I finally chose the raspberry ones – arguing they match perfectly with her Kimba stroller.
It was such an ordinary thing to be doing: probably anyone with a school-aged child in Australia has, or is going to, buy school shoes. But the salesperson reminded me something that I often forget when I’m out and about with Lil Z – that she needs to be included, too. She is non-verbal and doesn’t like to interact with strangers, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be given the opportunity. Nothing will ever change if we don’t keep trying.
It is one of my greatest faults with Lil Z sometimes. I’ll be busy and distracted and instead of talking to her, telling her what I’m going to do, and maybe even giving her a choice in the matter, I will just do… Her nappy seems wet? I’ll just roll her over and start to change her, without bothering to tell her what I’m about to do. Lunchtime? I just hook her up and she’s away – all without me saying a word. Bath time? I’ll often just carry her into the bathroom and start undressing her – she figures out what is going on based on our routine, rather than anything I’ve said.
Still, I’m trying. We do the sign for ‘bath’ together before she gets into the bath, and the signs for ‘finished’ and ‘bath’ before I get her out of the bathtub. I’ve also started chatting with her when she’s sitting in the kitchen and I’m preparing dinner. Just because it must be really boring sitting in a chair watching someone else cook in silence…
I don’t know what goes on in Lil Z’s mind, but QB and I are certain that there is more going on in her brain than most people give her credit for. Just because her body doesn’t cooperate, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand what is going on around her. If there is one thing I never, ever want to be guilty of doing as a mother of a special needs child, it is under-estimating her abilities. And part of that is making sure that she is included, and not just managed through conversations going on over her head.
I’m grateful that shoe shopping – and an exceptional salesperson – reminded me of that.