Facing my fears: Thinking about school

Facing my fears: Thinking about school

Sometimes things just seem to fall into place and what we were once afraid of doesn’t turn out to be so serious after all. It’s a bit like waking up in the morning after an all-consuming fear has hijacked your night, only to discover that the worry isn’t quite so mountainous in the morning light.

I might be thinking ahead a bit, but the idea of my eldest daughter starting school for the first time next year scares the hell out of me and, in all honesty, it’s not just because she’s missing a hand. I’m sure that I would feel the entirely the same no matter how many hands she had. However, there’s no denying that your child having a visible difference can magnify or exacerbate these totally normal worries.

Not only is my summer baby heading off to school mere weeks after she turns four next year, meaning that her baby sister and I will miss her horribly during the brightest hours of the day, watching her walk into school for the first time will be akin to watching her walk out into that big wide world.

The world is full of wonders, adventures and beautiful moments, but it is also full of unkind words, fear and upset. Sadly I know all to well that if I even think about trying to protect her from the bad then I would be robbing her of much of the good as well. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make the prospect any less daunting!

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Venturing out into the world

I’ve been known to be a bit hyper vigilant from time to time when I’m out and about with Hero, sometimes this has been a misplaced awareness and on other occasions my caution has been bang on the money. Sometimes kids have stared, or grabbed at her little hand in order to get a better look. Sometimes they’ve asked blunt questions and I’ve had to step in as she wasn’t old enough to stand up for herself. I’ve often worried about whether I’m responding the right way or modelling the right reaction to her, but wondering if I’m doing it right is less frightening than the idea that I won’t be there to do it at all.

Living in a beautiful bubble

To my overprotective mind, sending her out into the world is leaving her open to the influences of others. She lives right now in a bubble of friends and family who all love her very much and who don’t even notice her hand. Her hand isn’t ‘a thing’ at the moment and the irrational side of me wishes it would never be a thing. Opening her up to the opinions of others means accepting the possibility that someone might hurt her. I know that these are fears that many, if not all, parents share when it comes to their little one’s growing independence. We all want our children to be happy, to be liked, to be accepted.

I know all too well that I can’t stop any hurtful things from ever happening to her, even if I did hover over her like a helicopter (which, for the record, I don’t), but the idea that someone could and might make a comment about her hand – about the one thing she has no control whatsoever – makes my heart plummet.

With the view of allaying my fears (Hero’s not worried at all of course – she doesn’t even know what school is yet and naturally, she would love to go if she did) we decided to visit our local school last month. She currently attends a wonderful nursery in the town where her dad and I work. She loves it there, but she’s not with children who will be in her catchment area when the inevitable happens and she starts school in 2020. So as things stood, starting school would not only mean a change of venue and a change of friends, it would mean meeting a whole new community of people to whom her hand might have been a surprise.  To my mind, the idea of starting school with an entirely new cohort was going to make my worries for her worse and possibly her own experience more of a challenge.

So off we trundled to our local primary to tour the school and also to visit the preschool that sits alongside it.  The vast majority of the preschool children go on to attend the primary– so for us that meant that Hero would be making friends with her future classmates; children who are currently too young to care that she might have a difference. If she could start school with friends who already knew her, then I felt it would be half as scary for both of us!

Fabulously unfazed

As part of our tour of the school, we wove our way between the flock of chickens and the duck with the wonky wing that roam the playground and made our way into the reception and year one classroom. The children stopped to look at the newcomers to the room and as we crossed the floor to the door on the other side I felt a bit like a goldfish in a bowl. One little boy in particular stared at Hero at she passed. He kept staring, turning his head in comic slow motion to follow her progress across the room. I had that little bristling feeling, like an angry bird puffing up my metaphorical feathers and getting ready to square my shoulders. Just before we reached the door, this little boy stepped forward, crouched down and patted Hero on the head.

“Well you’re super cute, aren’t you?” he said, beaming at her before skipping back to his table.

I couldn’t help but grin. I’m not sure I’ve met many cuter kids than that lad! He was so brim-full of welcome and delight at the small person who was even smaller than himself, totally unfazed by any differences.

Right before we left the room I spotted one little girl with a vibrant pink brace on her left leg and there was another with a colourful headband holding her cochlear implants in place. So Hero was far from being the only one with a visible difference. Those children and that little lad were welcome reminders that personality shines out far more than any physical difference.

The things they don’t see

A little later on our tour and Hero was hanging out in a tent with another little girl who already attended the preschool.

“Look at that!” the little girl said to the nursery manager.

“Yes, that’s the new girl,” the manager replied.

“But she…” The little girl frowned and looked intently at Hero, clearly puzzled. My feathers started puffing up again.  It’s almost impossible not to feel a little on edge when these conversations happen; inevitably all those kind sentences and snappy one-liners that you came up with at home immediately abandon you.

“But look…. but…” the girl was having trouble articulating the problem she was having with Hero. Even the nursery manager was looking a bit unsure now.

And then she at last burst out; “But she’s got short hair! I’m a girl and I’ve got long hair and so does Sarah!”

And there it was again, another little one – in the school we were thinking of sending our daughters to – who just didn’t see Hero’s limb difference. They didn’t see odd, they didn’t see unusual. They saw cute and they saw style choices that have little consequence.

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All I need to know

When I got home that evening, Hero’s dad asked how the tour had gone. He asked if we’d talked about her hand at all and it was only then that I realised – it hadn’t come up in conversation once. Somehow I had always imagined needing to explain it to her teachers or discussing how we’d like it handled. Yet when the time came I hadn’t needed to ask any questions, I hadn’t needed to bring it up at all. The response and reaction from the children in the school and the nursery were enough to tell me all I needed to know about that place.

And just like that, my worries about Hero starting school suddenly came out into the daylight and found they weren’t as big as they’d been pretending. After one tour, where Hero asked to be left behind while her sister and I went home, I had gone from fearing the oncoming march of time to actually looking forward to it.

Now when I think of school I think of the excitement she’ll feel going into the classroom for the first time, running out to play and meeting her new teacher and friends. I think of how darn cute she’s going to look in her school uniform and of all the wonderful things she’ll learn while she’s away. I no longer seem to fear the unknown assailant who might cast a flippant comment her way. Sure, it might still happen. But somehow, I just can’t see it happening at that school, in that community. Not the one with the duck with a wonky wing waddling about the playground and greeting the children as they come in.

 

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Out of the Mouths of Babes

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Kids can be so cruel.

As a primary teacher at an all-girls school it’s a phrase I hear often. Sure, kids can be cruel sometimes. But in my experience more often they are honest and open and full of wide-eyed care.

Despite this I was still a bit nervous when I took Hero into school to meet my students last week. I’d started my maternity leave early, half way through the summer term, so my girls knew that things hadn’t been entirely straightforward with the pregnancy. I was really keen for them to see that everything was all ok.

I’d decided not to prepare the girls before I took Hero in to meet them. Their gasps of delight and joy at seeing her were spectacular. Their excitement was punctuated after a few moments by the startled question: “What’s happened to her hand?”

And there it was, the elephant in the room evaporated instantly in a poof of smoke. The elephant that lingers so often when adults are taken by surprise. After the first girls asked, the others started to notice her lucky fin too and repeated the question.

I explained that we’d found out about her paw while she was still in my tummy and that sometimes things just don’t develop the way we’d expect them to. That’s life, that’s just nature.

“Will it grow?”

“Are those fingers?”

“Does it move?”

It was so wonderfully refreshing to be asked questions and to answer without any awkwardness. As soon as they realised that it was all ok; that I was OK and that Hero was OK, their attitude to her lucky fin changed from curiosity and concern to wonder and joy.

“Can I touch it?”

“It’s so cute!”

“I love it; it looks like a teddy bear’s paw!”

“She has teeny tiny nails! She’ll be able to paint them when she’s older!”

One of my girls, who is just nine years old, looked up at me as she held onto Hero’s lucky fin and said with such honesty and integrity: “She is such a special little girl! A real one of a kind.”

Often the difference between children and adults is that children aren’t afraid to ask. And if you’re not afraid to ask then I’m not afraid to answer. Of course I can’t speak for any other parents with a limb-different child, or for the children themselves, but for me I welcome the questions. There’s no such thing as a silly question. Once they’re asked, once we’ve said farewell to that elephant, we can get on to talking about other things.

Being different is nothing to be ashamed of and in approaching differences with curiosity we can open our mind to a whole new world. My girls showed me that last week as they sent Hero and I on our way, our hearts bursting with happiness.