When Thea Went To School...

When Thea first started preschool, I would walk out to the busy playground to pick her up after school.  Each time, instead of playing with the others, I would find Thea sitting alone quietly or snuggled next to a teacher.  This broke my heart a little bit each time though I understood why.  Thea had just learned to walk and when other kids bumped her, it threw her off balance and she would cry.  She couldn’t handle most of the playground equipment and she had just started speaking a few words and phrases.
Thea's First Day of School

Once, during pick up, a boy from Thea’s class approached me and asked, “Is Thea is baby? She can’t talk.”  Not really knowing what to say, I responded, “No, she is the same age as you,” and walked on.   I told myself that the boy was just curious, but it still made me sad. 
During mito awareness week, I gave Thea’s teachers a book that was kid friendly and explained mitochondria disease so that day they sat the kids down in a circle and shared the information about Thea’s illness.  At first, I had mixed feelings about the teachers talking about Thea’s differences in school.  Would it make her more separate?  Would kids avoid her even more?
I had recently read a chapter in the book Nuture Shock that talked about how kids pick up on differences whether you point them out or not.  Parents tend to think that discussing differences makes them more noticeable, however, the book argues that children actually benefit from parents allowing them to notice and discuss differences and then being taught how to respond to people who are different. 
I had also attended a conference where a dad told us that he explained his daughter’s illness to her class each year and he found that this helped his daughter actually make friends because once kids understood, there were always a few willing to befriend her and help her. 
With this information in mind, I was ready for the teachers to explain Thea’s illness to the class.  They explained why it was hard when Thea got bumped and how it threw her off balance, why she didn’t walk when she first started school, and why she was allowed to have an extra snack.  I crossed my fingers and hoped that the dad was right. 
After the discussion, I noticed that Thea began talking about two of the older kids in her class.  The teachers mentioned that the two girls had started helping Thea on the playground and with other classroom activities.  When I came to school for Thea’s birthday, they begged to be Thea’s birthday buddies and asked to come to our house to play. 
We invited Thea’s classmates to the mitochondria disease walk when it came up in May.  Several families showed up and supported the event.  We were slowly getting birthday invitations and connecting with more families. 
This year, when I pick up Thea, instead of finding her sitting all alone, I have to scan the playground before I find her jumping on the play bridge or digging a hole in the sand with a group of children.  She’s much stronger now, talking more and able to maintain her balance, and the kids seem more comfortable with her.  I overheard a little boy telling his mother all about Thea and how she is very special and you should help her on the slide if she asks you. 
The school recently had a picnic and I was shocked when Thea immediately detached from me, hugged her teachers, and ran to play with a little girl that I hadn’t met.  The girl’s mother introduced herself to me and said that her daughter talks about Thea every day.  Thea had been trying to tell us about this friend but I hadn’t understood that the word she kept saying at home was the girl’s name.  I watched the girls play in the sand for hours while I sat and chatted with the other families, my heart feeling warm and full. 
Last year, in my first grade classroom, I had a student with some learning disabilities.  When he spoke, he stuttered and took a long time to finish his sentences.  Sometimes, he would drool if he got excited or nervous.  I told my class about the boy and explained that he was born with something in his brain that made it difficult to get words out.  We paused and imagined what that would feel like.  The kids thought it might be frustrating.  It might make you feel like you didn’t want to talk much.  I told my class that we had a choice.  We could make it safe for him to share with us or we could treat him in a way that made him not want to share at all.  We have an opportunity to choose kindness. 
I watched carefully after this.  I noticed that the boy spoke up often in class, volunteering his answers and thoughts, and everyone waited for him to finish speaking no matter how much his stutter slowed him down.  When he complained about some older children on the playground during our morning meeting and the kids brainstormed how to help, two of my girls and one boy, followed him out to make sure that he had someone to play with and someone to help him if those older kids gave him trouble.
When I was watching Thea and this little boy in my class, I was also watching the kids around them and I noticed how many of them grew a little more patient, a little more aware of what is going on around them, and a little more sure of themselves as they reached out to help someone else.  It makes me remember what a gift Thea is to the world around her and how watching her shine despite her illness has opened up my heart more than anything else I’ve ever experienced.  I believes she gives the people around her this opportunity as well. 
I recently read the book Wonder, which is all about kindness, and I love this quote from the main character’s principal at school- “If every single person made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God…  ”  The principal gives the boy in the story an award and reminds us that- "He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts." 


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