I have been a teacher for ten years now, and in that time I have attended many special education meetings for my students, so many, in fact, that I assumed that I knew pretty much all there was to know: the jargon, the protocol, the flow charts.
And then I found myself on the other side of the conference table.
Two weeks ago my husband and I sat in a special education meeting for Little E, the result of an evaluation she'd had with the school district's occupational therapist after her pre-school teachers had echoed my own concerns about her fine motor skills.
I knew from my time on that side of the table that the people who sat across from me were professionals there to do their jobs, which, ultimately, was to help my child. Still, I couldn't ignore the fact that they were also there to tell me that she was decidedly flawed; worse, I was there to agree with them.
Committing this betrayal while my daughter played happily at home filled me with a gnawing guilt. This feeling was compounded not only by my mental list of the ways I'd already failed my child (pacifier, bottle, overzealous swaddling, liberal TV policy, extended period of denial), but also by my understanding that every day mothers cared for grown children with the needs of infants, slept on cots in their children's hospital rooms and birthed babies who would never take a breath. I was pretty sure that all of them handled their circumstances with more grace than I'd managed upon learning that my daughter was really not good at coloring.
Yet I doubt any of this internal mess was visible from the other side. I knew my role in this meeting: small talk about the weather, conscientious note-taking, studious head-tilting and clarifying questions.
The occupational therapist who had evaluated Little E read from her report. I knew from having been there that the people on the clean and clinical side of the table could separate the challenge from the child. The fine motor delays that the evaluation had revealed were simply a problem to be solved and we were there to determine the best course of action. But from my side, the view was a little hazier and the distinction not quite as simple.
Since the day of the evaluation when I'd sat at that very same conference table and watched my daughter, grim-faced with determination, fail to color properly, to cut with scissors properly, to form a letter, lace a card or trace a line properly, I had struggled with a measure of grief. I wasn't exactly grieving for Little E, who was still the same sweet and silly, delightful and exasperating girl she had been before that day. I grieved more for the fact that so early I had to retire the notion that she would travel the clear path I had imagined for both my daughters. I grieved for knowing from experience that in school achievement is measured with pencil and paper, that preparation for standardized tests starts in kindergarten, and that none of this would come as easily to her as I wanted it to.
As the meeting neared its end, the chairwoman turned to the flow chart that is used to determine a child's eligibility for services. From sitting so many times on the other side of the table, I knew that this was a matter of legality, of filling out paperwork and applying the appropriate jargon so as to get on with the real work of fixing problems and helping children. She read aloud: Is there a disability? Yes. What type? Physical. I felt my husband's hand on my knee. My breath stuck in my throat, my stomach lurched, my head swam.
And I knew then that this was more than words and paper, jargon and protocol. I knew then that despite my ten years on the other side of the table, there was a whole lot that I didn't know.