School bus for Meredith

Stalking the school bus

I’ve been anticipating my daughter Meredith’s first day of school all summer. It’s been one part enthusiasm and three parts anxiety. So as we waited on the front porch for the school bus this week, I was trying to maintain my proper role as the mother, which is to have Meredith leave the house knowing she is very much loved, but also knowing she is going to school to learn new things and meet new people and can do all that without me.

As the bus moved down our street and stopped in front of the house, I helped Meredith, who is 7, step off the curb and board. This is a bigger production for her than the average kid because she has special needs and requires help with balance and fine motor skills. Still, she took the stairs like a champ and beamed at the other children.

At this point, many parents would wave goodbye and maybe wipe away a tear. Not me.

“I’m gonna follow you,” I told the bus driver without a trace of neuroticism or doubt in my voice. “You know,” I added, “just for the first few days.”

Looking a little perplexed, he nodded and pulled away. I know, I know: I’m a nut. I just wanted to make sure Meredith got to school and to her classroom. I just had to make sure.

I dashed for my minivan and headed after the bus, which had already disappeared from my line of sight. Blanketed in unrelenting exhaustion and spilled coffee, I caught up quickly and stalked the amber giant like some crazed animal protecting her young. While other cars were trying to pass the bus before it stopped, I was plodding behind it. It was strangely funny to me that we passed two other elementary schools — even stopping at one — before arriving at Gullett Elementary in North Austin. Many special education students like Meredith have to travel outside their immediate neighborhood to get the services they need.

When we got there, my fears dissolved. Meredith was greeted by her teacher, whom we had met in the spring, and some older students who had volunteered, as well as the all-important teacher aides. Rather suddenly, my daughter had her own entourage escorting her into the school, making me feel completely silly for worrying about her, now the apparent rock star.

Meredith’s designated meeting spot was in the cafeteria where her class was waiting. I sheepishly followed. Looking around at the mind-numbing array of special-needs students, I marveled at how together the entire staff was, especially Laura Pedersen, the lead teacher for Meredith’s classroom. I sat down and asked her how she has managed to stay in this job for 20 years, the majority of that time at Gullett teaching basic skills to students ages 5 to 9.

“It’s the kids,” she said without hesitation, “and the families.”

That much was obvious in watching how Pedersen and her two aides greeted the students. Some children gave no response to a “Good morning.” Some smiled. All were greeted with enthusiasm, and my daughter was no exception.

I wondered how long it would take for Meredith to relax and start peppering her teachers with questions (her latest new skill). This started nearly immediately. As they began to line up to leave the cafeteria, I was never more proud of Meredith than when she asked if she could help push one of the students using a wheelchair to get to the classroom.

This school is going to work, I thought. Meredith tends to find happiness almost anywhere she goes, but it takes a special place to foster that.

Gullett Principal Sandy Leibick surely knows that. After being informed that Meredith’s mom writes this column, he sent me a complimentary e-mail and did a far better job than I of explaining how this school works:

“Every year, like magic, the Gullett staff transforms our building into a bountiful garden of hope. A garden which supports flowers of all different sizes and colors. A garden in which each plant is nurtured in its own special way, so that every bloom is treasured for its own beauty without a need to compare fragrance, color and size to others. The Gullett gardeners take time to look beyond the fleeting glance.”

And so the seeds of the first day are planted. I can’t wait to watch them grow.

Sarah Barnes writes occasionally for the Austin American-Statesman about the joys and challenges of raising a child with special needs.

Sarah Barnes
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