This piece ran in the Boston Globe, May 21, 1999, under the title, "A Place for Aidan."
By Sam Crane
It is a crowded kindergarten classroom, crammed full of books and supplies and creative junk of all sorts. Makeshift shelves split the room into work areas where groups of young students pursue their common projects. Two doves, a hamster and some fish make their homes in one alcove, ready to introduce biology. The requisite computer is squeezed into another corner.
It seems a fun and lively place. But narrow aisles leave little room for our son's wheelchair, and my wife and I worry that Aidan might not fit.
Indeed, fitting Aidan into a classroom or a neighbor's house or anywhere is a constant worry for us. He is multiply and profoundly disabled. He cannot see, speak, stand, or walk. For no known reason, his brain did not develop normally in the womb. Though 7 years old, he has the physical and mental capacities of an infant. He will never earn an "A" in school, throw a baseball, or sing a song. How can he possibly fit, physically or otherwise, into this regular kindergarten class?
We should not be too worried because Leland is here. Leland has been in Aidan's pre-school class just across the hall and is always first to volunteer to push Aidan's chair or to sit next to him at story time. He knows that Aidan likes to feel things in his hands. On the playground, Leland finds stones or plants to rub across his friend's palms. We often discover tiny treasures -- dandelions, pebbles, dried leaves -- lodged in the chair cushion, evidence of Leland's playful assistance. When the time has come to move up to kindergarten, Leland asked to be in Aidan's room, to be near his buddy.
But that was pre-school, where more attention is paid to socialization. This is kindergarten, where the other children will have to advance in their studies. They will begin to read and write, things that Aidan will never do. And as they grow intellectually, the social distance between them and Aidan will likely grow as well.
They will notice what he is not doing, what he cannot do. Perhaps, they will start to see him in a different light. I have seen it in the older students, the fifth and sixth graders. In the morning, as they amble past the door where the van drops off the kids in wheelchairs, they comment, sometimes harshly, about the "handicaps."
They are not bad kids, just unaware of the hurtful power of their words. This is what we fear about kindergarten: the beginning of the end of our boy's innocence, his introduction into a demanding and fast-paced world that will only seldom slow to appreciate him.
It does not take long to allay our fears. In a few days, the cluttered classroom is rearranged to make room for the wheelchair. Aidan is included in most facets of the class. When the other children are reading aloud, he is nearby, listening in. At craft time, his teacher's aide makes sure that his hands, too, are doused in finger paint or smeared with glue.
Although he must lie down on the couch when he is uncomfortable, the other children do not see this as odd or disruptive. They do not find it strange when his physical therapist comes into the room, lays him down on a mat, and stretches his arms and legs. If they are close and not busy with other tasks, they join in, happily helping to hold his foot at the proper angle or lying alongside him, whispering in his ear. Gradually, one by one, they take an interest in him, and that grows into understanding, which blossoms into affection.
During the second full week of school, Aidan's class is in the gym to play dodge ball. They choose up sides, and Nicholas, one of the captains, picks Aidan for his team. Then, without any prompting from anyone else, he stops the selection. Turning to his classmates, he calls out: "OK, everybody, let's do three cheers for Aidan." And they do. Each child adds a voice to the cheerful chorus of "hip-hip- hoorays" that echoes through the cavernous room; and each flourish affirms Aidan's place in the class.
Such moments stand in stark contrast to the isolation that might have befallen Aidan had he been born in a different place or a different time. I am confronted with such ominous possibilities when we drive down to my mother's house.
The trip takes us past an old run-down state mental hospital. It is a sprawling campus of forlorn red brick dormitories, rusted brown bars on windows, colorless paint flaking into oblivion. The institution is not used much these days, only a few people ply the weed-choked pathways, but it stands as a melancholy monument to the time when severely disabled people were shut away from society.
But that is not Aidan's life. Instead, he has his place in a chaotic kindergarten, where he can feel a hamster scamper on his lap, hear the clamor of two dozen children, sense his friends around him. His wheelchair may sometimes collide with a bookshelf and he may occasionally miss out on certain activities, but he is a full-fledged member of the class. He fits.