Sunday, June 26, 2016

Roller Coasters and Redemption

Ethan sails under a bridge during our "BOAT riiiide!"

Fifteen summers ago Dan and I took a vacation out to Chicago and Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. It was July 2001. I always think of that vacation as a different world, another time, before we had kids, before the planes hit the towers and things changed in big and little ways.

On that trip I remember our biggest concern -- our chief annoyance -- was when we attempted to go on a boat tour of Chicago. A pack of teenagers climbed on behind us and immediately began talking, loudly. This was a historical tour and somewhere up front the tour operator was educating us on the story of Chicago. We couldn't hear a word. We looked to change seats but all were full. All we could hear was who was dating who, and where they'd partied last and where they were going to party that night. All of that was interspersed with several of them shrieking out "BOAT Riiiide!" at intermittent points throughout the trip.

For years after it would be a private joke between the two of us, and if I knew Dan was annoyed about something I might throw a "BOAT riiiide!" out there just to make us both laugh.

That year we also went to Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of the world, where I somehow managed to get on one of the tallest coasters in the world and didn't die.

For years, we always figured we'd get back out to that part of the country -- and that darn it, we were going to take a boat tour and get our money's worth this time.

We're a little unconventional, in our family. Our vacations aren't everyone's cup of tea. We don't tend to stay in one place or do some kind of "resort." We have yet to get to Disney. We test everyone's limits and maybe do some things people normally wouldn't consider doing with a toddler. I will go out of my way to drive to states I haven't seen...Dan will go out of his way for any sort of oddity, novelty, or thrill ride. Our vacations tend to not be relaxing (when are they ever, with kids?) as much as adventurous, in a very suburban kind of way. We're not hiking the Himalayas...but we have explored the White Mountains and Smoky Mountains. Baltimore. Last year, Virginia. And now the Midwest.

Last year we made a discovery upon arriving at Busch Gardens amusement park -- that Anna had developed an immense fear of roller coasters. This is always a fun thing to realize once you've dropped a ton of money on a major attraction and now have a child weeping in fear at the foot of a coaster. That was an interesting day. Pounding rain and the threat of storms closed half the rides. We left the park due to a 100 percent change of thunderstorms, yet a half-hour later the sun was shining and shone for the rest of the day. It was another "BOAT riiiide!" experience.

Over time I've realized:
- There will always be things you can't plan for.
- Sometimes the most irritating or disappointing moments make for the best stories and most laughter later on.
- Take lessons from what went wrong and attempt to plan better the next time (while acknowledging that something will still not go exactly your way).

Over time we've also realized:
You can't make your child do something they are terrified to do. You can encourage them, but they need to feel safe, and they need to feel they can "opt out."

And so, fast forward to the past week. Fifteen years later, we were back at Cedar Point, three kids in tow. We'd vowed not to push Anna onto roller coasters. Ethan said he was ready to ride them all. He and Dan got in line for this ridiculous coaster that was literally giving me heart palpitations just watching the people waiting to get shot 450-feet into the air in about 5 seconds. As we waited, Anna decided to go on a small coaster. Then she wanted to ride again. Then another one. These weren't huge coaters, but she was all smiles.

Ethan and Dan came back from the line, perturbed. They had gotten to the point where they were actually sitting in car, ready to be shot up, when the ride operator had forced them all off and told them the ride was closing due to high winds. Seriously? Ethan was approaching meltdown mode.

"Ethan," Dan encouraged, "We're not going to let this ruin our day. Let's do something else fun."

So Ethan jumped onto some rides with Anna. Then we decided to go together on the Magnum, a 215-foot steel coaster I'd ridden before. Anna chickened out and backed out of the line when she saw the hill. We bit our tongues and gave her her space. Ethan saw the coaster's size and got shaky. I kept reassuring him things were fine, even as we were heading up the endless hill...and then once we plunged down I started screaming. I screamed and screamed and didn't stop until the ride stopped. People behind and in front of me asked if I was okay. I realized I'd been having some kind of primal experience where I barely remembered who I was, nevermind that I had a child sitting next to me who had already been apprehensive. I also realized that it had been way too long since I'd been on a huge coaster and that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little old for this.

After that experience, Ethan didn't want to go on anymore huge coasters. I felt guilty. I hadn't modeled calm. I'd freaked out. I'd forgotten I was a parent, seriously. After I'd done so well on the plane (I'm not the biggest fan of flying) I'd lost it on the coaster.

Take lessons from what went wrong and try to do better next time.

Just as we weren't going to push Anna on coasters, we couldn't push Ethan. Even if we'd paid way too much money on a pass for him and Dan to skip the lines. Anna, in the meantime, was open to riding more coasters, as long as they weren't huge. This, from the girl who had said all she wanted for her birthday that week was for no one to make her go on roller coasters.

Sometimes our kids surprise us...either in a good way or a bad way...but they always surprise us, don't they?

We left the park dirty, sweaty, tired, and satisfied. The day had not been perfect -- several coasters remained closed due to wind, the food was too overpriced to eat, and we'd still missed a ton of rides over the 8+ hours -- but that was okay. We'd tried. We'd made adjustments. We'd tried to be sensitive to each others' needs. That was the most important thing.

Five days later we were back at Six Flags at home (not our choice, so close to our other trip, but a company event). Ethan, Anna and I stood in line for the Thunderbolt, a small wooden coaster I remembered riding when I was Anna's age. It looked exactly the same. I could see my tween self standing in line. As we boarded the ride, I promised Ethan I wouldn't scream. Instead, any time he got nervous and looked at me, I'd smile. Just like on the plane. Just like I realized I had to do, because I'd let him see footage of a plane crash once and it freaked him out.

Take lessons from what went wrong and try to do better next time.

Back in Chicago, our first day there, we'd decided to attempt the boat ride once again. It was time to right history. We were going to soldier through this thing, darn it, and learn about the city once and for all. We got on the boat and I scoured our area for obnoxious loud people. None. Then I looked around me. We had three kids with us this time, including a two-year-old who could care less about Chicago's architecture. Who was I kidding? There would be interruptions. I wasn't going to sit peacefully, undistracted as in the years we were first married when we'd go somewhere as a couple. I had to readjust expectations.

There will always be things you can't plan for.

But you can plan to have things not perfect, and you can plan to keep a good attitude. As we sailed under bridges and looked up a soaring buildings, I felt a sense of freedom. Yes, my child was pulling on my arm and spilling food all over the floor, but I heard about 80 percent of what was said. That was a lot better than zero. We were here, with these amazing views, awake and in a relatively good mood despite a delayed flight and getting to bed at 2 in the morning. We were doing this boat ride, finally, and this trip that other people might think was a little too overreaching.

We were winning, not at perfection, but at doing this thing called life, with all of its curve balls and all of our fears and failures. By the grace of God. By our willingness to change and alter course when necessary.

I think there will still be times when I'll randomly call out "BOAT riiiide!" and have to smile. Sometimes the most irritating or disappointing moments make for the best stories and most laughter later on. There are days I wonder what happened to those teenagers on the boat. They may be married with kids of their own now. They may have had their boat ride ruined by someone else, or by their kids. And then they learn. Then the epiphany comes when they realize it's time to grow up, and growing up isn't everything they thought it was. It's a lot easier and a lot more complicated, all at the same time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


The last few weeks of school have been a whirlwind, as they always are. Anna had a class trip, pool party, awards ceremony. For Ethan it was Field Day, a music event, trip to his new school for next year, and gathering in the cafeteria for second graders to draw pictures of their new school and reminisce about their current one while ingesting popsicles.

The kids are coming home with backpacks laden down with whatever old papers and notebooks were residing in their desks and lockers. In the past I might have saved the vast majority of it. By the time Anna was in kindergarten I already had a good-size bin filled with papers and art projects. Over the years (and maybe after too many episodes of Hoarders) I've realized that is not going to work. Is it possible to save, say, the five most important papers from the entire year for each kiddo? Eeeek, the sentimental in me is protesting, but I think it must be done.

One paper I'm definitely saving is the one above. It came off the wall in Ethan's classroom. At some point in the year all of the kids were asked to use traits to describe each one of their classmates. This is what they came up with. I have to say, they're pretty accurate.

I love assignments like this. Even as an adult, I love taking part in things like this, whether it's being on the receiving or giving end. Words are so important. They can scar us or they can build us up. The kind of words we choose to meditate on can revive us or suck the life out of us. The types of things we believe about ourselves can make us, or break us.

When I look at these traits used to describe Ethan I can't help but notice some of them could be viewed as a positive spin on what we are sometimes not as positive traits. "Fair" and "Sportsmanship" for Ethan also can equate to being a real stickler for rules and desperate to win and to keep playing until he does. "Hardworking" is just that...but sometimes it means being so intensely focused on something that he has trouble making himself stop unless he's accomplished whatever he was trying to do.

As I look over these words I'm also reminded to see the GOOD in people. That doesn't mean to see that all people are essentially good. We are, in fact, spectacularly flawed. I don't know how many times I can say this, as it relates to my Christian beliefs: we are ALL human. We are all imperfect. We all do wrong things and make wrong choices. Believing that we are in need of redemption starts with ME. Believing we are all in need of redemption means loving people and seeing them as people.

We are NOT labels. The words above don't say "Autistic" anywhere. Even the most profoundly affected person is not an autistic person but a person. We are children of God. And we are worthy of love. That is the label I want to wear, above all else. That's the one I hope Ethan will wear, too.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Moving Up

Five and a half years ago Ethan toddled off to preschool with a backpack that was almost as big as he was. The date was November 29, 2010, and he'd just turned three the day before. That day he met a group of amazing staff -- teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists, and more who played a critical role in helping him be all he is today. Some of them have moved on but many have continued to be a part of his school day -- until June 15, when he "graduates" on to a new school for next year and meets an entirely new group of people who will be a part of his third to fifth grade life.

Ethan at three was most certainly a different person than he is today. He began school in the self-contained autism classroom with pull-outs (like snack time) with his peers in the special ed pre-K room. Right away we saw the school most definitely could get him to do things we could not (isn't it like that for many parents?). On day one, he did a craft for the first time (with help, of course). He also sat for circle time. Some of his social anxiety had caused that to be a monumental endeavor (whenever we'd attempted to do play groups he'd be out the door, or trying to obsessively flip the light switches). In that first half-year Ethan had speech and OT, and started PT. He grew to truly love some of his therapists in addition to specials like gym and music. There were bumps along the way (aren't there always?). We thought he could handle being in special ed. preschool rather than an autism room from the start. The school did not. We also wanted him to repeat three-year-old preschool when fall came around, and they argued to push him on. This got me so frustrated. Why, I asked, would you push a child who already has social challenges to go through his school career always younger than most of his peers? They acquiesced.

That fall he repeated the Threes. That was the year he actually started talking in school. His teachers came to me, amazed, even though he'd been speaking at home for some time. Apparently in school he rarely did. He still cared little for other kids, though. Never mind parallel play; he didn't even want to play alongside other kids. He'd wait until they vacated a certain area and then move in.

The next year they restructured the school system in town and everyone moved to a different school -- but thankfully, almost all of the staff Ethan knew and loved came along to the new school where he started the Fours. Ethan began to get familiar with some friends. He loved his teacher who played some rockin' dance music every day when they had to pick up. He fell into a good groove at his new school. And so did we.

I will say this: I know we don't have the "best" school system in the state. We're not a town people gravitate towards for its schools. Yes, sometimes people move away to get better services. And I know some people even within his school, working with the same staff, have had poor experiences. I can't speak to that. I'm sorry about it, and I hate to hear these kinds of stories. I only can say that in Ethan's case, we developed good relationships, and we had a lot of success. This may be because Ethan adapts well and responded well and quickly to various interventions. We weren't fighting for MORE services as so often parents are. I don't know. I can just say that we have been pleased, and grateful for the people who have worked with him, the services he's received, and the relationships he and we have built along the way.

I had no idea how kindergarten would go for Ethan. He started the year with a shared paraprofessional and speech and OT. He had a fabulous teacher who worked with him through his fears of cafeteria noise and the fire drill. By the end of the year he was reading well, no longer needed the para, and had graduated from OT. Ethan got along with kids, but he still didn't go out of his way to play with them -- except for his two buddies after school. Day after day of time on the playground one-on-one with them did him good -- although it was always a struggle to get him to play their games rather than his own ideas.

In first grade Ethan was blessed with yet another fantastic teacher (I give a lot of credit to those staff who helped each year to almost "hand-pick" the teacher that would be best for him). His speech therapy dwindled as focus shifted to his social skills group. One of the highlights of the year had to be when he performed in the class play his teacher traditionally has her first graders put on at the end of very year. He said he wasn't going to do it. He said he was scared. But he did it anyway. Just the way we all have to do things scared sometimes.

Then, this year. Ethan has a teacher who I think is in her second year, but you'd never know it. She's a pro. She's been wonderful. The social worker who runs his group has been awesome as well. I will always remember second grade as the year Ethan learned about his autism and decided to tell others about his autism. And, as the year he decided he wanted to play with other kids on the playground rather than climbing the monkey bars alone.

I can't forget to mention his gym teachers and music teacher. Ethan's always been the athletic type and has adored both his gym teachers. One retired last year but I can never forget the trophy he let Ethan take home for a weekend after he made an incredible shot in basketball. I think it made Ethan's week, if not his year. And then there's his current teacher, who teasingly these days races to get him out of the car at drop-off time before Ethan can open the door and beat her to it: she's awesome. She's seen this kiddo since he was barely three years old. This year she's given him several "awards" for being a good example in gym class. This always amazes me, since I was the kid hiding in the back during gym hoping to not do much of anything.

The music teacher he's had the past few years has been great for both Ethan, and the school. As one who was always involved in band and chorus and feel these things are just as important for kids as sports and academics, it always warms my heart to see a teacher passionate about bringing a love for music to kids, for fighting for creative ways to get more kids involved and to keep music an important part of the curriculum, at all costs. Since Ethan's a musical kiddo he's always loved his class, and again his teacher has said he's been an excellent example for other kids and a fast learner.

I realize this is reading more like a book. It's kind of rambly and not very well-written. I guess that's what happens when you try to condense five years into one blog entry. So what am I really trying to say? Well, I have no idea how things will go from here. Upper elementary scares me a little; middle school even more. The stories Anna tells me sometimes are troubling. But I can't get melancholy and fixate on that. All I know, in this moment, is that we are looking back on five years and a whole lot of progress. And I'm so thankful for all of the wonderful people who have been there to give Ethan the best start possible. It's a special kind of person who willingly spends their entire day working with small children. The demands on teachers are incredible these days. There are so many things about schools I wish we could "fix." But as for Ethan's experience in particular, I wouldn't change the overwhelming majority of it. Thank you, all. We'll miss you.

2010: First day of pre-K

2011: Anna walking Ethan to school

2012: Last day at Roger Wolcott School (2nd year of pre-K Threes). From left, Ethan's teacher, social worker who runs his social skills group this year, and the awesome classroom para who loves him to this day).

2012: First day of pre-K (Fours) at Oliver Ellsworth school

2013: Checking out kindergarten the night before school starts

2014: First day of 1st grade

2014: One of the school singalongs hosted by Ethan's wonderful music teacher

2014: Field Day for 1st grade, with Ethan's awesome teacher in the background

2015: First grade play

2015: First day of 2nd grade