Sunday, August 20, 2006

Back to School!

Ah, the joys of facing a brand new school year!! Unstained clothing, fresh haircuts, over-sharpened pencils, shiney red apples, crisp morning air, and young children giggling innocently and nervously at their bus stops, while also trying their best to scuff those brand new shoes. It's a time of fresh, unlimited possibilities!

I adore Fall! It's my favorite season. I love wearing hip boots and slouchy writer's sweaters and heading off on leisurely weekends to indulge shamelessly at those yummy cider mills. Bye bye humidity, sweaty brows, and out-of-control hair! Hello hot spiced cider, warm sugary donuts, and stunning, vibrant colored leaves. Relief from that crazy 100 degree heat and stifling humidity (global warming anyone???) is finally here, along with a bit more parental freedom for you, right?... Sounds like good fun.

For many parents those three powerful little words back to school often result in unedited shouts of joy and excitement, fueled greatly by grand visions of greater daytime freedom, (tempered a bit by the unwelcomed reality of all those shocking back-to-school clothing bills)! All things considered, it can be a really cool time of year.

But for parents of children with special needs, the beginning of a new school year can also elicit some heavier emotions including fear, intimidation and issues of trust. These parents face the tremendous challenge of letting their precious babies go, no easy feat when you've had your maternal protection feature in overdrive for five years. Been there, done that... For parents of children with special needs, severing the tough special needs parenting cord can take longer than in most families, it takes a sharp emotional knife!

Throughout the coming months, I will do my best to share with you my parent-tested words of support designed to help you begin letting go. I will also provide you with valuable resources to help you address many on-going school issues more successfully and with greater personal power. School issues and personal empowerment are subjects I have granted a lot of space and voice to in my book Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations. If you don't have a copy, I recommend you get one during your back-to-school shopping adventures! (Big surprise, huh?).

In my blog, I will refer to some of those entries, while also sharing some of my other essays that have been published elsewhere (fortunately, I own the rights!). By sharing more of my work about the day-to-day challenges I faced parenting a child with special needs (until Eric's sudden death at age 12 in 2003), I hope that you will be further energized and inspired, while granted renewed hope for your own child. I am committed to helping you become better prepared to take on your daily parenting challenges.

That support starts today. I am talking to those of you who are sending your child off to school for the very first time. This right of passage can represent an emotional time of anticipation tempered by the sometimes harsh realities of navigating the world of public education. It's not for the faint of heart... but it is possible to do it well, with increased finesse and much less grief, with the right support!

So let's begin today with a letter that I wrote to my son on his first day of kindergarten in 1995 (when there was no Internet!). On that exciting and unnerving day, I penned honest words that represented a mother's deepest wishes for her child. These heartfelt words represented the beginning of my desire to realize some hard-won life dreams for both of us. Together, Eric and I walked many rocky miles. Achieving success along this dicey journey was never easy. It was always possible.

When I began this school journey with my second child, I had no idea how tough the challenges would be as we pursued Eric's right to a free and appropriate education- legal lingo that sounds so simple and pure and easy, but it was anything but. As I faced the education dragon head on in all my naivete, it was critical to our success that I reminded myself of two valuable facts. I loved my son with every ounce of my being, and I strongly believed in his right to pursue a good education. I knew that education would help Eric achieve his full potential, just as it does for all the other neighborhood children. Those unwavering beliefs set the necessary, solid foundation required for us to meet for all the challenges we faced throughout Eric's incredibly rewarding life, including in the public school setting.

I hope that my words of unconditional love for my son with cerebral palsy (seasoned with a ton of my innocence early on) will prove supportive to you. I encourage you to write about your own child's first day of school. If you want to share it with other parents who read my blog, email it to me (no attachements please!) at or I'd love to read these letters, and I have no doubt others would, too.

Parent-to-parent networking is one of the greatest survival tools you will have in the years ahead- support it and access it whenever you can! You are now beginning a challenging, amazing educational journey. For the sake of your child and yourself, make wise choices. Through this blog and my public appearances and work as an author/speaker, I will continue to walk this rocky and rewarding journey with you and offer my support. I promise.

You are not alone in this special needs parenting adventure...that's a powerful realization. For additional inspiration, watch my upcoming interview on the Family Channel (check your local listings). I will appear as the featured guest on CBN's Living the Life on Wednesday, August 30 to discuss my book Breakthrough Parenting. Check it out!

Letter to Eric

Today, as you begin kindergarten, I'm writing you a letter.

It's a tradition that I began with your sister, Jenna, seven years ago.

The first day of school is a fall rite of passage, like brilliantly changing leaves, crisp evening air and earlier bedtimes. For our family, it also represents hard-won success. Some professionals believed the physical challenges of cerebral palsy would prevent you from learning in a regular school environment. Armed with cold, hard statistics, they warned of a life of segregation. But our family doesn't bank on statistics. We invest in the human stuff, like love, faith and hard work.

We chose a different road.

From the moment you first dramatically graced our lives, we've focused on your ability. In turn, you have exhibited a spirit of survival that astounds me. We've endured too many moments of grief and ignorance. Yet, what I remember most is your first smile and giggle, your first word and your success at a regular preschool.

You are a wise and handsome child, with inquisitive brown eyes that miss nothing. Much of your ability to positively impact others has come from their first impressions of you as a cute child. Your long and lanky frame holds just thirty hard-won pounds, but you are far from being a lightweight in this life. There have been critical hospital stays, invasive procedures and moments when your life was in peril. But today, we celebrate school and a powerful lesson in letting go.

Today, our family is no different.

In your new back-to-school outfit of GAP overalls, white Mickey-Mouse T-shirt and black Oshkosh shoes, you charm me. But I know there will be new challenges. The ground we tread is fresh, one that will present big challenges to some who are uncomfortable with inclusion, a word that promises equal educational opportunities for all children, as if we should need a word for such a human goal. Some people won't understand our fight and won't want to. Other skilled educators will use their training while also teaching from their hearts.

This will be a year of challenges. When people assume physical challenges include mental impairment, you'll be the first to forgive. I pray that others in this new world take time to discover how gifted and talented you really are. I'm exciting about meeting all those new friends who look past your wheelchair and into your eyes-and into your soul. I eagerly await book fairs, walking down school hallways and making red finger Jell-O at Christmas.

As your special bus disappears from sight, I'm a wreck. In a rare moment, I doubt. Are you ready? Am I ready? Your bus is equipped for wheelchairs. It separates you from your able-bodied classmates. Someday, that too must change.

You grin at me through the tinted bus window. You are more ready than I am.

As the bright, yellow school bus disappears from sight, as it did with Jenna many memories ago, I'm overcome with emotion. Safely inside, I release the tears of far too many moments with those blind to your value because of your disability. But my tears of frustration and anger can't help but give way to the unconditional love I have for the child who has been my greatest life teacher.

As you begin this new journey, son, you must grow in independence. But dad and I will be beside you to champion the dreams that others try to tarnish. Forgive them.

On this exceptional day, words can only begin to express what I feel in my heart, Eric Richard Winter. Thank you for coming into my life and teaching me more than I ever thought I had to learn. You are a great teacher...

With much love,
p.s. Have a wonderful first day in kindergarten!

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