We usually run through our morning routine and get out of the house and across the street just in time for the school bus to turn the corner and roll down our street. I’ve convinced myself that I time our exit from the house so that we can get through our whole routine in, including 15 minutes of meditation -- never an easy fit because neither Julia nor I like getting up early. Today, I saw why my timing is so good and exactly what I was trying to avoid and it hurts my heart.
Julia is eleven. She has an alphabet of diagnoses, one of which, PDD-NOS, is pervasive developmental disorder which puts her on the autism spectrum. She operates on the level of a six or seven year old -- a seven year old with absolutely no social graces.
We were outside early this morning. I am not sure how we did that because we got out of beds late by ten minutes, but I didn’t wash my hair and Julia was extraordinarily cooperative this morning. We made it outside and across the street with three minutes to spare. And in three minutes, I saw how the world treats with people with disabilities. I saw it in microcosm. I am neither naive or uneducated but I have not seen it as clearly, as quickly, as completely as I did at the school bus stop.
The school bus picks up third, fourth, and fifth graders from our neighborhood and deposits them into the adjacent neighborhood into an old brick, turn of the last century school building that is arguably one of the best in the city. These kids go to “kindness camp” during the school year, the rules of the school emphasize that a community is strong when it is diverse and caring, and parents spontaneously send gifts of food and offers of support when a family is in crisis. A lot of kids wait at our stop and a lot of parents see them off every day. The scene is one of perfect middle class childhood. Loving, caring, protective, interested parents seeing off their beloved, well-scrubbed offspring. One father, whose son emerges from the family van, never gets out himself, but he is the exception and over the year, he has begun waving at the rest of us after the school bus has gone and he leaves to begin his day.
The boys toss around some ball, a football today, snow balls in the winter. They probably make too much noise but none of the parents have the heart to quiet the early morning exuberance even though the residents of the home we wait in front of contains no children. Time and again, the parents have wondered if the boys are disturbing someone but they forgive the boys who are expected to contain their energy and do the hard work of learning for the next six hours.
The girls cluster in twos or threes, or sometimes, like today, in a circle of more than six. I have no idea of what they are talking about but it is the charming chatter of almost-adolescent girls -- sweet, adorable, catty, and teasing.
Julia wants to be at the bus stop early. She wants to watch the ball toss and advise from the sidelines or enter into the girls’ conversation. She is exuberant, hopeful, and utterly inappropriate in her approach. Today was no exception.
The cluster of girls was tight but Julia burst in with a “hi, girls” and focusing on one girl in particular asked, “What your name is?” The girl glanced at Julia and then ignored the question with a sigh. Julia’s manner was far from cool and the girl was practicing cool. I could see this, Julia could not. I held my breath hoping that another one of the girls would jump in with an answer. Some kindness.
Julia tried again to begin a conversation, again awkward but earnest. This time the same girl answered Julia’s question in an exaggerated way, rolling her eyes and sending meaningful smirks and giggles to other girls in the circle. As if on cue, the circle disbanded, breaking into a private conversations a step away from Julia and her conversational victim. Now, the girl was trapped. For all of 20 seconds. She did not try to engaged Julia in conversation, which admittedly takes some compassion and care. Instead, she feigned interest in something a few steps away and suggested that Julia look at that something. Julia, ever hopeful that she had hit conversational pay dirt, went to look at the something, chattering away as if the girl was following her and listening. The girl gestured to her friends, wiping the back of her hand across her brow in mock relief. The girls laughed and reassembled in a group as quickly as they had disbanded. This time it was not a circle but a line. A line in which every girl had her back to Julia. Every girl had her back to Julia.
A blink of the eye later, the school bus turned the corner and headed down our street. The line of girls formed the bus line, the kids got on the bus, Julia waved and sent me a thousand air kisses, and the morning ritual at the bus stop was finished.
And I sit here unable to stop my tears. What do I do? I want to talk to that girl’s mother. I want to talk to all the girls’ mothers. I want to talk to all the parents who wait at my bus stop. I want to talk to every parent in the school. I want to put this writing the the school newsletter. I want to convene a mandatory meeting of all the parents. I want to change the kids waiting at our bus stop. I want to change the kids in Julia’s school. I want to change the world. I want to rage. I want to ask for compassion. I want to ask for help. I want to ask for understanding. I want to ask for kindness. Instead, I sit here unable to stop my tears. I have no idea of what action to take, what words to say to whom, that would not further alienate Julia from her peers.
For her part, Julia has no idea of what went on. She is not tuned into the world of smirks, rolling eyes, and subtle diversion. Had the girl told her outright to get out of the circle, Julia would have understood, but that was not what happened. And Julia did not notice the line of girls with their backs to her. When the line up for the bus began to move into the bus, she blithely tried to start up another conversation.
Today, I hurt for what I saw, but there will come a day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, when Julia will understand the smirks and rolling eyes. That day, she will hurt. That might be the day that her challenges turn into disabilities.