Waverly Parents on Waverly: Part Two of an Occasional Series

Hugs Goodbye 20111

I suppose all parents think their chil­dren are special. I know I do. But I think it’s safe to say that in quan­tifi­able ways my son is prob­a­bly more special than most. He was born with an extremely rare constel­la­tion of birth defects called VACTERL‑H. And while you’re prob­a­bly think­ing you’ve never even heard of it, you have. Some of the more sensa­tional mani­fes­ta­tions of this condi­tion are known as Sirenomelia, or Mermaid Syndrome, and Cyclopia. (And, yes, that is exactly what it sounds like it would be.) Add in unicorns and the fact that my son has two dads and you’ve got the makings of a new Tolkien franchise.

As a parent, it’s not easy to have a child with so many phys­i­cal chal­lenges. The medical issues are certainly weighty and ever-present, which I suspect is what most people think about when they imagine my journey. But what often goes unthought-of is that, along­side of those concerns, there is a tremen­dous amount of fear and worry that haunts me about how my child will be received in the world outside.

The diffi­cult truth is that my son’s appear­ance, move­ments, and abil­i­ties are atyp­i­cal. There’s nowhere to hide from that. And even if there were, I wouldn’t want him to feel the need to hide. In fact, I’ve spent most of his life train­ing him to be as comfort­able as possi­ble with his differ­ences. Unfor­tu­nately, people, and espe­cially the young, can often be unkind to those perceived as different.

So by the time my son was 2, I was already looking ahead to find the safest possi­ble educa­tional option for him that was avail­able. In any loca­tion. At any price. From the outset a K‑12 program was a prior­ity for me. My hope was that if the other chil­dren could get to know him from the begin­ning, then by the time the diffi­cult teen years set in at least his differ­ences wouldn’t be news. And he would never have to be the new kid at a new school field­ing endless ques­tions about his very existence.

My search was both exhaus­tive and exhaust­ing. For all their talk of diver­sity most private schools are surpris­ingly unpre­pared to inte­grate chil­dren with phys­i­cal disabil­i­ties. Often their discom­fort was painfully overt and explicit, but the subtle silences and awkward games of linguis­tic Twister were equally as discon­cert­ing. The one thing that I knew for sure, though, was that if they weren’t even comfort­able talking about my son’s condi­tion, I wasn’t comfort­able leaving him in their care.

Fortu­nately, some­where along the way, I discov­ered Waverly. And while there were many things about the school that resonated with me, what struck me most profoundly was their complete noncha­lance about consid­er­ing and accom­mo­dat­ing a child who at almost four was not even able to walk inde­pen­dently. They were totally at ease and entirely open to seeing what was possi­ble, rather than what was poten­tially prob­lem­atic. And the real­iza­tion that I may have found a place where my son could be not simply accepted, but fully embraced, took my breath away.

After liter­ally dozens of school tours, Waverly was the only school we applied to.

Of course, it’s always impos­si­ble to know from the outside if a product will fulfill the promise of its commer­cial. So over the last year I’ve partic­i­pated in the class­room. I’ve sat in on art, music, P.E. and library time. I’ve chap­er­oned all the field trips and excur­sions to the farm. And I’ve served pizza on the play­ground to the entire elemen­tary school every Friday.

I needed to see for myself how the students, teach­ers, and admin­is­tra­tion acted and inter­acted with each other. I wanted to get to know the kids and their parents. And I wanted them to know me. See, I believe that there is a height­ened mutual account­abil­ity that comes along with knowing someone.

What I’ve witnessed is as remark­able as it is reas­sur­ing. From students to parents to faculty, there is a perva­sive atmos­phere at Waverly of kind­ness, cour­tesy, and respect. Certainly no person or place is ever perfect. But I honestly did not know kids like this growing up. Much less a whole school of them.

In hind­sight I realize that I came here with an invis­i­ble diver­sity check­list. And I could check off all my line items. Of course, some had more check marks than others. But I suppose I really just wanted to make sure that my child wasn’t the only Other.” What I’ve learned is that it isn’t our differ­ences that define the Waverly family. It’s our commonality.

No matter who we are or what unique expe­ri­ence we bring, we all have a place at the table and some­thing valu­able to contribute. We’re all on the same journey together. The Waverly way is not about diver­sity for the sake of diver­sity. It’s about diver­sity for the sake of commu­nity. We have been brought together by what we share: The goal of raising our chil­dren to be decent, thought­ful, compas­sion­ate human beings.

On our admis­sions appli­ca­tion there was a ques­tion that asked about our top prior­i­ties” when think­ing about our child’s educa­tion going forward. I don’t know what the desired answer was supposed to be. But I answered that my primary concern was my son’s emotional and phys­i­cal safety. What I didn’t fully appre­ci­ate was that my end goal was Waverly’s begin­ning premise. A safe and inclu­sive envi­ron­ment is conducive to learn­ing. And not just the kind of learn­ing that comes from books.

I sent my son to school on the first day nervous about his entrance into the world outside. But a year later it doesn’t feel so much like the world outside. At least not the one I had envi­sioned. It feels like home. Like family. But if our fami­lies and our chil­dren are any indi­ca­tion of where the world outside is headed, I am truly comforted. And opti­mistic for the future.

1st Grade Parent