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