I write this on my son’s third day of fifth grade, having just packed his lunch and helped to get him dressed, with my wife taking him out to the bus just a couple hours ago. I sit in front of my computer, focusing with one eye on the screen, the other lovingly gazing on a picture of his smiling face which his teacher took and emailed me. It would be easy for me to say I am perfectly content in the knowledge that he is having an incredible start to this new year, yet I cannot help but recall the anxiety I had been having right up to this moment.
Now every parent has their anxieties about their children going back to school, of course for those of us special needs parents, those easily get magnified by a thousand, not to mention all of the issue that are specific to us that most typical parents wouldn’t get. When I pack his lunch for example, I have to be mindful of what he will actually eat, since he is mostly non verbal, we don’t really know if he will eat what we pack until it all comes back home at the end of the day, unopened and untouched. Also, if he had a generally “bad day,” we usually get a email or app message about that from one of his teachers, but the why it was bad is always a mystery, which luckily his communication program on his ipad can assist with, but in some ways we may truly never know.
This year however was different, as this was a bigger year of change than most, and while he was returning to his same elementary school, the one he has attended since kindergarten, the school itself has changed in many ways, and this is the focus of dad’s anxiety this year.
My son attends a public school in our community, where he is part of a life skills program, where he spends the majority of his day in a special education classroom. He is mainstreamed into the regular education classroom for a small part of the day, a generally small part, but we have become at peace with it since he is there for the times he gets truly excited about, like story read alouds, and the rest is spent in his special education room where he gets his needs addressed. There was an umbrella education organization that oversaw the special needs teachers at program at the school, however their partnership with the school district, and so they along, with many of their teachers and therapists, have been pulled out and placed in others schools. Although the school brought on new teachers and staff and even retained a couple of the specialists, my son is now faced with an almost entirely new team of adults to get used to and know. While a change of this magnitude may not affect a typical child this age as much, parents like us realize how this could all go south very quickly, as there may never be a good way to explain to or have our son understand what happened to all of “his people.”
I will admit that some of what I am feeling may be part of my son, and his parents reaching a milestone transition point in his life, that is, he is one year away from middle school, from transitioning into a much bigger environment, with lots more to fear and be uncertain of. There may be more expectations for him in terms of his schedule, how he navigates his day and the physical environment, and while he will most likely have one on one support, he will also be walking in the world of the adolescents.
It’s funny how the middle school that is actually closer to where we live than his current school, the one we always take walks by with the dog, the one whose stairs we sometimes play on and practice our gross motor skills, will be absolutely terrifying, at least to me someday. But that’s next year, and this year has enough troubles of its own, as my son now has to deal with not just new staff working with him, but I also think about all of those adults who had worked with him in the past, all of his old teachers and therapists, the ones who would lovingly greet him in the hall, his old primary teacher whose beard who would not so gently tug on from time to time, the ones who had worked with him when he was stuck in orthotics and could barely grip his crayon, all just suddenly not there anymore. What must he think, now that his school is different, more different than it has been since he began there, and then having to get used to an entirely new world next year. I look at his smiling, overjoyed face as I reflect back at the picture in my email, but now that the security of the bubble we’ve created for him is starting to break, will that smile remain?
When I lean into my faith for answers, I know that our lives are filled with seasons, tons of them, some peaceful and joyous, some filled with hardship and pain, but all in which we are to believe that our God walks with us, carried us and our pain, and leads us into the next phase.
But sometimes, the emotions of being a parent can be just too overwhelming, as I meditate on all of the changes he is experiencing, and what awaits him in another year, the physical changes, the struggles with social interactions and making and developing friendships, the loneliness that he may or may not feel, yet that which I can’t help feeling for him. So I find that I need more than just lip service to my faith, nor blanket statements about how God has a plan and it will all be “ok.” It is right about now that as I sit and try to dig as deeply as I can into the treasurehouse of the Word of God, I came up with a very well known and familiar piece: Psalm 23. Of course, if I’m feeling a need for Scripture that is not just the familiar and obvious choice, the 23rd Psalm is certainly not that, although I admit that having studied it in more detail over the last year or so, I find it is actually the perfect remedy for my anxious heart. To understand the power of this Psalm, one must see it through the eyes of its author: a shepherd boy.
This Psalm is full of the imagery of sheep and their shepherd, the tools he uses to keep his flock safe, of walking into the darkness of the valley, yet having everything he needs, and most importantly, having no fear at all since his God walk with him. But you may not know the significance of some of some of the imagery, and it was through a pastor’s message on this scripture and a wonderful book on the subject that helped to illuminate myself and my wife. First, David makes reference to being made to “lie down in green pastures”, and having his soul refreshed. The analogy here is that sheep, unfortunately, not being the most intelligent animals, require their shepherd to lead them virtually everywhere, unless they wish to constantly bump into each other or fall off a cliff. The shepherd know that sheep, also naturally very skittish, will not stop to lie down and rest unless they are made to, and therefore require a steady hand to remind them that it is not only ok to rest, but that they must rest, since it is time to rest. In that way, the sheep are not aware that it is the season for rest, but they listen to the shepherds command, and submit to rest, and so likewise, we should have an attitude of submission.
Second, David refers to walking through the “valley of the shadow of death,” or “of darkness,” and the reference here is to the various seasons of the year, and how the shepherd would need to move his flock from the high hills down to the valleys for food and water. While the valleys could be scary places for the flock, especially with predators abounding, the shepherd maintains the emotions of the sheep with his steady hand and soothing voice, his rod and staff always at the ready to protect, the sight of which usually enough to bring calm to an otherwise anxious group. But what is a more profound here is the fact that the shepherd leads them where they must go, taking them to where they can be sustained and live, regardless of their surroundings or circumstances. In this way, I can identify with both me and my son being helpless sheep, being led by our shepherd into a place of anxiety and fear, yet a place we nonetheless have to move into and through, because it is simply the season for that.
My hope then is that not only will I learn to trust my shepherd, but that I may embrace this season for what it is, a unique opportunity to see God at work in our lives, and be excited for the gifts this time will bring. I still admit to being anxious about this season, even after having written all of this, yet as a look at my son’s picture one last time, I am reminded of what a gift this season is and of the God who brought us here.
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