When One Door Closes
Summer vacation is coming to an end. I can recall, just one year ago, sharing my daughter’s eager anticipation of the new school year. I remember going to bed the night before school began & sleeping soundly through the night. It was the first time that had happened since my daughter began elementary school. Usually, I was a nervous wreck, always worrying about how she would do, would her teachers be able to meet her needs, would she make friends, find success, learn & grow socially, emotionally & academically. In other words, the mommy probably had more butterflies in her tummy, than the daughter did. But not last year. I felt totally secure in the knowledge that we had found the perfect program for Yael. I reflected back on her 4th grade year and I was filled with optimism for the 5th grade year ahead. She was in the absolute right place, the perfect program and not only was she showing tremendous growth in all areas, but we had the added bonus of watching her blossom in a Jewish school. That was how I felt last year. It is not how I feel this year.
If you follow this blog, than you know that the leadership of the Jewish Day School took a hatchet to Yael’s program last year. As I shared in, “When Faith & Inclusion Collide” they put an end to all academic inclusion for the special needs children in Yael’s program, no matter their abilities. So as I look ahead to the start of school in 2 weeks, I see my daughter in a self-contained setting and my heart aches. Had this been an educational choice made by my husband and me, along with Yael’s teachers, I would have been at peace with it. If we had decided that this was what was best for Yael, as she transitions into Middle School, I would be content with that choice. But we weren’t given that chance or that choice and though months have passed since the school made their decision, I am not at peace.
I have been forced to lie to my daughter. In trying to prepare her for the changes in her program, I have had to create reasons, where no good reasons exist. I have told her that she will be spending most of her day in the self-contained classroom, so that we can ease her transition into Middle School. I have lied. I told her that we want to ensure that she doesn’t get overwhelmed, or stressed out, so we felt it best that she not be in any of the mainstream classes this year. I have lied. My lies serve to protect her from the horrible truth and to spare her from experiencing the feelings of blatant discrimination. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
They say that “time heals all wounds.” I don’t know if I believe this to be true. My wounds are still fresh and the raw emotions still consume me. I was offered a respite during our summer vacation. I didn’t have to pull into the parking lot or walk through the halls of the school and experience the very visceral response that it brought out. I didn’t have to see the faces of those responsible for this decision or those who watched it happen without doing anything. I spent the summer playing with my children, vacationing with my family and focusing on the blessings in my life. I needed that time away from the whole mess of our school situation. My soul needed nourishment and this summer with my family gave me just that. I also needed time away from the whole school mess, to try to gain a perspective that wasn’t rooted in the heat of the moment. Both my husband and I needed time to process our feelings to ensure that any decisions we made regarding Yael’s education or that of her sisters, were made with great care & contemplation rather than with impulsive anger.
As I write this, here is what I know. I thought that what my daughters didn’t know, would not hurt them. They had no knowledge of the events that had transpired. Yael did not know that she was being marginalized & discriminated against because of her autism. She was unaware that, though she received grades in the 80′s & 90′s, she would no longer be granted her place in the mainstream, even if she had earned it. She believed the lies that we told her, both the spoken ones & the lies of omission. And why wouldn’t she? Her sisters had no idea that the school that they so loved & adored, had acted with so little regard towards Yael. They didn’t know that their sister was being treated as a second class citizen, or that the special needs classmates that they called “friends” were also being relegated to the back of the bus. And they certainly didn’t know that we had been told by the head of school, that they too were “acceptable losses.” Lies of omission protected them from that ugly truth.
But now I am standing at a crossroads. I did not want to uproot my children. They are happy. They love their school, their friends & their community. And while we knew that it was not likely that Yael would be able to continue on in her program for the long-term, we thought that perhaps our other daughters could. We thought we could just push down our feelings about the school & its leadership and allow them to stay put. We thought that what they didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them and that it would be punitive to remove them based on principle. But it turns out, that is not so easy to do. There is a line in the movie, “The Way We Were” where Barbra Streisand’s character says that “People are their principles.” I think that this is true and though our principles may change over the course of time & experience, they serve as a sort of moral compass as we navigate through this world. It turns out, they are not very easy to push aside or bury even when you know that to do so, would be to make life much easier for yourself or your children.
I can’t continue to send my daughters to a school that places so little value on them. I can’t continue to send them to a faith-based school, that does not embody the very principles of that faith. A Jewish communal institution should be a Kehillat Chesed, a caring community. This Jewish day school did not act with care or regard towards my children, rather they were summarily dismissed. A Jewish school that teaches Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, should not act in a manner which further fractures it, by moving children backward & supporting segregation. A Jewish school that teaches the ideal of mitzvot, the religious obligation to do God’s work, should not disregard the abilities & gifts of God’s children, based solely on their “disability.” It turns out, I can’t push down my own principles, in order to keep my children at this school for the long term, because that is not the lesson that I want to teach my girls. I want them to know that principles, especially those based in faith, can’t simply be words on a paper or ideas with no action behind them. I don’t want to have to lie to my children, in order to send them to school. My girls have a profound sense of right & wrong and a deep commitment to making the world a better place. They recognize injustice when they see it, and my role is not to offer them blinders.
So, this will be their last year at this school. My husband and I will devote ourselves to the task of finding the right school for them. This door will close and somewhere another one will open. We don’t know where we will find it, but we will. We know that stepping through a new door will not be easy for our girls and they will gaze longingly upon the one that will be closing. But we will love & support them through it and I believe that their resilient spirit will serve to do the same. As for my husband and I, while it is clear that in the short-term we lost a very significant battle, our fight is not over. Our Jewish faith demands of us, Tzedek tzedek tirdof ~ “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16.20). We will continue to speak out on our daughter’s behalf, and on behalf of other children living with special needs in our Jewish community. We will work to ensure that there is a place for them within their faith community. Rabbi Bradley Artson says, “Goodness, justice and decency form the base [of Judaism].” That should be the foundation upon which all Jewish learning is built.
“My basic principle is that you don’t make decisions because they are easy, you don’t make them because they are cheap. You don’t make them because they are popular, you make them because they are right.” Theodore Hesburgh