Twenty years ago (years before I was even pregnant with Jack), I was a middle school art teacher in a suburb on Long Island. One day, the principle asked me to come down to his office to discuss something. He told me that there was a boy in the district who was profoundly autistic. He wasn’t mainstreamed in any classes, but he really loved art. The principle asked if I would be willing to have the boy join my seventh grade class.
I didn’t know much about Autism, but I did know about tenure, so I nodded my head and said that I would love to.
The next day I was introduced to Harry. Harry could barely speak, couldn’t look me in the eye and had a host of very unusual behaviors. Initially, I thought HOW is this going to work? I was a new, inexperienced teacher and had 26 other seventh graders in the class – seventh graders!
I was surprised and delighted that over the next couple of weeks I didn’t just get used to Harry and his quirky behavior, I kinda fell in love with him. There was something magical about the way that he was able to tune out the chaos around him and focus on his work. And, the feelings where mutual — before long, part of Harry’s daily routine was to stop by my classroom several times a day to hug me. Long awkward AND awesome hugs.
As Back to School Night approached that year I was super excited about meeting Harry’s mom. I felt like I needed to tell this overwhelmed/exhausted women that she was doing a great job – that Harry was a great kid. I was going to make her day.
The night arrived, and as my seventh grade class of parents filed in, I scanned the room for Harry’s mom. I’m not sure what I was looking for but I was certain I didn’t see her. There was not one person in the crowd wearing a “I’m a special needs mom” hat. I was disappointed, but moved on with my “Why Art is the most important subject in your child’s curriculum” speech. When it was over and the class started to empty, a woman walked up to me and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Harry’s mom”
I was floored. She’d been there the whole time and I hadn’t recognized her. She wasn’t at all what I expected – she was showered and had make-up on. She was even smiling. I paused a little too long and then made things worse by hugging her and telling her how much I adored her son and great I thought she was. That hug made Harry’s hugs seem pretty normal.
As she removed herself from my arms she said, “Thank you so much Mrs Torrey. THAT is great to hear, but I know how amazing Harry is. I’m not just a special needs mom – I’m Harry’s mom. Harry’s life might be a little more complicated than his peers, but I have always tried to not let Autism take over our family. I have other kids, I have a job and a husband and friends. If I let Autism define us, I am letting Autism win.”
I’m not much of a believer in “all things happen for a reason” but Harry’s mother’s words have stayed with me for over twenty years.
When Jack got sick and it started to become apparent that his disabilities weren’t temporary, I remembered that day meeting Harry’s mom and thinking that if I could just keep her attitude my family just might survive.