by Karen Zey
Schools were opening in less than a week. The five-year-old boy in front of me had autism. He couldn’t speak. His eyes flitted like hummingbirds over the hundreds of colorful toys and books in the classroom. The boy’s father, Mr. Nassar, sat stiffly on a tiny chair next to his son. He had come to register the child for regular kindergarten.
I had been pushing the schools to integrate more students with special needs. The principal had called me to talk about this child. Students with the most serious of disabilities were sometimes bussed over the bridge into Montreal to attend a distant, specialized school. Mr. Nassar knew this.
The small scrubbed tables and blank walls in the kindergarten room awaited September’s finger-painting masterpieces. The boy sat with his head and shoulder pressed against his father’s arm, staying connected to what was physically familiar. I watched the five-year-old with the darting eyes observing his surroundings, a child sitting still, able to comply with what his papa was asking of him. I saw a child who belonged in kindergarten.
“He’s eligible for a special education program,” said the principal. “Can you tell us why you want him to attend kindergarten?”
Mr. Nassar folded his hands, one gripping the other in his lap, and spoke in a measured voice. “My son is very smart. I was teacher in my country. I teach him many things and he learn. He write all his letters. He write his name. Please, you give him chance in your school.” He opened his bag and pulled out sheets of unlined paper filled with oversized, wobbly letters. The evidence of his son’s school readiness was as shaky as the faint ABC’s on the page. I think Mr. Nassar knew this.
He laid out his arguments with all the quiet logic he could muster. His other children came to this school. He wanted his son here, too. The school had mainstreamed other students with learning problems. “You have other special children here who get extra help.”
But never a child like this—never a child who couldn’t talk. This boy would be challenging to integrate. The teachers were nervous about him joining their classes. The principal wanted reassurance about extra support. I was concerned about pushing my agenda too fast. Yet didn’t worthwhile change always come with questions and doubts? Wasn’t it usually difficult? Pros and cons twisted through my head.
Like his father, the boy was lanky, almost the height of a grade two child. This alone made him stand out. He was calm and still at the moment, but the room did not yet contain eighteen noisy, whirling five-year-old explorers. The sensory stimulation of a busy classroom would initially be overwhelming for this child. Did Mr. Nassar know this?
“I’m sure you realize your son won’t be able to do all of the same activities as the other children,” said the principal. “He’ll need lots of help to be part of the class.”
Mr. Nassar looked at us with tired eyes. He was fighting for his son to have a place in this room, a place in this normal children’s world. I wondered how many closed doors he had already encountered. He tried another tactic: “It make no sense to send little children to city. Special school is too far. Bridge is very dangerous in winter. My son can learn. He come here and you help him. I help him every day.” What Mr. Nassar didn’t know yet was how close I was to saying yes.
I snuck a look at the principal, a forty-year-old woman new to the job, fired up with all the enthusiasm and idealism of a novice. I had worked at convincing her to integrate more students, and she had worked at convincing her teachers to be on board. An ally—I loved her already. Seeing the child was all I needed. The principal glanced at me for confirmation, and I nodded.
“Okay, Mr. Nassar,” she said. “Your son can start next week. But we’ll need to do this in small steps.”
He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I will bring him and pick him up. I do whatever you ask. I help him every day.”
We called in the kindergarten teachers and discussed details: the teacher’s aide who would help his son; speech therapy schedules; and a gradual increase of hours of attendance over the first couple of weeks, a strategy to help the child acclimate to his new environment. All the bits and pieces needed for a good start. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Nassar sagged with relief. “Thank you, Mis’Zey. Thank you. Thank you.” His child was just beginning kindergarten. His biggest battles had not even begun.
Three weeks later, I returned to the school for an afternoon meeting about another student. I spotted Mr. Nassar waiting to pick up his son. I’d heard integration was going smoothly so far, and the child was using pictograms to communicate.
Mr. Nassar walked over. “My son is very happy at school. I have present for you. It is custom of my country. You tell me where your office is and I drop off.” He pulled out a pen and scrap of paper from his pocket and waited.
I imagined this man’s life—his private anguish at the impenetrable bubble surrounding his child; his hours of struggle as he worked at prompting a few words from his son; and his probable moments of despair at the child’s silence. I pictured him coaxing and coaxing those wobbly letters onto scraps of paper. I imagined his optimism as he saw tiny glimmers of rote learning in those penciled scratches on the page.
“Thank you very much for thinking of me, Mr. Nassar, but I can’t accept a gift. It’s all part of my job. I’m just glad to hear that everything is going well.”
Two days later, the school board receptionist called up to my office. “There’s a gentleman here asking for you, a Mr. Naz-ser. He says he has a large item that he wants to give you in person. What would you like me to tell him?”
The half-completed memo on my screen would have to wait. “Thanks, Susan. Ask him to have a seat. I’ll be down in a couple of minutes to speak to him.”
There in the lobby stood Mr. Nassar. Faded khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt hung on his slim frame. He held an oblong, brass planter about three-feet wide, with a small dent near the rim. A bas-relief pastoral scene was pressed into the metal: trees, men on horses, a fox, and several hounds. Not the ornamental ceramic dish or colorful embroidered cloth I expected. An English-style fox hunt on a huge brass planter, the inside slightly tarnished with wear.
“It is for you. You like, Mis’Zey?” Mr. Nassar’s eyes searched my face.
He stood and waited—a man who lived in subsidized housing with his wife and four children, one of whom had a serious disability. He waited, bearing his gratitude with both hands. I looked at the second-hand brass planter, embossed with someone else’s story. “It’s just lovely, Mr. Nassar. Thank you very much.” I took the planter from him, and he smiled.
Such a large gift for a mere gatekeeper. I carried the planter back upstairs to my office, past the shiny plaque on the door that said Coordinator of Complementary Services, and I placed it on the floor.
When his son was in grade four, Mr. Nassar asked me to bus the child to the faraway special school across the bridge. At age ten, his son had made good progress in many ways. He had learned to read basic words and follow classroom routines alongside his peers. His classmates accepted him and had grown comfortable with his idiosyncrasies. But the child was still dependent on individual assistance throughout the day. He was still a boy with autism who couldn’t speak.
“Hello, Mrs. Zey,” Mr. Nassar said over the phone. “I thank you for everything the school has done for my son. But I went to visit the special school in the city. They have many children like him there, many autistic children. I think he should go there. I filled out the application and he’s been accepted. I’m asking the school board to sign for the bus.”
The call took me by surprise. The support surrounding this boy had been successful. I still believed the child belonged in the community school. I pointed out to Mr. Nassar how well his son was doing on his individual goals, and how everyone at the school was committed to accommodating his son’s special needs. I couldn’t convince him.
“Yes, the teachers work very hard with him,” he said. “I have tried to help him too. But he still cannot talk. I have to spend more time with my other children. His sisters are in bigger grades now. They have lots of homework. My son will get what he needs in the special school. I have a new job, and I work in the city. I get home late, very late. Please, I need you to send my son to the special school.” His voice rose on a note of desperation.
“Let me think about your request, Mr. Nassar.” I swallowed my disappointment. “I’ll call you back later today. Tomorrow at the latest.”
I phoned the principal. “The grade four teachers are upset,” she told me. “They heard about the application for outside placement. They want him to stay.”
Her school team had come a long way. A little patch of progress on the long road to inclusive education. I knew the local school could help this child move forward and that the special school in Montreal did not offer a magic fix for the boy’s learning gaps. However, I could never know what challenges Mr. Nassar and his family lived with every day. Or what they might live with for years to come.
I had the option of refusing to sign the papers for the transfer across the bridge. Special transportation meant another hit to my budget. Sitting in my high-backed office chair, I swiveled back and forth, yearning for the certainty of easy questions and easy answers. I looked down at the pile of unread file folders on my desk. Several of them held reports from autism diagnostic clinics, each report a glimpse at a single child, each report changing the life of one family, each report demanding a decision.
I gazed at the four potted ferns nestled inside the oblong brass planter outside my office door. What I knew was never enough and never the whole picture. Mr. Nassar was waiting for my call. With a growing sense of calm, I stretched out my hand and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Mr. Nassar.”
Karen Zey is a Canadian educator and writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity Blog, Cold Creek Review, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Proximity‘s True, and other places. Karen’s CNF piece, “Tough Talk,” was nominated by Prick of the Spindle in 2015 for a Pushcart Prize. In this piece, names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the subjects.