I'm happy to report that what loomed large for my son at school a few weeks ago had nothing to do with the mandatory standardized 3rd grade ELA and math tests, and everything to do with LearningSpring's annual talent show.
To our relief, the tests were given the appropriately small amount of attention they deserve. They don't drive the school curriculum, and their results will be refreshingly meaningless. We already know that my son is academically well-below grade level. He will get practice taking tests—not a bad thing—and no teacher will be fired because he didn't score high enough. But I understand that our school's common sense attitude is atypical in NYC public schools, and I support and admire Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols for taking a stance against these tests that take so much away from and contribute so little to our kids' education.
What Brooks got out of the talent show cannot be measured by a test. He shared his love of music with the whole student body, and he experienced the teamwork of the school coming together to create a performance for their friends and families. Although the teachers and therapists were guiding them, we knew from the way Brooks had talked about rehearsals that this was their show. And from the moment the two upper grade masters of ceremonies warmly welcomed the parents, my husband and I became enchanted.
Our slightly nervous but very excited son and his classmates performed “Stereo Hearts” with all of their 2nd and 3rd grade hearts. We tapped our feet to accomplished piano and guitar concerts, we laughed at a roster of comics, and we were drawn into a standing ovation by the power of a Dream Girls ballad from one little girl with one big voice.
But before I erroneously give the impression that my husband and I have effortlessly transitioned into seeing Brooks in a special education environment vs. an integrated one, I need to admit that these nights are also tremendously difficult. The stimming, uncoordinated movements and language-based challenges were in no way hidden; in fact, they were boldly on display. And while I was unable to silence the thought that this cannot be where my son belongs, I was also unable to deny the inherent beauty in the kids’ genuine expressions.
For us school assemblies had been all about how well Brooks fit in; a lot of "you'd never know he had autism" pride, in many ways appropriate given the value of being able to function in a mainstream population. Especially knowing all too well the discriminatory habits of the world. Aside from exceptional pockets of kindness and humanity, the sad truth is that the vast majority of strangers he encounters will see his disability first and never get beyond that. I know that because that's how I used to be. Although I was never impolite or intentionally disrespectful, I failed to recognize the actual person in the wheelchair or behind the slurred voice simply because I was too uncomfortable with the terrain. Of course the moment a gifted nursery teacher looked at Brooks all those years ago and saw the sweet toddler behind his anxiety-ridden facade, I understood that my previous awkwardness was an unaffordable luxury. That is why I believe in inclusive education, because I know I would have benefitted from it.
And so would my son's typically-developing peers, had they been a part of the talent show evening.
Brooks's autism forces my husband and me to examine our prejudices and to try to move beyond them. Although I don't keep score, this is not the first upside of his disability we've encountered. Although it disturbs me that the very hardships that burden my son make his parents better people, it seems inescapable.
But just as inescapable is the continuous loop in my head of Brooks up on that stage with his friends in his cool black sunglasses, joyously singing and dancing away:
My heart's a stereo
It beats for you so listen close
Hear my thoughts in every note oh-o
Make me your radio
Turn me up when you feel low
This melody meant for you
So sing along to my stereo
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh, to my stereo
Oh oh oh oh, so sing along to my stereo