Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Educating the Suburban Snob

So, I finally made an executive decision.

Today was supposed to be Ethan's first day of school. He was supposed to be fed and medicated and waiting for the bus at promptly 8:00 AM. Instead, he was sleeping in just a t-shirt and oblivious that the bus drove by without him.

We went to visit the school last Friday; a meet and greet - see the classroom, talk to the teacher, get familiar with things. It was mildly comforting, I suppose. But still, I have a lot of doubts that I'm not ready to let go of.

Let me first say the good stuff: The people there were wonderful. Everyone from the security guards (yes) to the office staff to the teacher and the paraprofessionals were welcoming, kind, and helpful. They were all expecting us and greeted Ethan by name. The classroom is bright and cheery and has a million toys and pieces of equipment that Ethan could benefit from. There are standers, and feeding seats, and toys with lights and sounds and switches. There is even a special swing right in the classroom. His teacher, P, apologized for the "mess", but it looked cleaner than my house on a good day. I have no doubt that the classroom is a great place for him.

It's everything else that worries me.

Driving up to the school, there were no surprises. I've passed it a thousand times. One hundred yards away on one side is the highway. On the opposite side is a chain link fence, closing it off from abandoned woods and riverbanks where "unsavory" characters flock. There is no grass. Very little sunlight. The playground is a single jungle gym on a mound of dirt, surrounded by chain link fencing, sitting in the middle of the parking lot.

There is a handwritten sign taped on the wall by the door. "All doors locked at 9:15 AM. Please buzz to be let in." We got there at 9:30. The door was unlocked. To our immediate right was a closet with a desk in it. The security office. There was no one at the desk, but from down the hall, a 40ish, chubby woman in a uniform greeted us. She told us to sign in at the main office and she would take us to the preschool room in the basement.

After signing in, she walked us to the elevator. As we waited for it to arrive, I took a chance to look around. The school shows its age. There's a need for paint, for cleaning. The layout on this floor is open, with balconies looking down to the lower level. Everything is cement and metal. Strangely, it looks more like an abandoned shopping mall than a school.

We squeezed into the elevator like sardines. When we got to the basement, she walked us to another security desk and wished us well. The second security guard was another chubby woman in her early 60's. She was very nice as well, but I wondered how "secure" she made things. She pointed us in the direction of a long, cement ramp. She told us the preschool door would be at the end on our left, just before the exit.

We started walking up the ramp. It felt like we were in a subway station. The floor and walls were old cement. Part of the ceiling tiles above had been so rotted from water damage that they looked like roots were growing out of them. Up ahead, the exit doors were dirty and dingy. I was disoriented as to where we were, but out the windows I could see apartment blocks.

We found the door to the classroom, but it was locked. There was an odor, and I realized someone had urinated on the wall to my left. Finally, the teacher saw us through a window and let us in. She explained that they have to keep the doors locked at all times. I was both relieved and saddened to hear this.

In our talks with the teacher, we found out that the "full-time nurse" we were led to believe would be in the classroom is not so much "full-time". She is actually shared between the special needs preschool, where there are 8 children, and the special needs kindergarten next door, where there are 9 children. Seventeen children with high levels of needs - g tubes, multiple medications, seizure disorders - all under the care of a single nurse. (To compare, the teacher told us that last year, she had two full-time nurses just in her room.)

On the day we went, kindergarten was already in session. The nurse was running wild, trying to get all the children taken care of. We happened to be there at feeding time, and she was trying to prepare g-tubes, get medications ready and answer questions from a mother in the room. The nurse is the only person allowed to administer drugs. Occasionally, she has to go to the clinic at the other end of the building and there is no nurse at all. What would happen if Ethan and 6 other kids needed their lunch, and therefore medicine, at the same time? Or if one of the kids had a really bad seizure and she was out of the room?

The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. I can't imagine how much more frantic things would get once the preschoolers arrived. Yes, Ethan could probably get by without a full-time nurse in the room. And yes, he is usually patient and can wait for his meals until the nurse is available to give his meds. But should he have to? Should he have to leave his home, where we know he is cared for and safe, to go here?

I had doubts, but the nurse situation is what made the decision for me. I talked to the teacher, and her supervisor, and let them know I don't think it is adequate and I'm not sending him until it is. His teacher agrees with me completely and stressed that he doesn't have to go until we are ready for him to go.

Even once the nurse situation is straightened out, it depresses me to think of Ethan going to this school. I know that he won't care or know the difference, and that he'll be in a perfect classroom for him. But I can't get over the school itself.

Then of course, I wonder... am I such a snob that I can't stand my child being in an urban setting? Or is it okay to feel that way? Have I become the typical middle-class, white, elitist who doesn't want my child to have to be in this school, while poorer children have no other choice?

Really, it saddens me that any child has to attend this school. A school should be a second home; a cozy, warm atmosphere that makes kids feel safe. Not cement and metal and the stench of urine. No child deserves that.

No matter what my reasons are, he's home now. And that makes me feel better. Who knows? Maybe a part of me isn't ready for him to grow up just yet. But until I feel completely secure that he's in the right place for him, I'm holding him back. I'm taking control. For once, I have absolute power, and I'm using it to protect my kids. It feels pretty good.

And completely terrifying.