Posted: May 21, 2014 7:00 AM
I was petrified to trust you. I had nightmares that Charlie would feel left out, confused and afraid. Now the year is coming to a close, and I have a few things you need to hear.
Photo credit: Lennie Latham

My oldest child has Down syndrome, which means his firsts have been my firsts: first babysitter, first playdate, first time I trusted a stranger to care for my child away from home for an entire day.

My son's preschool class comprises exceptional children, and Charlie is the only child with Down syndrome. Because he doesn't yet speak, sending him to school and out of my sight became my most dreaded inevitability.

I imagined him alone and unable to ask for help. I imagined him looked over, forgotten or even blatantly ignored. At the very least, I imagined him confused and scared, wondering where we were and why he was alone.

So, how did my mindset evolve from panic to confidence? Communication from his very first teachers.

Falls & Melton: Booger Busters

Kristin Falls and Shaconda Melton haven't just shepherded Charlie through his first year of school; they have shepherded us as Charlie's parents.

They are the perfect classroom team: unflappable, measured, equal parts loving and nurturing and always with a friendly smile. Both have this amazing super power that tells them when they should share an encouraging anecdote about my son's progress or a sweet story about how he connects with other people.

"Thank you" can never be enough, and in this case, it's specific. Here are three huge parenting lessons you taught me during my son's first year of school:

1^ I really am a good mom

This year has been full of firsts, and you handled my fear, confusion and overall ineptitude (forgotten snacks, blankets, spare clothes, correct spring break dates, the usual) with grace and compassion. You told me I was doing it right when I doubted myself most. You reassured me.

2^Charlie doesn't need me

You showed me that my son can be on his own. He can do things independently. He can follow directions and go with the flow.

I mean, I knew he could do things. I've been teaching him to do things for almost four years. But you taught me to expect more than what I was asking. You taught me to push his independence and break down every activity so Charlie can learn life skills for himself.

He had learned the process and was going with the flow. My son was part of the flow.

I will never forget the first time I witnessed Charlie blearily awaken from class nap time, toddle to his cube to store his blanket and then join circle group. On his own. No one standing over him, reminding and guiding. He had learned the process and was going with the flow. My son was part of the flow.

In a world where so many strive for their children to stand out, I strive for my son to blend in. I dislike the word "accepted" because really, I want my son to be embraced. You did that.

3^You love my son — and my son loves you

I have this test, you see, that is my "gut gauge" of Charlie's happiness. As his mom, I struggle emotionally because he's nonverbal and can't tell me what happened at school today — the good or the bad.

So, I have this ritual. Randomly throughout the week and in various settings, I ask about you and his classmates. I do this because his eyes cannot lie: His reaction is authentic and unfiltered, for better or worse.

When his eyes light up, I realize I've been holding my breath, and relief fills my heart to capacity. The first time he signed for you on his own, without my mentioning you, I considered kidnapping you to live with us.

No shortage of love

These seemingly little things mean so much to me, as I navigate the world of special needs for the first time. I'm grateful to the thousands of parents before us for forging the way, but each experience still remains new to me in sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating ways.

Thank you for making the beginning — the true beginning — of Charlie's life in the big, sometimes bad, world full of love and nurturing.

You've changed our lives. We'll never forget "Falls and Melton."

More about Down syndrome

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Having a sibling with Down syndrome
6 Things to say (and not say) to a parent with a Down syndrome diagnosis