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A Typical First Day; He Has a Plan; Homemade Homework; Learn; First Grade; The Big Bus

A Typical First Day

It is the night before Ned's first day of school. I ask if he's ready.

"Awesome!" he replies. "I'm gonna love school! By the way, daddy, I made a mess of pennies, but it's all cleaned up."

The only experience Jill and I have had with real first days of school, of course, were with Alex. He cried the first few days - was the only person in New York City who was happy on the morning of 9/11/01, when I arrived to take him home - and all those first weeks he tugged back hard when pulled toward the school bus. I have no idea how somebody like Ned is going to take to going to school day after day for 13 years. (He doesn't have to worry beyond that, as I can't afford college.)

So, for the record again, Ned, how do you feel about going to school?

"I'm liking it."

But you haven't gone yet.

"Yeah, I haven't gone yet."

Ned then bumps his head on the DVD player. We punish Alex until Ned explains it wasn't Alex's fault. "Wait until the other kids see my bleeding lip!" Ned says. To cheer him up, I offer him a quarter. He turns it down, saying he'd rather have one of the foreign coins my boss Howard's son brought home a few years ago after a stint in the Navy. Ned incessantly thanks Howard and his son.

Navy? Hey! Mr. Midshipman Stimpson. Annapolis class of '22. Dress whites. Tickets to the Army game. Free tuition.

"Cereal will make my bleeding lip better," he says. "And some carrots. And macaroni. Daddy, just give me some carrots and hot dog and macaroni. It'll make my bleeding lip better. It'll make me do things."

There's much to do tonight. After the kids are put to bed, Jill irons name labels on their clothes as she picks out Ned and Alex's first-day outfits; she writes notes to the teachers, and packs the backpacks. I watch a movie and drink beer. "I think Ned's a little nervous," she says. "He said he wanted to bring Bully with him." Bully is Ned's red stuffed bull. The letter we got in July from Ned's kindergarten teacher said he could bring a stuffed toy. I agree that Ned is nervous.

"Well good," Jill says. "That shows he's not a complete idiot." Pause. "You're not going to print that, are you? I was joking. I just want my boys to both get into school, get good rank, and get out of my hair."

Next morning, it's reveille at 0630 hours. Alex is up and bouncy; Ned is dead to the world in our bed. I bring him to the couch, crank the volume on Alex's "Elmo" video, and watch Ned continue to sleep. I position a clock next to him, and take a picture.

"Ned?" says Jill. "Oh Nedlet. His eyes are open," she says to me. "Relax."

"I want chocolate milk," says Ned.

"Let's have a special dinner tonight," says Jill. "What do you want for your special dinner, Ned?"

"Paper," he says. (As with "complete idiot," of course, this is a joke.)

Alex's bus comes about a half hour before we are to take Ned to school. We all go down to the lobby. I want a picture of the boys on the steps holding hands; I want this picture for my aunt, who took a similar picture of her twin sons on their first day of school 40 years ago. Outside, Jill lets the boys walk off hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, and gets a neat picture of that from the back. It's a clear day, a cool morning, a touch humid.

Alex's scrambles onto his school bus with joy, and we three go back upstairs for a few minutes. "Is 'Sponge Bob' on?" Ned asks.

"Ned, you're going to school. You're not going to watch 'Sponge Bob.'" Ned's eyes widen and his jaw drops in the unmistakable "Nobody Ever Said Going to School Meant Missing 'Sponge Bob'!" look.

That mood evaporates on the walk to Lexington, where we'll catch the downtown city bus. Ned tries to climb every pole at every bus stop along the way. I snap at him about focusing on getting to school.

"I want you to stop being so negative," Jill says to me, as Ned darts down the sidewalk in front of us. "We don't know that much about typically developing kids, but Ned seems pretty typical to me right now."

On the bus, Ned gets quiet, with his arms folded; sometimes he chews his thumbnail. I feel the sweaty heaviness of too-little sleep ("0630...") I ask what he's thinking about. He shrugs his shoulders. Beyond him, out the window of the bus, I see bunches of grown-ups and kids, all in backpacks, trooping hand-in-hand in the pale morning sunshine. A fire truck passes us. "Where's firefighter school?" Ned asks.

At the school, Ned pauses for a picture with the police officers at the front desk before we head upstairs to his classroom. There we find his teacher. We don't know her yet, of course, but we ask about her summer. "Oh, okay," she says. "My husband had health problems. I had health problems. This morning, I sprained my ankle."

Her classroom is cool. Lots of stuff from nature. Lots of toys. Ned heads right to a cabinet of toy cameras, then stops at the nature table to tickle his nose with a feather, then heads to the Lego table. All around him are little faces like his, any one of which could become terribly important to us by next June. We pause for the "First Day" photo, an obligatory moment for Ned's smile before he scoots back to the Legos. It's there I bend down and kiss the top of his head.

Ned, mommy's staying for a few minutes, but I have to go to work, okay?

"Okay."

So on this day, at last, I have two of them out in the world. My heart feel as fragile as a TV schedule. At the end of the day, I call Jill. How was Ned's day? "It went very well," she reports. "He says he wants to go back tomorrow." (September 2005)

He Has a Plan

"The Cylons were created by Man. They evolved. They rebelled. And they have a plan." - Introduction to the new "Battlestar Galactica."

In her spring report, Ned's teacher says that Ned often has important information first thing in the morning. "I'm looking a little taller today. Did you notice?" she quotes him as saying. "It's because I am almost five." Another time: "Today I have a plan. First I am going to work at Legos. Then I will write a card. Then I'm going to paint. I have a big plan." And over crayons: "Look, I would put shoes on this guy. It's hard to draw shoes."

Ned's kindergarten year will be over before long. He has explored salamanders and seeds, dirt, paint, ice-skating, water, puppets, baking, and buildings. He has a teacher who's quiet, sweet, and warm, the kind of lady you like to have running the show when you're only five and most of the world is still out there. She likes him, too, and I think she manages to keep volumes of notes on the kids during the days. "Ned always chooses to work with George." "Ned enjoys his weekly gym class ('It's where I can get some exercise!')." "Ned is a big builder in the block area."

"I often suggest he include more detail in his work," she says, to which he replies, "'Oh, that's too hard. You're asking me to work too much.' And when I scowl, he brightens up and says, 'Tricked you!'"

I know that feeling, such as when I forbid Ned to watch Nickelodeon and I go to the kitchen, then return to the living room to find him pouncing on the remote control to change the channel from Nick, which he's been sneaking. Surely this talent of his can make us some money?

("Tricked you! ...")

They say kids develop personalities for home and for school, At home, Ned can needle me with his reluctance to do such chores as hanging up his coat, picking up socks, or coming when called to pick up toys. I often have to ask him three times while he stares at a toy and seems not to hear me.

"Ned," we demand, "do you do that at school? When the teacher asks you to do something, don't you do it right away?" He nods. "So," we then say, "give us the same consideration."

Jill, who in general is more on Ned's frequency (especially when it comes to staring at screens for hours and hours, if anyone asks me), says tactics most successful with Ned include pretend games, such as "the little toy" and "the little cat," in which he is "always an agreeable persona" in those roles. "When he gets tired," she adds, "forget it."

No kidding. The other night, Ned and I got into a tug-o-wits over whether the cold tap in the bathroom makes the water colder the more wide-open Ned twists the knob (it doesn't!), and over whether Ned would take some of the SAME cough syrup he's had before and always loved (he wouldn't). Finally, it just became a moment of me fuming at him and him squatting in the tub water and fuming like Calvin in "Calvin and Hobbes" - which is to say, a drawing of a mad little boy - until I smiled at the thought and he splashed me with bathwater.

"I find him easy to entertain," says Jill.

"Ned, do you behave this way at school!?"

I don't always find Ned easy to entertain, despite Jill's insistence during bad arguments that Ned and I have a lot in common ("Ned is just like you!"). I guess I'll just build on our common ground. We both like to walk. We both like the game "Dogfight." I like to trick people. I prefer to think I have a plan. He wants to be liked, and so do I. He's been issued a hard life young, and I sort of was, too. Most heartening to me is that part of his spring report that details what he did when a big wooden-block sculpture that he and his classmates had been working on collapsed into a pile of rubble.

"'Rebuild!'" Ned declared. "'We must rebuild!'" (March 2006)

Homemade Homework

Alex has been waiting for homework that engages him. A lot of the photocopied worksheets he brings home have to do with identifying pictures, then coloring them, based on the first letter of the word that names the picture, such as "jet" or "jump rope" in the J weeks. If I prompt him, he'll say the word matching the picture. Then he bears down with one washable marker and colors the whole area of the picture, taking no care to stay within any lines and not letting the marker up until he has a blotch of color. I don't know what he thinks of it.

"I think Alex's sees his homework as kind of a mish-mash," says Jill. "I think sometimes he doesn't know what to make of it, so it doesn't hold his concentration."

Then his teacher sent home a sheet of paper ruled horizontally. Down the left margin were such words as kite, kitten, kit (it was K week). "Alex, homework!" I call/

Alex's desk sits four feet from our dining room table and maybe 20 feet from the TV, where Ned was broadcasting "Sponge Bob." "Ned," I said with sudden inspiration, "shut the TV off for a few minutes, please." I'd read somewhere that autistic kids do much better with homework when the TV's off. You'd think such a tip would be commonsense fathering to me by this time, but still I had to read it somewhere.

Ned shuts off "Bob," especially when informed that Alex is about to do homework. Ned is mad for homework, and can't wait to get it assigned next year in first grade (I will remind Ned of this in about 10 years).

I've been working with Alex on handwriting by holding his hand in mine and guiding it gently through the letters (the "hand-over-hand" technique). After quieting Ned with one of Alex's coloring-centered worksheets, I get Alex to take the pen in his fingers and start on Kite. "Kite, Alex. K-I-T-E. Kite."

I feel Alex's hand start through the letters, pausing moment to moment but generally moving with featherweight force through the letters. The pen used to slip in his fingers; now I feel them tightening around the shaft of the pen this time, and my grip on his hand can loosen.

He does about three copies of the word, then starts the next line. His eyes leave the paper. I touch his cheek and steer his face back toward the paper. "Alex, concentrate."

He watches the paper, saying each word after he writes it. The tip of his tongue emerges pink between the right side of his lips. I lessen the pressure of my hand through Kitten and Kit.

I never thought I'd be a dad who'd inflict his work philosophy on his sons, but in my day the only way to learn to write was to fill up a blank sheet of paper over and over and over until the words came. So over the next few days, I hit Staples for horizontally-rule writing paper, and find some. On it, in clear black letters down the left side I write Elmo, Daddy, Mommy, and Ned. I figure to do many of these sheets, using words of and about people he knows. As he brings home two or three homework sheets a night and we usually have a backlog of sheets clipped to the easel by the door, it's probably not the optimum time to consider extra credit work, but I feel that engaging Alex is priority one.

Alex does the first sheet, tongue out, whispering the words, Ned's impatient bare feet propped the blank TV screen, and when Alex is done I slip the homemade homework into his folder for school, along with a note to his teacher.

On the night Alex is to tackle Jet and January and Job, his teacher sends back an encouraging note - we don't exactly tackle that clipped pile on the easel in order - saying she's delighted he's writing like this, and will continue to send such homework. I notice that Alex's tongue comes out most prominently over the longest word, "January." Next night, teacher sends home a list of his classmates' names, and I plow ahead on my sheets to Toast, Cat, and Grandpa. Gradually, I follow the advice of something else I read that says that when teaching handwriting to the autistic, start with hand-over-hand, and gradually start holding only their wrist, then their forearm, then elbow, and finally, shoulder. Maybe by Zebra and Zoo he won't need me to hold anything. We'll both stick at it, which is the only rule I know for writing anything. (April 2006)

Learn

Alex and Ned both have homework. I'm a little jubilant that both my boys have come far enough in the world to hold such jobs, "jobs" being one of the biggest things they're both ever going to hold in this life.

Alex, according to notes from his teacher, is flying through his writing work in class. She has sent home Helping Your Child Become a Reader, a booklet from The No Child Left Behind program. Though I think the Bush Administration might do well to make sure fewer adults are left behind, too, I applaud their efforts. The book applauds some of ours, such as Jill's creation of a library shelf in their room, lined with books.

Perhaps the shelf has helped bookstores become Alex's new favorite haunt; he's turned down not only chicken and pizza but also saltines to keep squirming in his restaurant chair and saying "Bookstore! Bookstore!" Once in the bookstore, Ned takes right to reading -- generally some piece of literature involving a superhero -- but Alex bops around and around, pulling down two or three Elmo titles, two or three Richard Scarry, maybe the Cheerios playbook. Once Alex took a snack container of Cheerios out of his backpack and started eating them, squatted in the aisle of Barnes and Noble, over the Cheerios playbook. Once, of course, I didn't know there was such a thing as a Cheerios playbook.

I'm trying to teach Alex how to spell by having him trace the alphabet, but not in the right order. "Alex, find the A. Find the G. Find the Q." He finds whatever I request, without fail and with diminishing hesitation. Both Alex and Ned are writing letters to people such as aunts Betty and Julie, Uncle Lee, and cousins Susan and Carol. This teaches my sons to write and remember their family, and it gets me out of writing to relatives.

Writing is going so well that every now and then I ask Alex to do a word, he will turns to me and say, "You do it!"

Ned leapt the chasm this year to first grade, which is shaping up like his own mini-West Point. His teacher started right in with the homework, sending home small essays about his classmates that he must read aloud with us. The sentences typically run, "So-and-so likes spaghetti. Her birthday is February 4th. She loves Halloween. Her favorite toy is Barbie." This has obviously been read aloud to the class, as at our dining room table Ned attempts to bull through with fast talk and good-natured if faulty memorization.

"So-and-so likes spaghetti," he will begin, his finger sliding across the line far ahead of his speech. "Her birthday is Halloween. She is four. Her favorite toy is the Barbie doll."

"Now that's not what it says, Ned," I say, recalling suddenly how I flopped as an English tutor 20 years ago. "Let's take it one word at a time. This is a funny-looking word, isn't it? It has an S and a P and an A. What sound does an S and a P make?" Beside me, Ned surrenders to what Richard Yates called "the luxury of collapse," as his face hits the crook of his elbow and deflates there, like a POW's at the beginning of what will be a long, long war, "Oooohhh, I'll never get it..."

"You will, Ned. Sound out the letters."

"...Her birthday is February 4th. She likes Halloween..."

"Not 'likes,' Ned. Bigger than 'likes.' What's this letter here? An L. And this is an O. What sound do those make together?" It's inconceivable to me that I was doing this stuff a week before I realized that Ned doesn't yet know how to sound out each letter.

I scan my world for stuff that might help reading dawn for either boy: the IN and OUT and PUSH and PULL of the drugstore doors; the pink plastic P-I-G that Alex likes to play with; the box of stoned wheat thins in our cupboard. "Ned," I exclaim, as much to myself as to him, "look! What are the last three letters of 'Stoned'?!" Do I even want Ned to notice the word "stoned?"

The Helping booklet has also made me see I've been short with Ned during bedtime reading, when he asks questions. I thought that interrupted the story, and told him it wasn't good. Not so: he's supposed to ask questions. There is so much to learn. (September 2006)

First Grade

"Ned," I feel like asking him, "is the world too much sometimes these days?" Maybe I will ask him that when I pick him up from his after-school program tonight and end another 11 hours of me wondering if he had a good day.

Ned emerges from the program with a classmate named James, and tells me that the art teacher took away the hockey puck Ned was painting. Why'd he do that?

"I dunno."

"I know," James says to me. What happened was something similar to what happened to me in eighth grade when I was just sitting there and yada-yada-yada I got detention.

Ned's first grade is a tougher transition than anyone warned me about. Last year, in kindergarten, Ned flitted from work table to work table, fingers in water or sand, smeared with paint or clay. This year, he says, is all sit and work. Ned says he gets no recess, no time for lunch. How many times a day do you get to go to the bathroom? Jill asks. Once. Once? Once. Jill glances at me. Once?

"We're not torturing your children!" Ned's teacher Vicki says to us at the school's first open-house night, where they give us questions and code words to help unlock the door between the little lives at home and at school. "Ask them what they do in 'work time,'" Vicki suggests.

Some mornings, work time for Ned begins around 7:50, when it's the turn of our neighbors to take Ned and their own little girl to school. When the dad and the little girl appear on the front steps of our apartment building, Ned's face melts. "Do you want me to carry you?" asks Nick, the dad, of Ned. Nick is serious. He does carry Ned, who accepts this gesture -- I wish somebody would carry me to the office sometime -- with more tears than grace, screeching and flailing like a child torn from his dad's arms at the gates of the institution.

One morning when I've got the duty to escort Ned and the little girl to school (she's a year younger than Ned), she cries for her mommy most of the way to the subway station. "You'll see her later today," Ned says. "Don't cry." On the subway, she and Ned often talk to each other; I see their little jaws and lips working down there, just below my waist, but I can't hear what they say.

In the morning, I always escort Ned to the fifth floor cafeteria, where he meets his classmates. The place is filled with kids from all grades, and sounds like a floor of giant crazy birds. Sometimes Ned brightens up and adds to the din himself. Most mornings, not. Ned leans against my leg in the cafeteria. As October passes, he more quickly spots a friend or two in the morning. "Ned!" a kid will say, and my son's attention pulls from me like a boat leaving a pier. Still, we're getting near Halloween and this doesn't happen as often as I'd like. What gives? Ned's a nice kid: When the lunchroom cook retired a few weeks ago, Ned wrote him a card and said he was going to miss him very much.

I did the math concerning my own ages in grades -- which I found oddly challenging despite having paid attention during most of those grades -- and discovered that lo, Ned is a whisker young for first grade. How'd that happen? In his class, the first and second graders are together. Ned will have a good time next year, helping the new first graders. "Sometimes, Ned, you have to go through something hard to get to something good," I tell him.

Maybe I've forgotten my own first grade, though one night when Ned comes home and says somebody called him a crybaby in class, Jill asks me if I ever cried in school and I say yes. I was in first grade, in fact, taking some Johnson-era standardized test when one of the questions came accompanied with a drawing of a little squirrel. We had a squirrel living in our backyard then, and all the missing of that squirrel and the missing of my mum and home welled up my throat and, for a few moments, out my eyes. Was that in second grade, though? Would it hearten or discourage Ned right now to know that I might have been older than he is? I don't remember if it was first or second, but I do remember that I didn't cry in school again until college.

So far he has come home knowing how to read and add a little and how to wrap an egg so he can drop it and not have it break, and he has learned about slavery and about the connection between Teddy Bears and Teddy Roosevelt.

"Do bullies get kidnapped?" Ned asks on the bus ride home.

I beg your pardon?

"In fourth grade, do bullies get kidnapped and, what's the word, exchanged?"

You mean bullies like your little stuffed bull? Is someone trying to take it away from you?

"No! Not the toys! Bullies."

What do you mean, Ned?

"James called Terry a bad name in school today. So James passed Terry a note later saying he was sorry. Vicki got it and read it out loud, and said bullies in fourth grade get exchanged."

This is the kind of storytelling acumen on which I'm relying to build an opinion about Ned's school experience. I often wonder which of us is in first grade. (October 2006)

The Big Bus

Alex's busing form for the coming year arrives less than a week about a week before the start of school. There's all the usual stuff: his name, rank, NYC Board of Education Serial Number, the phone of the new bus company, and the description of the bus he'll ride. A standard bus.

"Oh no," says Jill, "that is not right! He has always ridden a mini-bus!" We launch a blizzard of calls about this before Labor Day Weekend. Alex has never ridden a big bus, and is this one going to have typical typically-developing New York City junior high-schoolers on it!? It's not Alex's behavior on the bus I'm concerned about.

We get through to the bus company; they assure us that Alex's route is all special-needs kids, though on the big bus there will be 27 of them (the mini-buses carry about a dozen students). We also reach Alex's principal, who reports that a lot of kids like Alex are being put on big buses this year for the first time.

"I'm inclined to try it," Jill finally says.

On the first morning, a Tuesday, Jill and I and Alex are down on the sidewalk at 6:45. We're still there at 6:55, 7:05, 7:15, and finally 7:30 when I announce that I have to get to work and I take him to school in a cab. Twenty bucks. We get there, and a nice lady in the office says, "Oh, and Alex, you're on a big bus this year too!"

Theoretically.

That first night after school, Alex gets home at 5:30, more than two hours after his dismissal. On the second night, it's almost 6 p.m., and suddenly my kid is commuting as long as if he worked on Wall Street and lived in northern Connecticut. He's showing up 90 minutes late for school every day, just losing that class time unless you count reading storefronts out the bus window: "Liquors"; "ATM"; "Discount Drugs"; "Liquors"; "Nail Salon"; "Checks Cashed Here"; "Retail Space Available"; "Liquors."

"How was Alex when he got home?" I ask.

"Thirsty," says Jill.

We, mostly Jill, begin dialing again. The bus company's phone is incessantly busy almost that whole first week. "How about mentioning that the bus companies are so overwhelmed with calls that parents can't get through to them?" she says. "I mean, we just had no idea where he was, when he'd be coming home." She does some digging on the Net and finds a secondary number, and reaches a dispatcher. Jill says the dispatcher is nice but non-committal.

I find that is so as well when I call the dispatcher on the night of 6 p.m. "We do practice runs the day before school starts," she explains. "We did them on Friday this year. Then, over the weekend, the Board of Ed. changed all the routes!"

The Board of Ed., as personified by the NYC Office of Pupil Transportation, hears our concerns and gives us complaint numbers and examines Alex's route on their computer. "It's loading," the lady says. "I will tell you they've added 100,000 new kids in the city to bus routes this year. Some parents haven't even gotten their forms yet. Here it is-" She pauses. "Almost 30 kids on his route. That's a lot!"

This office can be helpful: We used them last year to dump a driver who often arrived an hour late in the morning and barely got Alex to school in time for his lessons right before lunch. He was a bad driver.

I'm beginning to wonder if this situation is that simple. I notice fewer mini-buses on the streets this year in the morning. It strikes me that two mini-buses might well burn more gasoline than one big bus. I hear stories from around the nation of schools cutting back to save on fuel. In my frigid home state of Maine, for instance, some schools have had to cut teachers' positions to keep their schools heated with oil this winter.

"He's getting to school at 10 a.m.!" his teacher Jane writes on Thursday. We call the bus company. "I know, I know," the dispatcher says. "It was on the news tonight. The Board of Ed. has promised us they're going to make some changes on the 10th!"

"Have you cut the number of buses to save on gas?" I ask Pupil Transporation.

The lady laughs a little. "Oh no, sir."

My boss Howard's wife is a teacher. "Schools aren't run for the students or the teachers anymore," he says. "They're run more like a business, with all that implies."

What bothers me about this situation is that everyone, I do believe, is doing their best to resolve it except the people most responsible: the executives of Exxon. But at least on Monday morning, Alex's big bus is waiting at 10 to seven. Jill takes him down, and when she returns she says, "They told me they've got four schools to deliver students to this year, and that they've never had four schools." (September 2008)

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