This story was entered in a contest for motherhood stories. Unfortunately I didn't win, but the jury did let me know that they appreciated my entry a lot. The other contest stories are available on Parenthoodstories.
Hello, I'm Kaylee Foster, mother of Tom, my autistic son. My story is about his first day at kindergarten.
Before I talk about my son and my experiences as a mother, I'd first like to introduce myself. I've been happily married to Martin Foster for sixteen years. I gave birth to Tom at the age of twenty-five. Martin was often on the road throughout the week during Tom's younger years. His job as a truck driver kept him occupied, leaving the raising of our son mostly to me. I was glad that my husband was at least around on the weekends, but I was left to my own devices during the week. We lived in a quiet suburb with a population of about sixty-four thousand citizens, at the time.
My husband and I found out that Tom is autistic when he still barely wanted to talk at the age of two. We knew that he didn't have a hearing problem, since he responded well to noises and reacted to his name, but he simply didn't seem interested in learning to talk. After a lot of tests, the psychologist diagnosed our son with Asperger's Syndrome. It's a type of autism that mostly occurs with boys who possess above average intelligence. Some of the symptoms are a lack of emotional understanding and a social learning disability.
As you can understand, our son’s autism came as a big shock to us. I think that deep down, I had always known that my little boy was special and different from other children. In retrospect, I think that Martin had a harder time dealing with it than I did; Tom is still our son, after all, the same sweetheart that I had given birth to two years earlier.
Tom was luckily blessed with a high intelligence. This showed in his ability to solve puzzles with ease, even when those puzzles were intended for children aged four. He also loved drawing pictures and playing with his stuffed animals. By spending a lot of time with my baby boy, and giving him extra attention, he eventually became interested in learning more and more words so he could express himself better. They were occasionally trying times, but the amount of satisfaction I received with every new word he learned was unimaginable.
When my son was four years old, it was time for him to go to kindergarten. He almost never interacted with other children up until then, let alone that he was never away from me for more than a few minutes. I take him to the children's farm, forest, or playground so that he can play with kids his own age as often as I can, but apart from trips to visit family or go to the supermarket, Tom didn't get out of the house a lot.
My story is about Tom's first day at kindergarten, the experience that I gained, and what it means to be a mother.
We celebrated Tom's fourth birthday on a beautiful, sunny autumn Sunday afternoon in October. The red and yellowed-colored leaves were falling off the trees. The temperature had significantly dropped, and I had exchanged my summer jacket for a winter coat a week earlier.
I remember how my husband asked me, “Do you think he'll be okay tomorrow?”
Martin was referring to Tom's first day at kindergarten. My eyes trailed to Tom, who was playing with a big fire truck that he had received from his grandfather. Martin's question echoed in my head; it was the same the question that I had increasingly asked myself the past two weeks.
I patted my husband on his leg to reassure him, and said, “I think he’ll be okay. The kindergarten has my mobile phone number, and they can always contact me if there are any problems.”
I hoped that my voice didn't betray my uncertainty.
I knew that Martin believed me, however, when he replied, “Alright, fair enough. You’ll call me after you picked him up again, right?”
“Of course; I'll let you know how it went as soon as we're home again,” I smiled, and gave my husband a tender kiss on the lips.
The rest of Tom's birthday passed without much notice.
It was still early the next morning when I woke Tom up. It'd be the first time that he'd go to kindergarten. I had trained Tom to be up and about at seven thirty a.m., which gave me thirty minutes to take a shower, get dressed, pick out my son's clothes, and prepare breakfast.
“Wakey wakey, or the tickle monster will get ya,” I said, with a grin on my face as I walked to my son.
It was one of our silly little morning rituals. A cute yawn escaped from Tom's lips, as he lazily stretched his body. He jumped up, however, when my tickling fingers came threateningly close to his ribs, and he made a mad dash to the bathroom so he could take care of his morning business.
He was dressed and sitting at the breakfast table ten minutes later, enjoying a sandwich with chocolate sprinkles and a glass of milk. After I wiped his milk mustache away and packed his Toy Story backpack, it was time to bring him to kindergarten.
I was probably a lot more nervous about it than Tom was. I had tried to talk to him about kindergarten for the past week, explaining what it entailed to him, but Tom hadn't been very interested in my story and it was hard to get a feeling about how he'd react.
All through the nine minute bike trip to the kindergarten, Tom was babbling about the cars and animals he saw. I couldn't believe how fast he was growing up. It felt like it was only a week ago that I held him in my arms, and nursed him for the first time in his life.
Tom grew increasingly more silent as we passed streets that he had never seen before. Normal children might greet new environments with enthusiasm, but Tom was only curious, in general, and even a bit afraid sometimes. He didn't handle new environments well, and it took a lot effort for him to adjust to new surroundings.
His eyes went wide with surprise when the kindergarten appeared. I don't know what caught his attention first, the playground, or the many children playing in the schoolyard. A dozen other mothers were already there, as well, some of whom I've met at the children's farm or a big playground near our house, while others were women I had befriended years ago. I hoped that Tom would at least recognize some of the children he had occasionally played with in the past.
I parked my bike and got Tom out of the baby seat. I watched how he made his first tentative steps toward the fence. The happy shrieks of playing children seemed to catch his attention, and being the inquisitive little darling that he is, he soon forgot about me and joined in on the fun while I chatted with the other mothers who were watching their children.
“So far, so good,” I thought.
Tom seemed to fit in well with the rest of the kids, but he got a scared look on his face and ran to me when the bell rang eight minutes later. All the other children went into the building, while Mrs. Tyler walked over to me after she noticed Tom running towards me, instead of to the building.
She greeted me, saying, “Hello, Mrs. Foster; how good to see you and Tom.”
“Hello, Mrs. Tyler. It was a bit of a struggle for Tom with the new routine, but we made it,” I replied, offering her a smile.
Tom hugged my leg, burying his face in my jeans as he held on tight. I had met Mrs. Tyler two weeks before, and she was a friendly middle-aged woman who was great with children. Tom sensed that something was up, however.
“This young fellow must be the brave Tom,” Mrs. Tyler said, with a comforting voice as she knelt on one knee.
“Hello Tom, I'm your teacher, Mrs. Tyler.”
Tom looked at her for a moment, then buried his face in my jeans again.
She stood up, and told me, “It's never easy for a first day. Maybe it will help if I stay back a little bit, so that you can tell him goodbye?”
“Yes, I think that'd be a good idea,” I replied, not really sure how I should handle this situation.
I had a lot of time to prepare, but Tom's reaction still caught me by surprise.
I sat on my knees in front of my son, lowering myself to his height, and with a soothing voice, I said, “Tom, Mrs. Tyler will take care of you today. This your new school. You get to play here with other children, and learn new things all day long.”
“I don't wanna go,” Tom whined, several tears billowing down his cheeks, as he buried his face in my chest.
His little hands gripped me tighter, refusing to let go of me.
“Tom, it'll be okay. It's only for a few hours, I'll pick you up in the afternoon, I promise.”
“N-n-nooo,” Tom cried, “I don't wanna go! I miss you, Mommy!”
I caressed my son's hair, not really knowing what to do. It pained my heart to see my child cry, but he had to get used to kindergarten at the same time. I knew it was just cold water fever, but like any mother, I feel very protective of my child, and it was tempting to take him back home. I knew that it'd only make the situation worse, however, since I'd face an even bigger challenge tomorrow in that case.
“I don't wanna go, I don't,” Tom repeated, as he looked at me with red eyes and a tear-streaked face.
“Ssh, Tom. Everything will be okay,” I whispered, and gave him a kiss on his forehead.
I held him close to me for another minute, my warmth enveloping his body. I felt guilty for leaving him behind, it felt as if I was betraying my only child, a child that already needed more attention and caring than the average kid. I hugged him close to me, not wanting to let go of him, while I shushed him.
Once his crying lessened, I fished a handkerchief out of my jeans and I made him blow his nose.
“Everything will be okay,” I repeated. “Come, Mrs. Tyler is waiting for you.”
I walked to his teacher hand-in-hand with Tom, and told her that she could call me if anything came up. She nodded her understanding, and talked to Tom about all the fun things they'd do in class, and how they had a lot of puzzles for him to solve.
His ears perked up at the suggestion, but he still didn't seem very happy about going someplace were I wasn't. He kept looking over his shoulder as I stood there on the schoolyard, waving goodbye to him until they disappeared in the building.
I really hoped that he'd be okay.
My mind constantly wondered how Tom was doing throughout the rest of the day. I wanted to know if he fit in with the rest of the children, and I even considered calling the kindergarten for an update, however, I knew that it was best if I didn't. There was no doubt in my mind that Mrs. Tyler already had her hands full with her class, and I didn't want to disturb her either.
I still felt guilty about leaving Tom behind, though. As his mother, I was his caretaker, protector, and, until today, his teacher, but that had now changed.
My neighbor noticed that I was distracted when I drank tea with her a half hour later. She asked me what was bothering me, and we ended up talking about children and how fast they grew up. I doubted myself, and wondered if maybe it was too early for Tom to go to kindergarten. Maybe it would have been better to keep him at home for another year; although I didn't want to slow his progress down either. My inner conflict kept me occupied throughout the day, as I talked with my neighbor, did my chores, and read the newspaper.
Even though I had the radio on, it felt like something was missing. Tom was never a very loud boy, but not having him around at all felt wrong. I knew that it'd take me some time to get used to the new situation. He had always been with me for the past four years, and there was an unusual silence without him in the house.
I even caught myself checking his room to see if he had fallen asleep one time, before I remembered that he wasn't in the house.
I was relieved when it was a quarter to three. I couldn't wait to get to the schoolyard. I pedaled I a lot faster without Tom in the baby seat, and I had eight minutes to spare before kindergarten would be out at three p.m.
Slightly out of breath, I parked my bike next to several others, and joined the other waiting mothers. I was anxious to see Tom again, and to learn how he had experienced his first day in kindergarten. Mrs. Tyler hadn't called me, so I could only assume that things went well, but I felt nervous nevertheless.
The minutes on my watch slowly ticked by.
One of the other women, Betsy, a good friend of mine, noticed my frequent stares at my watch.
She tried to reassure me, saying, “Don't worry, Kaylee, I'm sure Tom is fine. Donald took it pretty rough on his first day in kindergarten, as well, but I never had any more arguments from him once he found out how much fun it could be. It's normal for kids to be anxious about their first time at school.”
“Thank you, Betsy. I'm just not sure,” I sighed, “Tom is autistic, and he always had more trouble making friends than the average kid does. I'm worried that he locked himself away, or got into a fight with one of the other children because they don't understand him.”
“He never gets into any fights at the park, does he?”
“No, he doesn't, but I'm there to watch over him if something does happen at least,” I replied, still not feeling very sure about this.
“Don't worry; I'm sure he's fine.”
“I hope so,” I replied, with a tentative voice.
“I guess there is only one way to find out,” I thought, “He'll be coming outside in a few more minutes.”
I waited for the doors to open when the bell rang. I felt almost as nervous as I did when I had to wait for Martin to pick me up on our first date.
The first children appeared a few moments later, walking in two orderly lines. It brought a smile to my face to hear them sing a song they had learned. Tom was in the middle of them, enthusiastically singing with the rest, while he held a drawing in his hands.
When he noticed me though, he broke the line and ran to me, screaming, “Mommy!”
I knelt on one knee and he nearly knocked me over as he came to me at full-speed, giving me a big hug.
I picked him up after a loud 'Oof', and with an anxious tone in my voice, I asked him, “How was your day, Tom? Did you like it?”
“It was okay,” he mumbled, which was his way of saying that he had a great time.
When I looked him in the eye, I noticed some tears, but he flashed me a brilliant smile a moment later. I knew he had missed me, but only when he saw me a moment ago. It warmed my heart to see that he had genuinely liked his first day.
“You're a big boy now, Tom! How about we go home and you help me bake brownies?”
If anything, that really cheered him up, and he agreed with an enthusiastic voice. I glanced at Mrs. Tyler, and she gave me a reassuring nod to indicate that things had worked out well. I was glad that they had since I had been very worried.
We all need to learn to let go in the end. It's inevitable that our children get older and make their own steps in the big wide world, as they learn to become more independent and stand on their own feet. As mothers, we are caretakers, protectors, and teachers of our children. The things we teach them will last them a lifetime, and it's our responsibility to make sure that they grow up to be responsible adults.
The first day that Tom had gone to kindergarten, was as much of a learning experience for me, as it was for him. It had been the first day that he got to play with other children without my supervision, and it turned out that many of my worries and fears were unfounded.
Tom had genuinely enjoyed his day at kindergarten, and he had even made two friends. The friendships he forged that day would last him for years to come, and the social skills he gained because of it, proved to be invaluable to him in later life. Despite his social handicap, and the hardships that came with his autism, his first day at kindergarten was a defining moment that helped shape his personality to be the man that he is today.
© Copyright 2013 Jasper Storm