A few days ago, when Schuyler asked "Are you going to come eat lunch with me?", some of you thought it was a bad idea, maybe leading to further ostracization from her peers. But I think everyone knew what I was going to do. And, really, how else was that going to go down? How do you tell a child who is experiencing problems making friends that yes, you know she wants you to come eat lunch with her at school, but sorry, that's just not going to happen? As Julie said, "She's lonely and she wants to eat lunch with her father. How is there more than one possible answer to that?"
So yeah. Yesterday, with the school's permission, I ate lunch with Schuyler in her school cafeteria. She was thrilled, I had a good time, and perhaps most importantly, I got a better idea of what's really going on.
It's... complicated, I guess.
If you, like me, were imagining Schuyler sitting lonely and forlorn by herself at the lunch table, I am very happy to report that she's not. Not even close. As soon as she came down to the main office to fetch me, she took me to meet the people at her table. This was not what I expected.
Schuyler doesn't eat lunch alone. But she kind of does, in a way.
Schuyler's table is populated by a regular group of kids who are familiar with each other. It's apparently the same ones every day. They are kids with special needs, and they all sit together and are checked on periodically by teachers. They are taken care of, for sure, and for the most part they seem to get along just fine. I can't tell you how the kids feel about it, other than my own. I got the impression that many of the kids at the table have somewhat more serious impairments than Schuyler. They appeared to feel safe at their table, and that is tremendously important. It's probably the MOST important factor of all.
But as I said before, it's complicated. Schuyler and I talked entirely to each other, almost completely apart from the rest. She didn't engage with them, and they didn't engage with her. There was one notable and very encouraging exception.
There was an awesome little girl sitting next to Schuyler with whom I chatted over the course of lunch. In our conversation, I asked her if their lunch table crew was assigned and if everyone else was seated in a specific place. She said that no, anyone can sit anywhere they want, or (perhaps more to the point) with whomever the want. Schuyler piped in that there's never room at any of the other tables. "No one wants us to sit with them," she said.
So I don't know. On one hand, I understand how their table can be a sanctuary, and a way for the teachers to monitor everyone and make sure their needs are being met. That's not a small thing, and we have no problem with the special education team setting up this arrangement if they feel it works best for the kids. These teachers take their kids seriously, both educationally and as a community. Ultimately, we trust this special education team, completely.
At the same time, however, the thought of Schuyler's table as a kind of typical-kid-enforced Island of Misfit Toys, that saddens me. It happens, a lot, and from what I remember of that age, it is perhaps inevitable on some level. But still.
As we discussed the lunch situation after Schuyler got home, something very interesting began to reveal itself. I understood why Schuyler said she eats alone now. She doesn't really identify the people who sit at her lunch table as her friends, which was a little baffling at first since she was incredibly nice to them and introduced me to them all. And that little girl I talked to was great. It's not my business to describe someone else's child to you, so I'll simply say that her impairment appeared to be entirely or mostly physical, not developmental. She seemed to really like Schuyler and also took care of some of the other kids despite her impairment. I liked her immediately. I have high hopes for this relationship, assuming they're not actually mortal enemies and I just didn't pick up on that.
But much like with her typical classmates, Schuyler hasn't made connections with any of them, not on the level of real friendship. And by the time I left the school, I suddenly understood why. Schuyler may just have the same problem with the kids at her lunch table that she does with everyone else.
The neurotypical kids at Schuyler's school may not understand how to build authentic relationships with persons with disabilities. But actually, neither does Schuyler.
She's different, particularly in how she communicates, and that can be a daunting obstacle for typical kids. But she's equally stymied by the communication challenges between her and kids with more serious developmental disabilities. I've written before about how Schuyler stands astride two worlds, being ambulatory and also socially adaptable enough to almost pass in the typical world but also being significantly challenged enough to be forever different.
Sometimes that duality is a gift. In this case, when meaningful friendships are hard enough for her to understand, much less form, it is probably standing in her way. It's not that she doesn't see value in her special education classmates. Much to the contrary; she is as loving and as fiercely protective of them as ever. But her ideas of what friendship means are probably delivered to her mostly through a neurotypical lens, via television and through what she observes in her integrated classes. Her understanding of those typical friendships is limited, and extremely naive. Schuyler tries hard but doesn't quite succeed at being typical. Apparently she's not entirely successful at being disabled, either.
The good news is that Schuyler's exceptional special education director is extremely open and enthusiastic about getting on board with a mentoring program like Best Buddies Texas. A mentoring program would be a very important step in teaching Schuyler's typical classmates how she can be a valued friend and classmate.
It hadn't really occurred to us until now that Schuyler might need a little extra help in that area as well. She's so close. I'm confident that she'll get there.