By Debra Muzikar
It’s June 2002. The first grade end-of-school party is at the beach. I watch Kevin jump in the waves squealing in sheer delight. Here he is at equilibrium. Here he is whole.
I feel my bare toes dig into the warm summer sand. The morning sun cascades down on the kids splashing in the water. It’s an idyllic scene.
“Kevin loves the ocean,” Kevin’s first grade teacher is by my side.
“Yes, he does,” I say grateful for some kind of positive acknowledgment of my last-born child. Earlier this year this fifty-something Stanford graduate had cried at Kevin’s IEP. It has been a difficult year. I thought we worked through our differences. I believed Kevin to be in a safe place.
I regret my next words.
“Maybe one day he will be in Junior Lifeguards like his big sister,” I say.
The previous summer we spent many hours on this beach watching Justine, Kevin’s sister, compete. She earned the enviable award of Iron Woman. Junior Lifeguards is a rigorous competitive summer beach program. Carpinteria, a small beach town on the California south coast, is known for surfing, beach sports, and football.
I notice the teacher’s demeanor change. She looks at me with genuine concern.
“Kevin will never participate in Junior Lifeguards,” she proclaims. “You need to adjust your expectations.”
I feel a sting in my eye as my tears well up. The realization I have is this: I’ve wasted an entire year of Kevin’s life. He’s been in a classroom with a teacher who has no expectations for him and thinks of him as “less than.“
Her words are like a knife. They will resonate in my mind for the next decade. I will hear them again and again – the message is the same – the voice is different. “Your child can’t ….” fill in the blank.
Ask any parent of a special needs child. The encounter I had with this teacher is not uncommon. It starts from the minute our child is diagnosed.
“The best you can expect for your child is to be institutionalized as an adult,” the neurologist says when Kevin is only 3.
“It’s doubtful your child will learn to read,” the Specialist says.
“The resources we spend on your child takes away from other students. It’s not fair to the other students,” an administrator tells me.
Kevin has his own trajectory. It’s not like other kids. Developmental disabilities don’t mean our children can’t develop. It means they develop at their own pace.
Early on, I decided to expose all three of my children to opportunities – art, horseback riding, music lessons, dance, swimming, surfing, drumming. Kevin clicked with so many of these natural interventions. He loved to bang the drums creating his own rhythms. Each summer we had him in surf camp. Soon he learned to navigate the waves. He was an expert paddler. The ocean calmed him.
Later, art would become an important part of Kevin’s childhood. What child at the young age of ten can visit an art gallery and have an intelligent conversation with the curator about artists and artistic style? Kevin did just that. The exposure to art opened up his world. He loved texture, color, and patterns. He loved to learn about the different artists. His favorite artist was Vincent Van Gogh.
Kevin’s first grade teacher was right. Kevin did not participate in Junior Lifeguards. He did, however, for many years, participate in ocean sports. He learned how to kayak, sail and surf. He learned how to play the trumpet and drums. He learned to read music. He participated in band and orchestra. In high school, he learned how to drive a tractor. His Ag Mechanic teacher believed in him.
There are so many stars who light our path. The Principal when Kevin is in 3rd grade who insists on all the teachers greeting parents and students by name! The inclusion specialist who has a child on the autism spectrum and gets it! The School Board Member who is raising a child with ADD! The aides who give us day-by-day reports.
Before we left Carpinteria, I received a note from the Friends of the Carpinteria Library from Kevin’s former first-grade teacher who was now retired and a volunteer. Her note read “Thank you Kevin Hosseini for your donation to the Friends of the Carpinteria Library.” Kevin had an art exhibit and sold several pieces benefiting Friends of the Carpinteria Library. Kevin’s art has been in 3 museums, including the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, The Smithsonian Dillon Ripley Center in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art Ukraine in Kiev.
Kevin moved out of Carpinteria last year not by choice. He did not want to move from his hometown. It was a traumatic experience. The negativity had been years in the making. Small towns sometimes pull together for people who are different; sometimes the poison spreads from when they are young.
“My goal is to live in San Diego,” Kevin writes in his 2013 journal from his College Success class. Kevin was the only student in his Carpinteria transition class to take an academic course in 2013. Even then, we had to advocate for that class. Kevin has expectations! Kevin is not a disaster waiting to happen as some mom who never even talked to Kevin said on the front page of the local newspaper. Imagine putting that expectation out there for the world to read!
Kevin is a fine young man. Some of those struggles he’s experienced in the past have been because of the negativity of teachers who don’t want kids like Kevin in their class and/or a parent who has high expectations for their child.
Kevin now lives in El Cajon, 10 miles outside of San Diego. He is happy where he lives. He was part of an exhibition at Sophie’s Kensington Gallery last month. He takes piano lessons at his home. He has art classes. He works at Walgreens in El Cajon. He participates in Special Olympics. He is going to be part of the new movie Normal People Scare Me 2.
I asked him today do Normal People scare you?
“Not really,” he says.
“How about your teachers?”
“Where I am now none of the teachers scare me. I had a teacher scare me in Carpinteria. That’s why I was trying to run away to Mexico!” (That’s another story).
I live 45 minutes away and visit Kevin each week. There are many Kevins in this world. The expectations of others do not define them, but often change their paths.
That’s true of all of us.