An open letter to the woman who subbed in my son’s classroom…

Dear Substitute-

You caught me off guard today.

I was running late for a meeting when you stopped me on the sidewalk outside of the school.

When you asked me how Howie was doing, I thought it was just small talk at first.

So I replied with my usual “fine, thank you.”  Because it’s true.  For the most part.

But then you went on.  Sharing that you had been in his classroom several times this year, working as an aide.

I knew that, of course.  Small town and all.  And we’ve known each other from the neighborhood for a while so I recognized your name as a sub.

“That Howie,” you said.  “He really is…um…he really is his own person isn’t he?”

Suddenly it wasn’t small talk anymore for me.

You stopped me cold.

In a split second, a thousand thoughts flew threw my brain.  I truly wanted to believe you meant this in a nice way.  I really did.

And I wanted to believe that you know about my son’s challenges, especially in the classroom.  That before you went in as an aide you were told about his autism and sensory issues and what to expect.  I know the school staff would have shared this with you.

But it was the tone of your words that told me this wasn’t a compliment.

I stared at you for a moment.

I wanted to tell you what a hard year this has been for my little boy.  That the transition to kindergarten was not an easy one and he never recovered until just last month.  I wanted to share how his autism presents itself in the classroom and that sometimes things are just so hard for him that he lashes out at whomever is next to him.  I wanted to apologize for anything and everything he might have said or done in your presence.  I wanted you to know that he can’t help it.  He doesn’t mean it.

And then I wanted to scream at you with a what the hell are you talking about? What are you trying to say?  That my son is difficult?  Frustrating?  Hard to work with?  This is my amazing little guy!  You don’t know.  How could you know? Do you see what he goes through every damn day just to sit in that room? You, with your perfect children, sitting in judgement of my child?  How dare you?

I wanted to tell you how proud I am of him for just surviving this year.

But instead

I simply said,

“Yes. He is his own person, isn’t he.  I’m pretty proud of that.”

I turned around.

I walked into the school.

You didn’t see the tears well up in my eyes.

But you did see that I held my head up high.

I will continue to teach my sons – all three of them – that it is okay to “be your own person”.

I hope your daughters are their own people too.

However..

Forgive me if I don’t ever stop for small talk with you again.

Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me
What else can I be but what I am

I want to live, not merely survive
And I won’t give up this dream
Of life that keeps me alive
I gotta be me, I gotta be me
The dream that I see makes me what I am.” – I’ve Gotta Be Me by Sammy Davis, Jr.