A Learning Experience

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “A Learning Experience.”

One beautiful spring day, Michelle brought me some tulips. It never occurred to me to ask where she got them.  Strapping on her bicycle helmet, our petite eight-year-old daughter hurried back outside to ride her scooter. Up and down the sidewalk she coasted.

Meanwhile, the homeowners viewed the destruction of their beautiful garden in horror. Believing that some malicious teenager had vandalized their property, they filed a police report. Once the officer left their home, they set out to find the villain who stole their prize-winning flowers. When they reached our house, they spotted Toby doing yard work and asked him if he knew anything about their missing tulips.

Remembering that his little sister had brought home tulips, he ran to find me.  Floyd joined the neighbors outside and strolled down to their house to inspect their tulip-less garden. Indeed,
Michelle had plucked every last one, root and all.  I hurried to find her. A couple of minutes later, I walked down to their house, my young daughter trailing me on her scooter. The wife was livid, but the husband took one look at our little girl and changed his tone.

Tearfully, Michelle apologized. We explained to her that she must not go into other people’s yards and pluck their flowers without permission, and she promised she wouldn’t do it again.

Floyd offered to pay for the damage or replace the tulips, whichever they preferred, but the husband said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Two days later, around dusk, there came an unexpected knock at the door. The couple’s son brought Michelle her own garden kit so she could grow her own flowers. Floyd helped her plant them. Just as they started to sprout, she plucked them all. They weren’t even flowers yet.

That summer, still on unemployment, Floyd decided to take a quick jaunt up to northern Wisconsin to visit his family while he had the time. With Jamie visiting friends in Arizona, he took Toby and eight-year-old Michelle along.

Pulling into a remote rest area, Floyd never considered that his young daughter had never been in an outhouse before.  Michelle trotted into the ladies restroom and quickly returned to her dad.

“Dad, we have a real problem here,” she said. “You should see the women’s restroom.”

Floyd and Toby, now a teenager, had no desire to investigate that “real problem” in the women’s restroom.  Floyd suggested Michelle use the men’s restroom since the rest area was deserted anyway. When Michelle entered the men’s room, she said, “See? You have the same problem in here. There’s nothing but a big hole and no way to flush!”

The School Gets an Education

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “An Academy Award-Winning Performance.”

Soon after Michelle’s follow-up, a school administrator phoned to find out about our daughter. Her insolence indicated her prejudgment of us due to her lack of knowledge. “Mrs. Strebe, what did the hospital say?”

Michelle age 8
Michelle age 8

“The doctor found nothing wrong, but recommended we get her in for a follow-up with her pediatrician.”

“Did you?” demanded the administrator like she was interrogating a murder suspect.

“Yes, we did.”

“And what did he say?”

“He couldn’t find anything wrong, either.”

“Oh.” Her tone changed. “Mrs. Strebe, we need to have a conference about Michelle.”

“Are you ready to listen? We don’t want to waste our time.”

“Yes, we’re ready to listen.”

The special education staff of this elementary school couldn’t recall ever having worked with a child with Williams syndrome, so they all received an education. In addition, Wendy was young, and Michelle’s first-grade class was the first class she’d ever taught full time.

Michelle age 8
Michelle age 8, and a classmate, at school

During our daughter’s third-grade year, I met with Wendy for a parent-teacher conference, and she shared this amusing story:

Michelle had been misbehaving and Wendy warned her to straighten up or she would not attend the fifth grade drama production. Michelle ignored her. The day of the performance, Wendy set her on a chair outside the door and watched the production from the back of the room where she could keep an eye on our daughter at the same time.

A commotion in the room required Wendy’s attention. The moment her teacher stepped away, Michelle lay down on the hallway floor in front of her chair. Of course, someone saw her—someone who didn’t know her.

When Wendy returned to her post, Michelle’s chair stood empty, but her teacher knew where to find her. Marching into the nurse’s office, Wendy took Michelle by the hand and said, “Come on, Michelle.” Michelle stood and followed her. Those in the nurse’s office looked at Wendy as uncaring and insensitive to show so little compassion for a student.

I grinned. “Isn’t that what you thought of me the first year?” Indeed, she had. Fortunately, she no longer held that view. We both laughed.

Wendy’s special education class consisted of first, second, and third grades. That class grew so big that halfway into Michelle’s third-grade year, she and another student were moved to the fourth- and fifth-grade classroom.

Michelle age 9; 2nd grade
Michelle age 9; 2nd grade

In May, 1993, GE downsized, and Floyd lost his job.  I landed a job to supplement his unemployment. One day while I was at work, Michelle and Jamie got into an argument. Wanting the police to rush to her rescue, Michelle pulled out the Cincinnati phone book and dialed a complete stranger. After telling this lady about her mean sister, she gave out our address and phone number. The girls scuffled. Jamie yelled at her for being on the phone and covered her mouth, attempting to keep her from giving out personal information. Then she hung up the phone.

Concerned this little girl could be in serious danger, the lady contacted the police. Within minutes, a police officer banged on our door, investigating a domestic dispute, which Floyd knew nothing about.  You can imagine his surprise when he opened the door to a uniformed police officer. He told the officer that I was at work and that there had been no domestic dispute at our house. Then he called the kids, whose happy-go-lucky demeanors suggested that they’d already forgotten that they’d been fighting. When questioned, Jamie related the details of their recent dispute. The officer logged it down as sibling rivalry and left.

An Academy Award-Winning Performance

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “An Academy Award-Winning Performance.”

Michelle loved fire safety, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, ambulances, fire engines, police cars, Rescue 911, and everything to do with emergencies.

Our next door neighbors, Jerry and Lorraine Croft, were both registered nurses. You can imagine how that went over with Michelle, the first to meet them when we moved into our new house. It’s not the recommended way to meet your next door neighbors, but somehow, during the first seven years of her life, I failed to teach her that it is proper to knock on someone’s door and wait to be invited in.

Michelle, age 7, at the mall with her new friend
Michelle, age 7, at the mall with her new friend

On her way home from playing, Michelle needed to use the bathroom. Without even knocking, she stepped into the Crofts’ house and traipsed down the hallway in search of their bathroom. Surprised to see our little girl, Lorraine asked why she entered someone else’s house without knocking.

“I have to use the bathroom,” Michelle explained.

“Where do you live?”

“On the corner.”

Michelle age 7 (5)Lorraine thought, Well, it’s not a big block, but maybe she couldn’t make it all the way home. She didn’t know that this youngster only lived next door. She assumed that Michelle meant the other end of the block.

In the midst of remodeling her bathroom, cabinets all over the hallway in various stages of sanding and painting, Lorraine motioned for her to hurry. Our daughter traversed the cabinets and used the toilet.

“You’d better pick this place up. It’s a real mess,” she stated. On her way out the door, Lorraine suggested she knock before entering someone else’s house next time. As far as I know, she has.

Preparing for Michelle’s first day at a new school, I attempted to inform the staff how my little first-grader faked illness or injury for attention, but they cut me off.

“Mrs. Strebe, how many children do you have?” asked the principal.

“Three.”

“Well we have three hundred. Don’t tell us about kids. Believe me, we know about kids.”

“Okay.” I shrugged and left the school.

Although Michelle’s bladder control at night had greatly improved, occasionally she still wet the bed, so it didn’t surprise me when she awoke covered with a rash due to sleeping all night in urine-saturated sheets. I simply bathed her and put her on the bus to school.

At lunchtime, she slid off the cafeteria bench and lay down on the floor. No one saw her get down, but the janitor noticed her lying on the floor so he rushed to rouse her, gently patting her cheeks and calling her name.

As a crowd gathered, Michelle moaned lethargically. The more concern the faculty showed, the more listless she became. Someone carried her to the nurse’s office where they phoned 911.

September, 1992 - Jamie and Michelle
September, 1992 – Jamie and Michelle

On September 9, 1992, one week into the school year, I received an urgent phone call from Michelle’s teacher, Wendy. “Mrs. Strebe, Michelle passed out on the lunchroom floor!”

“Uh-huh.” I didn’t sound too convinced. Was it possible that my daughter had actually passed out? Anything’s possible, but due to her past history and the intensity in her teacher’s voice, I suspected that she had just put on a masterful performance.

“Mrs. Strebe, you get down to this school immediately!” ordered Wendy. (Sound familiar?)

I replied, “Okay, I’m on my way.”

In the meantime, the rescue squad arrived. Paramedics lifted Michelle onto a gurney, positioned an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, and wheeled the gurney out to the ambulance.

Bolting upright, Michelle exclaimed, “Do I get to ride in that?” Then she lay back down. Only Wendy caught her excitement and glee.

“I think we’ve been had,” she said.

Michelle, age 7, getting off the school bus
Michelle, age 7, getting off the school bus

The school administrators didn’t catch her momentary lapse in illness. The paramedics examined Michelle in the ambulance and saw the rash. That concerned them, and they wanted to run her to the hospital. What could I say? Michelle had put on an incredible exhibition and duped everyone. The school personnel believed they faced a serious situation and that they dealt with an insensitive parent who didn’t care for the well-being of her child, so they refused to listen to me. They demanded to hear
from a doctor.

The ambulance transported Michelle to Mercy Hospital in Fairfield. I followed and phoned my husband from the hospital. Floyd left work and met us there. The ER doctor examined Michelle, ordered a blood test, and happily reported that he found nothing wrong. He recommended we schedule a follow-up with her pediatrician in a week. If there was nothing wrong with her, why did she need a follow-up? Knowing we’d
suffer grief from the school if we didn’t follow through, I scheduled a follow-up as suggested. Exactly one week later, her pediatrician examined her and declared her to be in perfect health. (But this incident taught Michelle how quickly she could get the rescue personnel to respond to her call for help, and she started dialing 911 with regularity.)

My Little Karate Kid Learns to Swim

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “Rescue 911.”

With respite funds still available for Michelle, I enrolled her in the YMCA swimming program that same summer. I feared that if she ever fell in a pool, she would drown. Private swimming lessons at the Y cost $40 a week, and Michelle took lessons for seven consecutive weeks. This program funded her swimming lessons.

For the entire seven weeks, Michelle’s swimming instructor was a seventeen-year-old boy named Jesse. The first week, she looked forward to going, despite clinging to Jesse the entire lesson. If he tried to separate from her for even a brief moment, she screamed. Michelle proved incredibly difficult to work with, and Jesse got frustrated.

Learning to Swim
Learning to Swim

The second week, I told him, “Don’t worry what anyone else says or thinks. Even if Michelle screams, do what you must to get her swimming.”

Designed for laps and swimming lessons, the pool was four-feet deep the entire length. Jesse strapped a floaty to Michelle’s back and let her go. Screaming at the top of her lungs, she paddled the length of the pool trying to reach him while he slowly backed away from her. People from inside the YMCA and folks from the other pool swarmed over to investigate the commotion. I’m sure some thought Jesse was cruel and insensitive to this child’s fear, but she had to learn to swim—to be water safe for her own safety.

After that lesson, she didn’t want to go back. I took her anyway, and Tuesday was a repeat of Monday. She screamed the entire forty-five minute lesson. On Wednesday, Floyd took her swimming. The instant she started screaming, he hurried to the side of the pool and said, “Michelle, knock it off this minute!”
Michelle cried her entire swimming lesson, but no more screaming. On Thursday, she only cried halfway into her lesson, and on Friday, she didn’t cry at all. She actually enjoyed her swimming lesson. That day, she started learning to swim. Jesse worked with her every weekday, and at the end of seven weeks, she loved the water and could swim.

Practicing her karate chops
Practicing her karate chops

That summer, GE offered Floyd a position in Cincinnati, so we prepared to move again. Shortly before we left Georgia, Mr. Stauffer promoted Michelle to camouflage belt in tae kwon do. At the awards supper, he announced that we were moving. He said that Michelle had been trying to take over his class since she started (which was true), and as a special treat, he planned to demonstrate his form. Then he invited Michelle to face him and call out the commands in Korean, just like she had done
with his class on occasion. As our young daughter called out the commands, Mr. Stauffer executed them.

Michelle's 7th Birthday; Michelle and Jamie
Michelle’s 7th Birthday; Michelle and Jamie
Michelle's 7th Birthday (2)
Michelle’s 7th Birthday; Michelle and Toby

Our family moved back to Cincinnati, Ohio, two months before Michelle’s eighth birthday. We bought a four-bedroom house, and Michelle chose the only bedroom with a hardwood floor so she could bounce her ball, but the floor proved too hard to sleep on. That kept her in bed at night. She started her new school almost immediately, and with it came a whole new set of challenges.

Jumping into Tae Kwon Do

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “Rescue 911.”

Although Michelle attended a special education class for all her academics, the teacher suggested she repeat kindergarten due to her immaturity. Kindergarten offered more unstructured playtime, and she needed that, so we allowed our daughter to remain in kindergarten a second year.

Michelle age 7
Michelle age 7

On a routine visit to the doctor, he informed us that Michelle’s PE tubes were no longer in place. Within two weeks, she had an ear infection. At six and a half years old, she went back to surgery for her fourth, and final, set of tubes.

Although Michelle hadn’t outgrown her twelve-inch tricycle, I wanted to see if she could ride the sixteen-inch two-wheeler that her brother and sister had both outgrown. Starting in our front yard, near the bottom of the hill on our three-fourths of an acre lot, I held the bicycle for her and gave her a little push. I ran alongside to catch her if she fell.

Because of her experience with the scooter, Michelle had no trouble maintaining her balance. She learned to ride a two-wheel bicycle almost overnight, but due to her size, she couldn’t get on the bike by herself or started without help. That was something I didn’t know how to teach her, so although she could ride a two-wheeler, for a long time she didn’t, until she’d grown enough to get on the bicycle by herself.

During Michelle’s second year of kindergarten, I learned about a respite program funded by the state of Georgia. A government grant provided funds for the families of special-needs children to alleviate the stress of caring for a physically or mentally handicapped child.  The goal was to keep families in tact by allowing parents to hire a qualified babysitter and go out for the evening.

At this stage in her young life, I didn’t feel stressed, and we seldom went anywhere without the children. Because I thought that was the only service provided, I didn’t see how the program benefited us, but I attended an informative meeting in Valdosta where we lived and learned that a portion of that money was put aside for Michelle. In addition to childcare, they discussed the many other ways those available funds could be utilized. With Michelle’s love for music, I enrolled her in a keyboarding course. Although she enjoyed the lessons, she was too young to benefit from them. But that set my creative juices flowing as I  considered the many activities she could enjoy because of that funding.

The kids in their new karate uniforms
The kids in their new karate uniforms

I enrolled Toby and Jamie in a tae kwon do class, and Michelle desperately wanted to join them, so I spoke to the instructor. At age seven, our youngest functioned on a four-year-old level, but Mr. Stauffer assured me that he could teach her. Respite funds paid the additional ten dollar monthly class fee.

When Toby and Jamie tested for orange belt five weeks later, Michelle wasn’t ready to test. The karate instructor traditionally held an awards dinner where his students received recognition and their new belts. Wanting to encourage Michelle since she didn’t get promoted, he praised her effort and awarded her a karate medal on a blue and gold ribbon.

Age 7 - Practicing Karate in the front yard
Age 7 – Practicing Karate in the front yard

Mr. Stauffer worked exceptionally well with Michelle. He expected her best efforts without demanding more than she could give. The kids attended karate class every day after school. Michelle looked forward to going and the next time they tested, the instructor promoted her to orange belt. She advanced to yellow belt in June.

Mr. Stauffer maintained a well-disciplined karate school. The children lined up in rows according to rank and age. Because Michelle was so small and low in rank, she usually stood at the back of the class. One day the telephone rang, and the instructor excused himself to answer it. With the class standing at attention, our little daughter left her place in formation and trotted to the front. Facing the other students, she started calling out commands in Korean as Mr. Stauffer did. It surprised me that all the children responded to her commands. When Mr. Stauffer returned, he said, “Thank you, Michelle. I can take it from here. Why don’t you go get back in formation?” She did.

Rescue 911

Michelle age 6 (5)
Michelle age 6

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “Rescue 911.”

A sixteen-year kindergarten teaching veteran, Michelle’s teacher told me how my daughter frequently imitated the other children. If a child hurt his arm on the playground, Michelle cradled her arm all day like she’d injured it. If one of the youngsters got sick, my young daughter stood at the waste basket.

One day, I received a letter from a high school friend. In 1974, Carol and I had been part of the 20 DB’s (DB’s stood for decibels, taken from radio frequencies) Orange County Search and Rescue Explorer Post 374. Carol had gone on to become a member of the California OC Search and Rescue team. Her letter asked me if I had seen the special that television’s Rescue 911 had done on them.

Up until that day, I had never seen Rescue 911, so in an attempt to catch that particular episode, our family started watching it regularly. Michelle was six years old, and it never occurred to me that this show would fill her head with all sorts of wonderful ideas.

Christmas, 1990 (11)
Age 6

Though we never did see the one featuring the Orange County Search and Rescue team, I recalled an episode where a young child stayed home alone expecting to catch the school bus. When school suddenly cancelled, the child phoned 911, explaining that she was home alone and didn’t know how to reach her parents.

Michelle imitated that 911 phone call. Using the kitchen phone, she dialed 911 and told the operator that she was home alone, even with her eleven-year-old brother in his bedroom and Judy, our sitter, asleep on the sofa. She hung up and ran outside to play. A few minutes later, the police banged on the front door and woke Judy. They found Michelle playing down the street at a friend’s house.

That incident launched our daughter’s drive for placing emergency calls. She loved to phone 911 like they did on the television show, mimicking exactly what she’d seen.

One afternoon while I rested on the sofa, Michelle placed another bogus emergency call to 911. I heard her little voice coming from the kitchen. “My mommy is sleeping and I can’t wake her up.”

Bolting into the kitchen, I snatched the phone from her and told the 911 operator that I was fine.

Floyd and I talked to Michelle, attempting to reason with her, explaining that someone else might really need the police or fire department while they were at our house. We forbade her from calling 911 without our permission and put her on telephone restriction. We warned her that deception meant lying, and told her about the boy who cried wolf. I said, “Michelle, one day you will cry, ‘Emergency!’ and no one will believe you.” Seven years later, we faced that very situation and nearly lost her.

A Great Sick Act

This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “The Challenges of Preschool.”

Playing dress-up
Playing dress-up

Michelle continued to attend the Westside preschool program. Barely five years old and finally talking in complete sentences, my petite little daughter utilized the art of manipulation. Every morning I put her on the school bus with her brother and sister. A short while later, the elementary school called.  “Mrs. Strebe, Michelle threw up on the bus this morning.”

Just like the time she made herself sick in her crib, it took me by surprise. Thinking she was sick and that I missed the symptoms, I drove to the elementary school to pick her up. When we reached home, she didn’t appear the slightest bit ill; not even a mild fever. She looked healthy and fit all day. The next morning, I saw no sign of illness, so I put her on the school bus.

For the next three weeks, I received frequent phone calls from the elementary school, where Michelle changed buses. They claimed she was ill. I picked her up several times, and always ended up driving her across town to Westside. That became a problem.

Michelle age 5
Michelle age 5

One day, when the elementary school called, I lost my cool. “That child is not sick. I don’t send my daughter to school sick. Put her on the bus and send her to Westside!”

“Okay!” The lady slammed down the receiver.

An hour later, Michelle’s teacher at Westside called, upset at my rudeness to the elementary school secretary and my insensitivity to my ill child. “Mrs. Strebe, Michelle is sick,” Miss Davis stated tersely. “Since she arrived, she’s done nothing but lay listlessly on a mat on the floor. Now you get down to this school this minute!”

“Okay,” I said softly. “I’ll be right down.”

I drove thirty minutes to Westside, and Michelle lay on the mat hamming it up the entire time. The instant I strolled through the door, she leaped up and shouted, “Mommy’s here!” Then she started running around the room.

Miss Davis gasped. “Honestly, Mrs. Strebe, all morning she’s done nothing but lay on that mat. You have to believe me.”

“I do. She pulls this sick act on the bus. Nearly every day Pine Grove phones that she’s sick, and they insist that I come get her.”

“It won’t happen again,” said Miss Davis.

I have no clue how Miss Davis accomplished it, but I had no more trouble that school year getting Michelle to school via the bus, but her great acting career had only begun.

Michelle age 6The Fire Bell
An active child, Michelle loved to ride her tricycle and taught herself to ride her brother’s scooter.

Age 6
Age 6

She thrived on music and musical instruments.  As a toddler she enjoyed banging metal spoons against metal bowls. I bought her a variety of instruments through the years, but her all-time favorite was the drum. She beat on her Fisher Price® drum while singing at the top of her voice to a cassette tape. Yet, despite her noisy activity, her hypersensitive hearing still presented a problem, even in kindergarten.

With the fire bell located right outside her kindergarten classroom at Pine Grove Elementary School, the first fire drill terrified Michelle. Snatching up our hysterical little daughter, her teacher couldn’t get her away from the building fast enough. During future fire drills, a teacher took our little kindergartner outside, far from the building, before the bell sounded.

The Head Start Challenge

My little daughter only attended the Head Start program for three weeks. Her after-school behavior did not please me. My once sweet little girl came home from school like a monster, cranky and irritable. Her troublesome behavior began after she started attending Head Start, so I stopped by the school to talk with her teachers to get a feel for their agenda.

Michelle’s afternoon routine consisted of lunch, rest or nap time, snack, and go home. The teacher explained that students did their academics in the morning. Since my child received her academic instruction at Westside, I wondered if she benefited by going. In addition, she played during nap time, instead of napping, so she came home irritable.

Michelle's 5th Birthday (2)
Michelle’s 5th Birthday

I tried to work with them, but they resented Michelle for attending their school and taking that slot away from an underprivileged black child when she was neither underprivileged, nor black, regardless of the openings.  They racially discriminated against my daughter.

Michelle age 5
Michelle age 5

Since the youngsters at Head Start napped after lunch, I sent a pillow for Michelle. On Friday, she brought her blanket and pillowcase home in her backpack to be washed. I washed them and returned them to school in her backpack the following Monday, but they came home with her again that afternoon. Thinking it was an oversight, I left the linens in the backpack and Michelle took them back to school on Tuesday, but she carried them home a second time. Wednesday morning, they were still in her backpack when my little preschooler climbed onto the school bus.

That morning while my daughter was at Westside, I phoned her Head Start teacher and asked if her pillowcase and blanket were at school, knowing that they were still in her backpack. Her teacher said that Michelle hadn’t brought them back to school yet.

“You mean she’s forced to lie on that cold, plastic mat without even a blanket?” I demanded.

“Well, she wouldn’t have to lie on the cold, plastic mat if you had sent her blanket and pillowcase back to school,” retorted the teacher.

“I washed and returned them to the school in Michelle’s book bag on Monday. Did you even check her book bag?”

“That’s not my responsibility to check her book bag.  She should bring them to me.”

I felt my temperature rising. “You mean you expect a mentally retarded four-year-old to carry her blanket and pillowcase all the way from home? She spends her morning at Westside before she even gets on the second bus to go to Head Start, and you expect her to have them in her hand when she gets to Head Start?”

The teacher responded, “Well, I asked her if she brought them and she said no.”

I repeated, “Did you look in her book bag?”

“No,” she stated. “That’s not my responsibility.  Michelle needs to accept the responsibility of telling me.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be right down.”

Daisy Camp
Age 5, Michelle with Cookie Monster at a Daisy Campout
Daisy Campout
Age 5, Michelle at a Daisy Campout

I called Westside to inform them that I was withdrawing Michelle from the Head Start program and instructed them to send her directly home on the bus from now on. Floyd and I jumped into the car and drove down to Head Start. I marched into the classroom and told the teacher that I was pulling Michelle from the school and needed to pick up her things. Then I emptied her locker.

“You can’t pull her out just like that,” said her teacher.

“I most certainly can, and I am. As of this moment, she will no longer attend here.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Several staff members ran after me. “Maybe we can work it out. What’s the problem, Mrs. Strebe?”

Michelle’s two obnoxious teachers trailed me to the car, attempting to obtain an on-the-spot mini-conference in hopes of resolving my displeasure in their program. After all the grief they caused me for enrolling my daughter, followed by the ensuing tension, I honestly thought they would be glad to get rid of her, so I didn’t understand their sudden concern. Then I learned that the Head Start Program received special funding for mentally handicapped children. Since there wasn’t another child waiting to fill her suddenly empty slot, the federal government cut their funding.

They wanted Michelle in their program strictly for the money, which, for some reason, didn’t surprise me.  Regardless of their reason, their prejudicial attitudes filtered through their words and actions. They couldn’t seem to treat us with respect, and I saw no evidence that they even cared about my little four-year-old. So when I learned that they only wanted her because of the money, my anger actually melted into confusion.

Did they honestly believe that treating Michelle that way would demonstrate the value of their program, or did they think I was just too stupid to notice, much less care enough to take action?

The Challenges of Preschool

Another Day, Another Challenge is the biography of Michelle, a little girl born with Williams syndrome.  Williams syndrome is a genetic disorder which manifests itself through delayed development, mental retardation, similar facial features, heart and blood vessel abnormalities, among others.   This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “The Challenges of Preschool.”

August, 1989; Toby and Michelle (age 4) in the motel en route to Valdosta
August, 1989; Toby and Michelle (age 4) in the motel en route to Valdosta

With school about to start, I promptly enrolled Toby and Jamie in the local elementary school and scrambled to complete Michelle’s enrollment for Westside Preschool and the Head Start programs before the first day. The school required the children’s vaccinations be updated and proof that we were residents of the county to which we had just moved.

Everyone worked with us except the staff of Head Start. The lady in charge of enrollment chewed us out for waiting until the week before school started. She said we were supposed to put in the application last May. (Before we knew we were moving to Valdosta.) The staff attempted to discourage us from placing our daughter in their program. Head Start was originally designed for underprivileged black children. Michelle was a middle-class white child, and they didn’t want her there. Therefore, they made it as difficult on us as possible.

Michelle age 5 (3)Their attitudes made no sense to me. Head Start had a maximum enrollment of twenty children. Two of those openings were reserved specifically for mentally handicapped children, regardless of race or financial status. No other child could fill those places. Michelle was one of seventeen children and the only mentally handicapped child enrolled in the program. Since they still had three more openings, she did not steal that slot from another child. By the time we weeded through all the red tape, school had been in session for two weeks.

Every morning, Michelle climbed onto the school bus with Toby and Jamie. The bus transported her to Pine Grove Elementary School, where her brother and sister attended. At Pine Grove, she changed buses and rode clear across town to Westside for a morning of fun and learning. Around eleven thirty, she jumped back on the bus and came home. That was our routine until she
started the afternoon Head Start program.

Now that she was in Head Start, she came home on the bus in the afternoon with Toby and Jamie. They didn’t get home until four thirty, which I thought was late since the elementary school dismissed at three o’clock.

I asked the kids what they did after school. They told me they played on the playground. There weren’t enough buses to take the children all home at the same time, so my kids were “second loaders.” Now I wondered about Michelle. She left Head Start at two thirty and returned to Pine Grove Elementary School.

Jumping in the car shortly before three o’clock the next day, I drove to Pine Grove. Upon entering the building, I saw five preschoolers sitting on chairs outside the office door, but not Michelle.

“Where’s Michelle?” I asked the group of unsupervised children.

“She’s in the bathroom,” they replied.

Painting her face
Painting her face

Directly across the hall from the office, Michelle played in the bathroom sink, splashing water everywhere.  The office staff didn’t care enough to watch these small children, or at least notify the parents of the situation. I asked why the little ones weren’t allowed to go outside on the playground with the kindergartners. At least then they’d be under the watchful eye of the playground monitor.

“Oh, no,” the secretary responded. “They’re way too little and could get hurt.”

Yet no one watched them. Michelle could have gotten hurt playing in the bathroom, and who would have known? If I had picked her up and left the school, no one in the office would have seen me take her. From that day on, I picked up my preschooler every day at three o’clock. Toby and Jamie enjoyed playing after school, so I let them come home on the bus.

A Major Move

Another Day, Another Challenge is the biography of Michelle, a little girl born with Williams syndrome.  Williams syndrome is a genetic disorder which manifests itself through delayed development, mental retardation, similar facial features, heart and blood vessel abnormalities, among others.   This blog post is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “Falling Bricks.”

Michelle age 4 (5)
Michelle, age 4

Up until now, Michelle still wore diapers. Although I tried to potty train her on several occasions, each time I discovered that she still wasn’t ready. I finally succeeded by the time she reached four and a half years old, but only during the day. She frequently wet at night, but once I had her out of diapers, I kept her out.

To save my sanity, I fitted her mattress with a plastic mattress cover under the sheet. I limited her liquid intake before bedtime and sometimes that helped her sleep dry through the night.  I often got her up and took her to the bathroom when I went to bed, and that helped as well, but occasionally she was already wet by then.

Michelle, age 4; At Breyer Preschool in Cincinnati
Michelle, age 4; At Breyer Preschool in Cincinnati

Many mornings I bathed Michelle, wiped down the plastic mattress cover with a soapy washcloth, and changed her sheets. Although I grew weary of the routine, I never got frustrated. I knew that she would eventually outgrow it, because it was just another element in her delayed development. The older she got, the less frequently she wet the bed. I finally removed the plastic mattress cover when Michelle was ten years old. By then, she had slept dry consistently for almost a year.

In addition to my daughter’s bed-wetting, I struggled to keep her in bed. For some strange reason, she preferred sleeping on the floor. While reading the Williams Syndrome Association national newsletter one day, I saw a letter from another mom trying to discourage her child from sleeping on the floor every night. She asked if other parents had experienced the same challenge and how they overcame it. Until then, I didn’t realize that this was a problem associated with Williams syndrome.

It didn’t bother me that Michelle chose to sleep on the floor. Most nights, especially during the winter months, Floyd and I simply scooped her up and tucked her back into bed before we went to bed. On warm, summer nights, we allowed her to sleep on the floor rather than disturb her sleep to put her back in bed.

Michelle loved pillows. She’d go through each bedroom, collect every pillow, and have them all around her, sleeping with as many as she could gather. When Michelle ended up on the floor, so did all her pillows.

August, 1989
Preparing to leave Cincinnati; Michelle is in the blue shorts and striped shirt.
Michelle, age 4, behind the wheel of the Allied moving van
Michelle, age 4, behind the wheel of the Allied moving van

Two months before her fifth birthday and a week before school started, GE moved us to Valdosta, Georgia, Michelle’s birthplace. With her birthday in October, she missed the kindergarten cut-off date by a full month, not that I minded. She most certainly wasn’t ready for kindergarten, so we enrolled her in a special preschool located on the other side of town.  The preschool staff encouraged us to seek out the services of the Head Start program. Thinking that she might benefit, Floyd and I checked into it.