I am sitting in Jessica’s IEP meeting thinking there is not enough strong drink available. There is none at all, in fact, though my position has always been that serving alcohol would make these sessions easier to get through.
I don’t mean to imply that there is anything difficult about the other people seated around the table: Jessica’s teachers, her father, the school principal. They are all good-hearted and kind, and they are all well-experienced in dealing with children like Jessica. I don’t have tales to tell of accommodations being refused or of anyone needing to be threatened with lawsuits to perform. Everyone does their job, and they’re creative about findings ways to meet Jessica’s needs, and they listen carefully to whatever we say. I sort of wish I had something to rant about, a wrong I could sink my teeth into, a cruelty I could champion against. It would be easier than this.
Jessica is also here, and if I am going to be honest, I will say that she is the most difficult one of us all. I don’t force Jessica to go to IEP meetings, but I think she should be there, because it’s her life we’re discussing. She doesn’t want to disappoint me, so she attends, but she makes it clear that she does not have to like it.
She is a little stressed and overwhelmed at these meetings because does not like to be put on the spot when people ask her questions about what she wants, and since we are all extremely sarcastic, we make uneasy jokes and she doesn’t like that either; she is quite possibly the most literal-minded person in the universe and finds us obnoxious, not amusing.
But the worst thing about IEP meetings is they make me deal with reality, and the reality is that the work-study they’re proposing for Jessica involves stacking trays in the cafeteria. Which is not to say that I did not stack my share of trays when I was her age; it’s what teenagers do. It’s that she’ll still be stacking trays in the cafeteria ten years from now, when her peers have gone to graduate school and bought homes of their own and started their families. When her peers have done the things I have done, that I thought any child of mine would also do, obviously.
I can’t stand that, and I want it to be different, but sometimes I do not see how it can be. The IEP meeting is one of those times. At home, on our lime-green sofa, as I read Harry Potter aloud and Jessica laughs at the things Ron does, I believe anything is possible, even a future for my daughter. A good future, a bright one.
But not in this pleasant conference room, in the nice comfy chair, with all the good-hearted people who are trying to do what’s best. There is no hiding from the truth in this room; they ought to equip it with chains and steel bolts and blinding spotlights. And then you would know what you were getting into.
Jessica is transitioning to high school, a fact I cannot fathom. When I was her age I could do trigonometry and speak French and understand Nietzsche. And she is still a little unsteady on what the answer is if you add one-half and one-half together. And she wants to make sure I will walk her to the classroom every morning, at least at first. And that I will be waiting on the bench every afternoon.
“Just like now,” she insists. “The way you do at middle school.”
“Of course,” I say. “That’s fine.”
“The bench is perfect,” says her case manager. “One of the paras can walk you to the bench.”
“So you will be waiting on the bench,” Jessica says to me again. Just to make sure.
“Yes,” I say. “On the bench.”
“On the bench, in the afternoon. Every day.”
“Yes, girlfriend,” I say, thinking of boys and cars and sixteen and the life she will never have. “I will wait for you on the bench, every afternoon.”
I look at the clock. Ten a.m. Too early for cocktails.
“And of course we can let her out a few minutes early,” says the case manager. “It can be overwhelming when the bell rings and all the students leave.”
“Yes,” the principal puts in. “We’ll do all we can to accommodate her challenges.”
Every muscle in Jessica’s body tightens. “It’s not like every single thing is a challenge,” she snaps, hostile and resentful. “It’s not like there’s only challenges.”
But that is what it’s like, I sort of want to say. Every thing, every damned thing, is so hard. Only she does not think so, she does not see it that way at all.
And I see, for one glimmering moment, in her resistance to the oppression we represent, in this awful room that ought to come equipped with chains, with these good-hearted people I wish I’d never had to meet, that I am wrong again, that I have got the wrong end of things somehow. That I know the facts, but I still don’t know the truth. That what Jessica is goes beyond what she can do, transcends the stacking of trays in the cafeteria, cuts right to the heart of everything. Jessica is, and that is enough. That is everything.