Walk to School
If you had a morning class on Forest Mall at Arizona State University this year, you might have seen Sophie -- ASU’s littlest co-ed -- walking to class.
Well, not walking. Not exactly. For much of this past school year, her father or I carried Sophie the 50 feet or so from the parking lot to her classroom at the Child Development Lab, across from the Architecture School. The preschool is tucked into a tiny old building that surely doesn’t fit the fancy-pants president’s vision of the New American University, but I think it’s the best spot on campus. So do Sophie and her big sister Annabelle. My parents both went to the University of Arizona, ASU’s big rival in Tucson, so it was tough at first, hearing Annabelle, who’s four, tell people, “I go to the ASU.”
But now we all love it, and it will be sad when Annabelle leaves for kindergarten. Sophie, who is almost three, will still be at ASU for a while. Most of the kids from her toddler room will move up to another class this summer, but Sophie won’t.
One morning not long ago, I was rushing to make lunches and get all of us dressed, and Annabelle ran out of her room in just her Barbie underpants, stopped short, and announced, out of the blue, “Mommy, I’m glad you had two kids, because that means you had Sophie and she’s my sister.”
I agreed wholeheartedly. Annabelle continued, “I’m glad, even though Sophie’s still a baby, a toddler baby, even though all the kids in her toddler class walk really well and she still doesn’t walk really well, because she’s...”
I held my breath, silently filling in the words: “Because she’s got Down syndrome.”
Annabelle finished: “...because she’s still a baby.”
Annabelle knows Sophie is different, that she doesn’t walk or talk like the other kids. So do the girls’ classmates, but they don’t have a name for Sophie, other than Sophie. They love her, and she loves them, always stopping to wave and blow kisses, particularly when we’re on our way anywhere.
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At times, this year, that concrete path from the parking lot to the school seemed to stretch for miles. We haven’t carried Sophie for months. Her physical therapist put a stop to that with a walker that looks exactly like the one my 92-year-old grandfather uses, only much, much smaller. I’m not sure how my husband does it, I’ve never watched him. But when it’s my turn to drop the girls at school, I pull up, get Annabelle out of her car seat along with her lunch box, security blanket and various stuffed animals or dolls, and set her on the path, cautioning her to stand perfectly still and wait for me. Then I grab the walker, wrestle to unfold it and set it up, right behind Annabelle.
I unbuckle Sophie and carry her to the sidewalk, then balance her carefully in the walker and stand behind her, urging her to follow her sister. Students stream by on the main walk, on their way to class. For weeks, Sophie balked. She’d drop to her knees and try to crawl, or make her legs like spaghetti, or stop to wave to the crowds.
I’ve been late to work a lot of mornings, this past year.
One memorable morning, Sophie decided she was going to bring along her own stuffed animal, like her sister. She refused to let go of a small stuffed dog, so I stood, balancing lunch boxes, Sophie and the walker, wet hair falling in my eyes, the clock ticking, wondering how I’d carry that dog. I figured I’d shove it under my arm, and reached down for it, when I noticed Sophie had solved the problem herself. She was clutching the handles of her walker, ready to go, the dog gripped firmly between her teeth. She walked the whole way to school, that way.
Often, when Sophie’s being stubborn, Annabelle and I sing to her, in kind of a rap (as close as we nerdy girls get): “Go Sophie! Go Sophie! Go Sophie!”
That morning, Annabelle turned and looked at Sophie, and started to sing: “Go Sophie. Go Sophie. Go Sophie with the doggie in your mouth!”
We sang the whole way to the door, then we cheered, like we always do, when we got there.
The Child Development Lab isn’t a special needs school, it’s for typical kids. And that’s how they treat Sophie. Some days, even I can pretend she is typical. One such morning, I dropped the girls at school and walked out into the spring sunshine, relieved that the drop-off was over, but marveling at how well Sophie was doing.
I looked across the mall at the kids pouring out of the Architecture School between classes, and I happened to notice one particular young woman. She wore an ASU T-shirt, her blonde hair tucked into a ponytail. She was probably 18 or 19, but she had Sophie’s face. She looked much more like my daughter than I do. I probably wouldn’t have noticed Sophie’s look-alike at all, but she was pushing an enormous garbage can.
“Yeah,” Sophie’s babysitter said, when I mentioned it. “They pick up the trash, all over campus.” For a few days, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. A dear friend said, “So? Who cares? I bet that girl’s happier than most of those students.” I know, I know, and really, in the grand scheme of things, why is what I do for a living any more important than picking up trash?
I know all that in my head. My heart just hasn’t quite caught up.
Sophie might go to
college, or she might not. That much remains uncertain. But one thing I know
for sure: Very soon, she’ll walk to school -- all by herself.
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