Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home and the Holy Land

Christmas eve, 2007 -- We rush to the sea at sunset and bring a lantern, light a candle "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" At home, standing outside, I listen to the deceiving sound that sounds like rain, the rush of palm fronds in the wind.

Christmas eve, 2009 -- we shush up an icy path to Mass, sing carols and pray loud and happy prayers. The snowy trees out side are dense and quiet.

It's so amazing to see God in all of it.

Prelude to a Letter about a Year

With all my best intentions, Shana Tova! has turned into Happy New Year! speeding through Thanksgiving, Hannukah and Christmas with nary a letter written to our family and friends.
I thought I'd write two letters, one to our friends in Israel, one to our friends at home, but I have been having such a hard time separating our life in this way. Why, with a wonderful home and neighbors and life, do I feel . . . homesick? One answer revealed itself to me at our neighbors' home, at dinner. We two families live in twin houses (the neighborhood is full of these little cape cods) and we always talk about how we live in them, what we would change or not. In the end, John and I talked about not knowing where we'd end up, and they talked about never leaving. "Of course you wouldn't want to leave, " I commented. "You've spent most of your married life here, your two children were born here!" . . . and then it dawned on me. Of our ten years of marriage, half of it has been spent in Israel. Two of our children were born there. Kelbi our beloved dog is Israeli! I struggle to distill what it is I miss into one single thing: our friends? the people? the weather? the culture? salad for breakfast? a good afouk? Ok, it's all of that, but . . it's us . . . So far, geographically speaking, there is nowhere else we -- as a family - - can call home so much. But here we are . . .


If during the course of our move, 2008 became a blur, the clarity gained by 2009 was not pretty. I cannot remember much about the beginning of the year, except being angry. Really, really, poisonously angry. Gabby had been moved (due to much work on my part) in autumn 2008, from one special needs classroom at a distant school, to another in a school nearer us, but it was clear, this wouldn't work either. Gabby's behavior was abysmal. She acted out in every way possible. Unlike her previous years, she had no typically-developing friends, and if it wasn't for one awesome neighbor / classmate, I hate to think what disconnectedness she would have felt.

I had had it. Our principal had long ago said our neighborhood school, Wyngate, would not be appropriate. Now I understood clearly: Wyngate was for high-achieving students and did not want to ruin its test scores. Nor did it care to add to its hard-working staff, more . . . um . . . hard work.


My mountain? The principal at Gabby's school said, according to her observations, "Gabby was unavailable for learning". (Yes, those are her words.) No way could she be included in a regular classroom. She was disruptive, unattentive, completely non-compliant. They did not even know that she knew how to read because she refused to read for her teacher.

My guide? The principal at Gabby's school also said, "If it wasn't for the reports from her former (Israeli) teachers, I could not believe that she has ever been able to handle herself in a classroom." Those reports, painstakingly written, professional in detail, with love oozing out between the lines.

My support? An amazing group of parents here in Montgomery County who have fought for the same for their children. The bonus of this group is their children, many of whom are Gabby's age and are girls. She's got peer friends all over.

I did not hire a lawyer. The law to me was crystal. Evidence? Previous success in an inclusive environment. Proof? Reams of reports and recommendations for inclusion from Montessori Oman, The American School in Muscat, AEIP and, most importantly, AIS Israel.

I did not hire an advocate. Who could believe in Gabby more than I could? I made art out of quotes and reports from teachers at AIS. I printed pictures of Gabby engaging with friends, and performing in Go Fish! I printed out flyers about the law and about the research: "Students with Down Syndrome develop best in an inclusive environment." I called for another mediation at Montgomery County Public Schools. I spread my art pieces--those beautiful and true words of Maala's and Geelit's and Amy's, and pictures of my daughter--on the table. Those teachers from Israel who knew her were present. Gabby was present. When I wasn't speaking, they were.

In the end, the Wyngate pricipal made sure Gabby got the best aide out there, and all the bells and whistles MCPS could offer. Gabby started in April. In less than two weeks,(after nine months of awfulness) Gabby was back on track. She is the poster child for inclusion. She became happier at home. She made friends quickly. The kids in the neighborhood started treating her with new respect. Her speech improved dramatically. She can walk to school. The really cool thing was that her aide had worked at the previous school with another child, but she knew Gabby, so she got to witness the magic transformation. If any of you from AIS are crying that all your work had been lost, it is absolutely the opposite: she carried you with her the whole time, picked right up from the tail-end of kindergarten. And all the while this spring, you were busy going on about your business, completely unaware that I was clinging to your work with her, and those words you had written, like a lifeline, and they pulled me through it all. We carry you with us . . .

*deep breath* It's over.

And just like that it was May . . . Blessed with an unbelievably cheap airfare, Gabby and Kit and I took a trip to California to see the Perlmans and welcome new baby Grady. Grandma and Pop came down to help John with Jack (Jack requires a zookeeper, really). We had the best time ever. The girls are such great travelers. (Watching Gabby take herself through a security checkout -- get the bin, shoes off, coat off, backpack in, walk through the doorway, coat on, shoes on, get my backpack -- is a stunning tribute to learned routine. ) World-traveller Kit asked, "So how many planes are we taking?" and at LAX said, "That's it? That was quick!"

In June we roved up to Deep Creek Lake, a two-hour car ride that took us four. On the Fourth of July we celebrated a real hero's return: our next-door neighbor came back from a year in Bahrain. His twin five-year-olds were ecstatic (but not as much as you can imagine their mom was)! I didn't know just how happy I'd be about the whole thing until I discovered that he is a gourmet cook -- and he likes to share! So while I found myself scrambling to make chicken nuggets for dinner, he would pop over with snacks like melon wrapped in prosciutto. Gee, why hadn't I thought of that? John, of course, is VERY appreciative! And so we were blessed with yet another good friend and neighbor.

Throughout the year I have been trying to gain teaching experience in the hope of getting a job, or at least being worth my salt when one comes along. I took a Dalcroze / Musikinesis workshop, and an Arts Integration workshop at The Lucy School (amazing!), and finished a Yoga for Kids certification in November. With Jack so small, I can't really take on anything full-time, but the Y and Montgomery County Recreation are very interested in the Yoga project, and my friend Geneva is in it with me. The Y preschool is also talking with me about a part-time preschool position. Tune into 2010 to see how that all pans out!

John's big news is his assignment in Iraq which begins next autumn. Right now the Middle East is keeping him busy. Actually, nothing is keeping him as busy as his children are (he's on - -notice the quotes -- "vacation"). And I believe that our children are also as perplexing and cranky and volatile as those parts of the world can be, particularly since they've been out of school unexpectedly due to the snowstorm. John is also busy fixing up just about anything in this house he can get his hands on that needs fixing or updated, which is pretty much everything. We recently added a little sunroom to the back of the house. Of course I love it. I did not agree to it, but it is nice. Oh, and it's leaking . . . This is that house.

Kit is just this beautiful ethereal thing that floats around, helpful, perfect . . . and then she's this loud, obnoxious thing we can't turn the volume down on. She's been living life as a buffet, tasting everything, and is presently taking Irish dance lessons and looking forward to cheerleading in January. She is a voracious little reader, and we can no longer spell in front of her by way of talking in parent-code.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Jack's adorableness is his only defense. He is so very two, and now I worry only about the onset of three (in February). His voice slays me: it is so high, and he is so articulate, with a rich vocabulary. It is fascinating to hear what goes on in a two-year-old's head.

And Kelbi? Still the best dog ever. So much for her Israeli roots, there is nothing she loves more than snow!

And that brings us to Christmas! My mom was here for a week, driving down early so we could spend three days together before the kids got out of school, but the snow closed school, and chaos reigned. The best part of Christmas was Mass with the children-- no, really. I have never been to a better formal celebration of Christ's birth. The girls sang in the Cherub Choir before Mass (Kit is very serious about this!) Venite Adoremus Dominum! Then, the priest invited all the children to sit with him for his sermon. About 60-plus children scrambled up to sit with him at the foot of the altar. He was so patient with them, and listened to them. His actions alone were a beautiful message. Then he "took them all to Bethlehem" to bless the creche.
Many children went back to their parents, about ten remained (including Kit and Gabby). Then Fr. Worch went into the congregation and took an 8-week-old baby, whose father had been killed in Afghanistan earlier in the year. He held this baby as he consecrated the Host, with now many kids crowding around the altar (and few dry ieyes in the congregation, as you can imagine). The baby was a calm cucumber, the kids were well behaved. If God would let me have him for a weekend, I'd hire this guy to watch our three.

We're looking forward to 2010, though for what reasons we're not sure yet. It just seems like the surprises are very interesting around here! We love you and think of you often. Whether you are sitting in snow or sand or traffic on the beltway, have a very blessed New Year!

Chris John Gabby Kit Jack and Kelbi

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Up to Our Dog in Snow!

Can you pick the happiest Fleming? Can you pick the Fleming that refused to go out in it (leaving me stranded inside missing all the fun until about 4 o'clock)?!!!! In any case . . .if you were dreaming of it, here it is . . .SNOW!