As I described in an earlier blog post, “Home Schooling,” Ed and I decided to teach Alex ourselves when we were dissatisfied with special education preschool and felt that one-on-one instruction would be better for him. In the fourteen years since we made that decision, we’ve never had any regrets. In fact, whenever I hear from other local autism moms about their frustrations with the school district as well as their upset about how peers, who should know better, and adults, who definitely should know better, treat their children badly, I breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve been spared that pain. Autism is hard enough without other people making it more difficult. Because we started home schooling Alex from preschool age, he missed out on all the typical aspects of traditional education—the good and the bad: recess, lockers, Valentine’s Day parties, and field trips, to name but a few. Of course, Alex doesn’t really even know what’s he’s missed, so he has no sense of loss for these rites of passage. I’ve never mourned for his loss of a typical school career, either, until last Wednesday, the evening of our high school baccalaureate ceremony.
Had autism not profoundly impacted our lives, we likely would not have felt the need to home school Alex, and he would have graduated from high school last week. While most people focus on graduation ceremonies as the ultimate celebration of high school accomplishments, for me, the baccalaureate ceremony holds more esteem and value with its dignified mood and religious message. I remember my own high school baccalaureate ceremony with fondness, feeling awe as my classmates and I walked down the long aisle of the beautiful Valparaiso University Chapel of the Resurrection, wearing our caps and gowns representing our Valparaiso High School colors with girls in white and boys in green. Although I don’t remember the baccalaureate message, I do remember feeling deeply moved. In my dreams, I picture Alex, tall, handsome, and broad shouldered, walking down that same long aisle in his Valpo green cap and gown. Because it’s my dream, I imagine Alex not being bothered by the echoing of the organ music in that cavernous chapel, nor is he “happy hopping” down the aisle, though he feels like skipping with joy. Without the damage of autism, in my mind he holds his hands down at his sides, instead of awkwardly bending them toward his chest, except when he extends his right hand to shake hands with or give “high fives” to smiling classmates who are genuinely happy to see him. When those dreams fade to reality, I am glad Alex doesn’t realize what he’s missing of the typical teenage life, and I’m left with the bittersweet realization that while life is not what I’d planned, it holds unexpected joys that arise from overcoming unforeseen obstacles.
While most graduation and baccalaureate addresses are basically interchangeable speeches filled with inspirational quotes and platitudes about the future, my address to graduating high school seniors would share truth learned from experience. Specifically, in the words of movie character Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.” Moreover, how you react when you get that chocolate you don’t expect and don’t even like (for me, the coconut-filled one) will reveal how strong you truly are. Do you swallow it in a gulp, just trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible? Do you spit it out, not caring who sees your disgust? Do you casually remove it from your mouth, hiding it from the world and not letting anyone see that you’re not pleased? Or, do you keep on chewing, hoping to find something palatable in what you’ve been given? Other graduation and baccalaureate speeches will encourage you to change the world and make it a better place, but realistically only a rare select few will become world leaders or doctors who find cures for incurable diseases. The truth is, most of life is pretty mundane, and the future is overrated in terms of excitement factor. Many hours will be spent working at tedious aspects of a job, fixing meals, and changing dirty diapers, if indeed you are fortunate enough to have a job, plenty of food to eat, and a child to care for. God never promised an easy life, but His constant presence gives us comfort and reassures us that no matter what we face, we never face it alone. Moreover, we need constantly to be looking for blessings in unexpected places, whether they be choice parking spots, the support of good people placed in our lives, or the welcome relief that comes after struggling with problems. These seemingly simple things change our world, or at least our outlook on the world, and the hope of attaining blessings makes our future bright. As I work my way through a Whitman Sampler that somehow lost its diagram indicating which chocolate is which, I keep looking for my favorite, the vanilla cream, but savoring the other sweets until I find it. I suspect that elusive vanilla cream is a cure for autism, so I pray that those gifted ones who are ready to change the world and make the future brighter will get working on that right away. This autism mom and many more like me would be eternally grateful for your efforts.
“This is a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord. This is a law for all time.” Exodus 12:14