School's In

A preemie starts preschool.

By Jeff Stimpson

Learning is an interactive process which allows children to experience the world at a developmentally appropriate level. -- brochure from a special preschool.

"I love mommy. Mommy loves me. Daddy loves mommy. I love daddy. My sister bit me." -- Student artwork in a special preschool.

We're starting to look at preschools for Alex. We've seen three, and they're the same: warrens with eruptions of finger-paint in the halls, while below along the cubbyholes children's names are written in sparkles on colored construction paper. The backs of all the chairs come up just to my knees.

When he turns three in June, Alex will "age out" of his Early Intervention home-based therapy. We'll no longer have therapists coming to our home with their bulging knapsacks of toys -- which Alex dives into unasked -- and instead Alex will have to be trundled off every morning to school. School is a place I always associate with having to get up early so you can wiggle into the jacket you never needed during summer vacation. Even as you walked down the driveway on a breathtakingly cold September morning you knew you'd penetrated your textbooks only thinly so far this school year, and that mornings to come would be colder. Mercifully, I didn't go to school until I was five

I wanted to be home with Alex for a while before he's sucked into the educational system, but I guess it isn't to be. The idea of school for Alex once seemed remote as Mars, but all of a sudden we're on the tours and filling out the applications and wondering how in God's name a bus driver will ever get him to sit still.

"I just hope he doesn't have to ride the short school bus," Jill says. She's afraid for Alex because of all he went through in his early months. He's half a year or more delayed in such subjects as eating, running and holding his balance. Maybe it's just because he was in hospitals all those months. Maybe too it's because of something a co-worker of mine, who also had a delayed kid, called "the hardware."

I tour these schools, I meander through the scent of Play-Dough, and I just hope school doesn't become another industry I learn about. I learned about IUGR, for instance. I learned that hospitals care can be as much politics as practice. What I learned about premature birth is tattooed on me and will not come off. "Education" being such a behemoth in anyone's life, how can I expect it won't turn into another endless, bumpy ride, another subject that I'll comprehend only after it's battered me beyond recognition?

>We've been looking at schools that take "special" students. One school got a great write-up in a magazine when, according to Jill, they "turned around" an adopted Russian boy with problems. Another school is all "special," though as I peep into classrooms I see no wheelchairs or medical gear -- not even oxygen tanks, which have been in my life so long it's hard for me to believe every kid doesn't have one at home.

We unleash Alex in one classroom. As he flits from tiny table to tiny table, there comes a pleasant-looking boy we're told is named Henry. Henry inches down in front of me and starts playing with a wooden train set. Alex marches over. Henry is bigger than Alex, but there is something about Henry that exudes mildness. Alex is not that mild. He takes pieces of track away from Henry -- not violently or in a bullying way, but I think he just doesn't notice Henry. Henry moves on. I feel a little bad for Henry.

Alex finds a rocking horse -- right now he finds a rocking horse with the same instinct I use to find a pinball machine -- and he watches the kids on trikes and on the big balls and on the plastic indoor gym. He's rocking and rocking. I watch as a little girl comes out of nowhere and starts rocking next to him. She starts moving closer and closer, and I get the impression she's a prospective student on a tour, too. She moves closer, and then Alex sees her and reaches out for her hair. (Once at a church fair Alex was climbing a chair while a one-year-old girl watched him; when he climbed down he needed something to hang onto, so he used her face.)

"No, Alex, touch nice," I tell him, just like when he reaches for his baby brother. The little girl moves off. Another little girl comes out of nowhere and grabs the front of the horse. She says "hi" to Alex. I think he will be mad. But he smiles and starts to laugh. He has been noticed. The little girl tells him good bye and runs off. I have no idea if any of these children is special or if Alex is special, or if there's anything special about going to school before you're five years old. I see him watch the little girl leave and watch the other kids bouncing in. I see that the next part of his education, and ours, is suddenly all around me like the smell of Play-Dough.

Who said life had to be fair? I realize my life did not come with a guarantee stating I would be guaranteed happiness and success. But even knowing this, I still have days w hen I resent other people's "normal" lives. I rant and rave about the injustice of having two atypical kids and the way my life has turned out.

I long for that "normal" life, and I wish my biggest problem of the day was which dance studio to choose for the girls' dancing lessons or what dress to wear to the church social. On these days I wish my kids belonged to anyone but me. I did nothing to deserve this!

But then, after I've ranted and raved it all out of my system, I stop and think back to when my life was normal. I still had bad days then, but the things I worried about! Was my car clean, and were all the weeds pulled out of the cracks in the sidewalk and why hadn't so-and-so returned my call?ur preemies start very small and stay tiny for quite a long time. But will they really "catch up" in size like everyone seeks to reassure us?

It isn’t possible to answer this question for each individual child, because there is so much variability among children and among factors effecting preemies growth and development. But there are some general rules which will provide some clues for your unique child.

Jeff Stimpson is the father of a preemie and writer of two touching and humorous books about his son.