Stressed to Blessed: How I Learned to NOT Dread the First Day of School for My Blind Sons

Michael and Kristin at the iconic Penn State lion statue
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Here we go again.  New school year.  New school.  New teachers.  New people to meet.

For most parents, this is a time of excitement and optimism for a great year ahead… and likely a lot of relief that the “I’m so booooorrrred” days are over and schedules are back in place.

But for many parents, this is the worst time of the year.

I live in both of those worlds.  I have always loved school.  So much so that I became a teacher.  And I looooove so much about back to school season: gathering the supplies, finding the clothes, and the Fall sports – oh my I love the sports.

However, this is also a season that I dreaded for a long time, until now.  When two out of three of your children are blind and attend public schools, challenges abound in nearly every nook and cranny of school life. 

I have been saying and typing over and over again: Our perceptions drive our expectations which cause our outcomes.  When my boys were in early elementary school I dreaded the first day of school.  I saw it as a big neon sign that broadcasted their blindness. I perceived the first day as a punch to the gut marathon.  They didn’t know who was at the bus stop. Ouch.  They couldn’t see me waving from the bus stop when the bus pulled away.  Ouch.  Teachers forgot to have brailled copies of handouts ready. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. The first day was always hard, just as I expected it to be.

However, in those early years our Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams eventually adopted an extraordinary expectations mindset, and we added things like a meeting at the end of the year with next year’s teachers and a check in before school started to handle last minute issues.  We added a late September transition update meeting to see how things were going and make adjustments. We added things to the IEP that would prepare the boys and the staff for the new year.  And you know what?  We had fewer and fewer issues to handle and my stress on the first day of school declined every year. 

Our IEP teams see blindness as a mere inconvenience at times for my boys, and their expectations of how the school year will go reflect that.  They expect that my boys will accomplish all of the advanced learning goals, they just do it in different ways than the other kids sometimes.

I have always had this mindset as well – but even the best mindset and most wonderful perception of blindness and expectations of an extraordinary journey cannot necessarily squash a Mom’s worries when she drops off her baby – well, 18 year old – at a college campus far from home.

Even the best mindset and most wonderful perception of #blindness and expectations of an extraordinary journey cannot necessarily squash a Mom’s worries when she drops off her baby – well, 18 year old – at a college campus far from… Click To Tweet

My son, Michael, exceeded all expectations in his first twelve years of school.  He was more active in high school than most kids I knew.  He navigated a quirky, huge high school building like he had working eyes in the front and back of his head. So why, then, was I in a funk when I took him to college last year?  That was actually his question to me on campus when we were memorizing routes to classes etc.  I was in a panic that he’d fall off a cliff (um, no cliffs were anywhere to be found) and he was furious.  His words to me – in a stern voice he rarely uses – were:

“Mom.  I know what I am doing.  I have been walking around blind for eighteen years.  I’ve practiced walking this campus.  I know how to ask for help.  I.  AM.  FINE.”

And then the next words that had me in tears:

“Why don’t you have faith in me?”

Epic Mom Fail.

He was exactly right.  I was being ridiculous.  We followed exactly the same plan as we did since elementary school.  He reached out to the teachers to discuss his needs.  We met with the Disabilities office to discuss accommodations.  We went to campus several days early to memorize it.  He had his tools and I needed to have faith in him. 

Fast forward to this year’s back to school season.  This year Michael decided he needed more than the small campus he had been at could offer him.  So he transferred to one of the biggest campuses in the country – I swear this kid just wants to press my Mom Worry Alarm button over and over again – cue my eye roll.

This year I am nervous all over again, but my worry has nothing to do with blindness.  Now I am worried that he won’t find the incredible friendships and extraordinary attention from professors that he did at the small school.  I’m worried he will have so much to do he won’t focus on what he needs to do.  I have all the worries that “regular” Moms have when they leave their kids at college.

Michael walking the campus with his cane
Michael walking Penn State’s campus with his cane.

I admit I was a little worried about conquering a huge campus before classes started.  But this time around, our state agency lined up two different people to walk the campus with Michael.  While he was out with them going over routes, I was able to do the regular college Mom stuff: sit in the Financial Aid office and beg for more money, go to Target 957 times for more 3M strips and dorm snacks, and get my own work done.  In the times Michael wasn’t with the mobility instructors , we walked the campus and checked out the dining options and routes to the football stadium!

And just when I was feeling like maybe I am a little too confident that he will indeed be “fine”, my car died.  On move in day.  Ugh.

Campus police putting jumper cables on my engine
Campus police to the rescue!

There I was stuck in a parking lot where I was only allowed to be for a short time to unload before being ticketed.  Michael went right into action.  He called campus police and had them come and jump start my car.  While I waited at the car, he took the giant rolling bin of stuff through the haphazard dorm area paths all the way to his room.  And he got busy getting his stuff in order in the room while I moved my car a zillion miles away and walked back.

I will admit I started to panic when we were sitting at my dead car because we didn’t have much time to waste.  The old me would never had had enough guts to have faith in Michael to move the stuff in on his own.  But I had two choices: sit on the bumper with him and get more and more angry and upset that my blind kid cannot finish the move in on his own, OR, send him off to do it and prove to me that he had all the skills he needs and he will be just fine.

I am so glad I chose to have faith in him.  It’s hard though, I get it.  We get so excited to see our kiddos start something new and we cannot wait to see them soar because we know they will.  It’s the in between time that’s hard.  In between starting and soaring is where hope and faith live.  When you have given them all the tools they need, take a step back, let hope guide your mindset to stay out of their way, and let your faith in them give them the time and space to soar. 

In between starting and soaring is where #hope and #faith live.  When you have given them all the tools they need, take a step back, let hope guide your mindset to stay out of their way, and let your faith in them give them the… Click To Tweet
Kristin and Michael at the iconic Penn State lion statue
Michael and me at the iconic lion statue at Penn State!

PS: Michael spent about six hours a day for three days with mobility instructors getting to know the Penn State campus this week.  At the end of the third day he took me to visit the iconic statue of the lion that I wanted to get a picture at.  It was on the other side of campus that I have never seen.  He was my tour guide.  He knew every route to get there and to a dining hall I hadn’t yet seen.  And then he bought me dinner in the dining hall.  He is going to be more than fine 😊

Kristin Smedley is a 2019 Champion of Hope Award winner. She is an author, non profit leader and TEDx speaker.  She originally planned to be a third grade teacher… and then two of her three children were diagnosed as blind.  Kristin now shares her journey of raising her kids to not just survive challenges, but to thrive!  She speaks around the globe regarding blindness and resilience,  and she just launched her new series teaching people to SEE: Set Extraordinary Expectations!  Watch her TEDx talk here and order her new book here.  If you  are interested to have Kristin speak at your upcoming event,  email her at smedtalk@gmail.com or contact her here!