Mother and Child Leave a Lasting Impression

by Julie A. Riess and published in the Poughkeepsie Journal, Gannett News Publications, May 1, 2011

Sometimes we meet people in our lives and know that they will be part of who we are from that moment on. We hold our newborn baby for the first time. We lock eyes with a future lover. We hear someone speak out loud words that only our inner soul has heard.

Most of the time, it takes many moments, days, months, even years to discover that someone has become an endless thread in our life’s tapestry. We find ourselves surprised when we discover an unusual connection that we didn’t know existed just moments before. We realize how visionary 20-20 hindsight can be.

Meet Priscilla Gilman. Priscilla walked into my life when she walked through the doors of the school that I direct on Vassar’s campus. It was the summer of 2002, and she and her husband arrived to teach at Vassar, with their son, Benj. I was preparing to start the 9th year of my directorship of the lab school, and was feeling comfortable in my own shoes.  I had worked hard to build the lab school into an inclusion setting for all children, and while I knew there was much more work to do, I also knew we had built a strong foundation on which to grow.

Priscilla and Richard had a three-year-old son with some special needs. They were so relaxed in our first meeting, so at ease about Benj coming to our school, that when they handed me his reports and evaluations, I made only a faint checkmark in my mental notebook.

As a developmental psychologist, I tend to be child-centric in my view of the world. Although I’ve been writing a parenting column for eleven years, have worked with hundreds of families and their young children, and have three children of my own, my thinking slips more easily into a child’s mind than a parent’s mind. Though I’m a scholar of developmental research and literature on young children, it is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. There is something instinctive, creative, inherently fascinating and ultimately mysterious about the unfolding of human development.

Thus, my focus was on Benj more than on his parents. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t interested in building my relationship with Benj’s parents, or that I didn’t see their relationship as key to helping Benj adjust and grow at our school. Rather, I believed I had to come to understand Benj, first hand, in a context I knew incredibly well: our school.

What unfolded over the next three years was like the deliciousness of a sweet and sour sauce. Benj taught me humility in what we could not make easier for him, and exhilaration in what we could. I will never forget the look on my teachers’ faces the day they coaxed Benj to take his first lick of a cold popsicle on a hot summer day.  One of them came running into my office with such urgency that I thought a child had been injured outside. There were tears in her eyes, but when I looked closer, they were clearly tears of joy. Days, weeks and months of slow, gentle, persistent scaffolding had paid off. Benj was eating his first popsicle.

Like her son, Priscilla taught me lessons I didn’t even know I needed to learn.  We schemed up a workshop together to help other parents, teachers and adminstrators talk about the challenges and essential nature of team work when building an inclusion school. Priscilla would do the first part, from a parent’s perspective of trying to find a school for a preschooler that was both gifted and with special needs. I would do the second part, about ongoing lessons being learned as the director. Then we would banter back and forth, clearly enjoying the co-creation of the conversation with each other, and with the audience.

Benj graduated from kindergarten in 2005 and the family moved back to NYC where he has been thriving in a wonderful school. Benj was often on my mind as we remodeled my school in the last two years, seeking to optimize varied learning and inclusion environments. Yet I thought the longest threads of Benj and Priscilla’s lives woven with mine was mostly done. I was wrong.

Last weekend, I snuggled up with Priscilla’s new book, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy. I could not put it down. I smiled and laughed, cried and gasped. I closed my eyes just to absorb a passage, or to calm the goosebumps on my arms.

I can’t say what it would be like to read this book without knowing this incredible family. But I have a hunch that my hindsight might be another person’s future vision of hope and courage.