Guest post by Heather Avis, author of The Lucky Few and Scoot Over and Make Some Room, and mother to Macyn, Truly, and August.
Macyn has very good taste in music. When she was in pre-school, we had daily dance parties featuring a playlist of all her favorite musicians, including Foster the People, Michael Jackson, and The Head and the Heart. One of her favorite songs was by Arcade Fire, and when we’d get in the car, she’d say, “Coco, Coco, Coco,” until I put on their Suburbs album and skipped ahead to number four, “Rococo.”
Recently, when one of our friends was giving away a pile of CDs, I noticed Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album among them. It was an album I knew well because Tom Petty was one of my favorite artists during my late high school and early college days. Plus, my dad was a professional studio musician, and his name is listed in the credits because he played saxophone on a couple of songs. So when I saw the CD, I swiped it up and opened the cover to show my kids their grandpa’s name. But more than that, I was excited to introduce my kids, especially Macyn, to Tom Petty.
A few days later, I pulled out the CD and inserted it into the minivan’s CD player. When the strum of the guitar blasted through the speakers and Mr. Petty sang out, “You belong among the wildflowers,” I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a smile spread across Macyn’s face as she bobbed her head to this new tune. And I don’t know if it was the familiar guitar strum that brought me back to my younger years or the smile on Macyn’s face or the fact that I am a crier, but as I sang the words, I began to cry.
I had spent hours listening to Tom Petty’s music, and his Wildflowers album specifically, but it was years ago, before motherhood and before Down syndrome. And like so much in our lives, my chromosomally enhanced daughter in the backseat had been peeling back the layers of familiar things to reveal new truths and new beauty. My experiences as a mother, and especially as a mother of children with Down syndrome, infused the familiar lyrics with a new beauty and new truths. As the final verses blared through the mini-van’s speakers, I looked at my Macyn in the rearview mirror and shouted, “This is for you, Mace!” And I sang this truth over her:
You belong among the wildflowers,
You belong somewhere close to me,
Far away from your trouble and worries.
You belong somewhere you feel free
As I listened to this song and sang it for the first time as a mama, the word that stuck out the most was one I had spent the last several years experiencing in a new way—belong. With a family as unique as ours, I often find myself wondering where we belong. When I think about Truly being the only person in our family with brown skin and imagine her future as a woman of color raised by parents who are white, I wonder where she will find her sense of belonging—and how I should contribute to that process.
When I drop off Macyn at dance class, even though the studio has been wonderful and has embraced her, I wonder if she will ever feel a sense of belonging when she is noticeably the only person in the room who has Down syndrome, and it’s sometimes glaringly obvious she does not fully belong to the group.
While August is fully included with his typical peers in his preschool class, from time to time, there are still experiences of incompatibility that leave me wondering where he belongs. And then there’s our family as a whole. Put all the unique bits and pieces together—adoption, children of different ethnicities, children of different abilities—and there’s a whole other level of wondering where we belong. Do we belong among the wildflowers? From where I sit, it feels like we live in a garden sort of world that encourages us to plant ourselves, and our kids, in nice neat rows. Then we are to water daily, pull weeds as needed, and offer plenty of sunshine. And if all we’re talking about is flowers, this is a lovely and practical way to grow a garden—one that makes it possible for me to buy bundles of flowers from a local florist to enjoy in my home. I get it.
We grow flowers this way because when we want a tidy bouquet and neatly cut stems, this system works. But what about growing kids? Getting back to the metaphor, when the nice-and-neat system works for us, we usually don’t think twice about planting our kids in such a well-ordered garden and we are happy when they spring up neatly in rows. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Life is simply easier when we can effortlessly take root within existing systems. And while easier is not always good, neither is it always bad. We need a little easy in our lives to make it through the day. Every mama wants to see her children grow up to be healthy, to be strong, and to belong. And so we do all we can to plant them in places where we believe this will most likely take place.
My issue with the nice neat garden is that its tidy rows leave no room for the wildflowers—for my wildflowers. But here’s the thing. There are people who fit nicely in the well-ordered garden system who are genuinely kind and want to be accommodating, so they start pointing out spaces here and there where we can try to fit in and grow our little patch of wildflowers. Spaces in the corners of the garden, perhaps? So as not to disturb the tidy rows?
The thing with wildflowers is, well, they tend to be a bit wild. Whether planted in a wide-open field or next to the nice neat rows, they are going to grow how they are going to grow.
When this happens, the garden flowers that are sprouting up just fine in their nice neat rows begin to place unreasonable expectations on the wildflowers. The invitation for the wildflowers to join the garden, which was initially extended with openness and flexibility, now gives way to pruning and plucking the wildflower to make them grow more like the garden flowers, or maybe to kicking them out of the garden all together.
When we truly welcome all the wildflowers and allow them to grow wild among the nice neat rows of garden flowers, we create an environment in which all the flowers can truly thrive.
An inclusive classroom is one in which our children can learn how to relate to one another, how to listen to one another, how to help one another to truly become themselves. Inclusion is best for most students who have a different ability and is best for all the students who do not. But for inclusion to happen, for all our children to experience the kind of “equilibrium of the heart” Vanier describes, all the parents need to believe in and support inclusion. We cannot expect our kids to see the worth and value of learning alongside a student with Down syndrome if we don’t see it ourselves. And we cannot expect implementation of the changes needed for inclusion to be done well if only a handful of us mamas and papas are doing the work to make it happen. It’s going to require all of us to do the work to make sure our schools and our educators see the beauty that can exist when the wildflowers grow smack-dab in the middle of the nice neat rows.
It has been about a year since I introduced Macyn to Tom Petty. And now, when we get in the car, I don’t even have the key in the ignition before she yells at me, “Mom, Tom Petty!”As soon as Wildflowers comes blaring through the speakers, a smile spreads across her face, and, without fail, I get all choked up. As she sways from side to side, I think about how thankful I am for the wild ways in which she grows, and the wild ways so many people, including myself, have learned to grow because of her. When she belts out the lyrics, I smile and cry and celebrate the truth behind the words. And when I look in the rearview mirror at Macyn bobbing her head to the music and her eyes connect with mine, I cry tears of joy, knowing that while we wait for the systems in the world to see the value, worth, and dignity of my Macyn, I am just so thankful she belongs to me.