Schoolcamp (First Night)

Jill and I have gone through many days unprecedented among our friends or family, with the afternoon of Alex’s birth and his subsequent sweep into a plastic neonatal ICU box being people’s exhibit A. Sometimes, we learned the hard way, you simply cannot prepare for what nine hours of sunshine will bring. Like today, for instance.

But it’s over, and we head from Alex’s new residential school to a hotel nearby: clean rooms, unfamiliar pillows, a courteous front desk that patiently checks for us to see that yes, all area restaurants are in fact closed today.

We settle into the echoing lobby bar for a drink (“Sorry, just beer and wine … ”) and note that in this hotel in this rural ski community must make a good portion of its autumn income off parents who are having nights just like we’re having now. I remember when going to a hotel like this with Jill meant something special. Tonight it still does, just not what you think.

“So how’s he doing?” I later say into the phone, back in our room. Fits? Tears? Yawns? Snapping “iPad!” This call to his new school reminds me of phoning neonatal ICUs every evening 16 years ago. How’s he doing? Is the focus of my vulnerability still okay?

They say that Alex threw up.

We waited two years for this school (Jill sent me the text of his acceptance recently just as I arrived at jury duty; there’s justice and then there’s justice). Jill and I, determined to make this thing work, conclude that Alex just sounds like an upset cat in a new home. We wedge our unfamiliar pillows under our heads and go to sleep.

(Much more happened that evening, I suppose. We bought Alex stuff at the local Walmart, for instance. I didn’t take many notes, but I still do have Aunt Julie’s texts to my phone: any problems? is he saying car a lot? be positive! anything we can do to help, let us know. i’ll call ned tonight. just to make sure he’s not having a big party with drugs and alcohol and, if he is, to go over so she can also have some drugs and alcohol.)

The school asked us to show up next morning around nine. The classroom is on Alex’s first day agenda, right after he sees the doctor for his indoctrination physical. As we pull into the school grounds, I wonder: What will Alex think this morning, when we show up in this place? Probably that he’s headed home with us after we asked him for some reason to sleep for one night in this sort of ski lodge.

This campus sprawls, dozens of buildings that in our exhaustion – two years – start to look the same to me and Jill. “Where are you going?” she demands from the passenger seat. “Do you know where this building even is?”

I reply that certainly I know, dear. Eventually we find his house.

“Good morning, Alex!” I show him the body wash I bought for him at Walmart.

“Body wash, Alex,” says one of the house staff. “Let’s smell.”

“Daddy! Gonna see Tina. Elevator… ” Tina was one of his afternoon caretakers, up until two days ago, anyway. “Elevator” is his word for “home.” Still, it seems like there’s more hope than desperation in his voice today.

“No, Alex,” Jill says. “You’re going to see the doctor this morning, then on to school…”

Alex has three doctors to choose from on this campus (later Ned will say that Alex probably gets better medical care in this school that he did at home – and we bought him pretty care medical and dental care…). We drive to the nearby building, are quickly admitted and Alex perches on the exam table while his mom and dad play out the familiar scene of answering a lot of questions from new medical folks.

It takes a while. “I can’t believe how patient he’s being,” the doctor says. No problems – there haven’t been any with Alex for a long time, at least not the kind modern medicine can cure yet – and we head to the new classroom.

It looks a lot like the classroom back in the city that became his ex-classroom in a thunderclap. Computer carrels, daily schedules Velcroed to the wall, and I’m sure a lot of other details I lack time to notice as an assistant teacher steers Alex out for a walk. It feels like we’re rushing to leave, but I can’t think of any other way to leave. Jill and I begin maneuvering – for the second time in 24 hours – to part from Alex while he’s distracted.

I drive away thinking of the two possiblities: Alex will do something so disruptive here that they’ll have to dismiss him, or they simply won’t be able to teach him. I think the chance of either is remote. It was a little better for him today than yesterday, and probably not as good as it’ll be tomorrow.

Jeff Stimpson

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