Friday — the designated day that my daughter Alona spends at a mainstream school each week. In contrast to Monday through Thursday when Alona attends a special school. In the past, Alona attended our community school full time, just like her brothers and most of our friends’ children. It was just a given that she would attend this Jewish school and follow in her brothers’ footsteps, not something we had really given much consideration.
As we first began to realize that Alona had special needs, we employed a full-time aide to help her in the classroom. This worked reasonably well for a few years, but by grade two it became glaringly apparent that a special school would be more suitable for Alona, an emotional decision for us as a family. It wasn’t easy to leave our community school behind, a place that we hold dear and in which my husband and I have been involved in school fundraising and parents committees.
As observant Jews, we had wanted Alona to be immersed in her culture, learn the Hebrew language, study Jewish texts, and learn about Jewish history. The move to a special school signified a loss of these dreams, but most saliently it cemented the fact that Alona’s special needs were long term and significant. However, we were still adamant that Alona attend her Jewish school on a Friday, with her fellow Jewish classmates.
Every Thursday night we lay out a different uniform next to her bed, in preparation for Fridays at Yavneh. Alona changes over to a different school bag, the same one that her brothers’ use. She fills it to the brim with her favorite toys to bring and show her classmates, a bit of a fixation at the moment. While Alona prepares for Fridays at her part-time school, her class also prepares. Alona’s designated desk is kept for her from week to week, pencils and paper considerately placed on it each Thursday afternoon in preparation for Alona’s arrival the next day. I have been told that on Thursday afternoons the teacher chooses a monitor to assist Alona the next day and take care of her in the playground. Rather than being a burden, children scramble to be chosen as Alona’s buddy.
Each Friday morning at 8:15 a.m., I anxiously drive up to the school gate and await the appearance of anyone from her class to guide her to her classroom, hoping they arrive before I outstay my two-minute parking spot. I need not worry as a grade 5 student always magically appears with a big grin and an outstretched hand, eagerly helping Alona into school. Sometimes I get a text message from a mom offering to meet us out the front of school, or reporting that her child announced excitedly in the car, “It’s Friday, Alona is coming today!”
And I know then that Friday is the most significant day of the week — for Alona, as well as for her classmates.
Alona is invited to all the birthday parties and included as part of the class. Parents have messaged me when the class lists for the following year are sent out, lovingly informing me that their child is thrilled to be in Alona’s class. On the very rare occasion that a child has made a disparaging comment towards Alona, it has been reported to me that all the children defend her. When occasionally Alona has a meltdown and lies on the ground refusing to go back into class, she is surrounded by her classmates cajoling her and encouraging her to comply — and it works. These children are used to the fact that Alona is not capable of doing the same schoolwork as them, that she is often unable to stay in the classroom for long stretches of time. They accommodate her needs and barely blink an eye.
These children are not perfect angels at all times, yet it is clear that Alona brings out the best in them. They have learned the immeasurable values of tolerance, patience and inclusivity. I know this not only from observing, but because parents have taken the time to tell me so and thank me for it.
Sometimes, when I allow myself, I think ahead to all that awaits these classmates as they become independent teenagers. The WhatsApp groups, the Sundays taking public transport to the beach, the Saturday nights out at parties. This cohort of classmates will move up to high school together and beyond. The gap between Alona’s independence skills and those of her classmates will continue to grow. I know that Alona will not always be able to partake in these forms of socializing and in quiet, private moments I mourn this fact.
And yet it comforts me to know that despite their differences, these classmates will always look out for Alona, their love for her wit and bubbly personality will continue as the years go on. Despite their diverging paths, Alona is one of the group, I feel that. Alona is included and cherished, part of her community, part of this grade 5 cohort.
And so, no matter what the future holds for Alona, we will always have Fridays and all that it represents.