"Mama. Mama! Mama!!"
She called to me from across the room, as I stood by the door talking to her teacher. I looked over at her, sitting at the round table with a few classmates, wearing her new red print dress, blond hair in a plumeria bow. BEAMING. So many things were just like last school year: same pink and purple wheelchair, same adored teacher, same friends gathered around the table. But something was different. She was different. She was confident. It nearly took my breath away for a moment. I thought to myself, "No one would ever know." No one would have guessed where Bella came from, how many years she spent not living, but being kept alive. She could have been any American child at that moment; just another kid in a wheelchair with a mommy and a daddy and a school she loves. But I know the truth, and it stops me in my tracks sometimes.
Bella in the orphanage, August 2012
I know that this time last year, I had a daughter who had never been to school in all of her nine years. She'd joined our family through international adoption just eight months earlier. We spent most of those months getting her healthy, and making sure we were bonding as a family. Then last August we all decided that Bella was ready for school (Bella would tell you that she was ready for school the day I met her!). Still, in spite of her eagerness to attend, it was a big transition. She went from spending 24 hours a day with me to spending a couple of hours in the care of strangers. She was dependent on them to meet virtually every need during that time. It wasn't easy for her to trust that they would be there for her - that someone at this new place would help her with eating and pottying and positioning, and most importantly, that they would keep her safe. Bella has an immense fear of falling or being dropped. It was hard for her to trust them in the beginning. It was hard for ME to trust them in the beginning.
We started slow - first two hours in the morning, then three, then all the way through to lunch. By October, Bella was attending school full time. She loved school, absolutely loved it. But as much as she wanted it and looked forward to it, school was still difficult for her at times. Her teacher was great - he would send me texts and photos during the school day to let me know about both the triumphs and the struggles. Bella would suddenly burst into tears for no apparent reason almost every day in the beginning. He kept track of the times, the activities, the environment during these short-lived episodes but there seemed to be no consistent triggers. We concluded it was likely just overstimulation. She cried almost every time she went to the bathroom. She cried if her legs or back hurt. But she never wanted to leave school - she always wanted to stay. It was as if she knew that even though she was scared at times and even though she didn't always know how to handle her emotions, school was something to be prized - a gift in her eyes. Each week she became a little more confident, and I taught her to assert herself in order to make her needs and wants known. In spite of any trials during the school day, one thing was a constant - she got on the bus with a huge smile on her face and she got off of the bus with, yes that's right, a huge smile on her face :). Her excitement for school (and for the bus ride!) never waned.
Fast forward to this August, and the text I got from her teacher at the end of the first school day:
"Bella had a great day!! What a difference a year makes. Awesome! She was so sharp today, not just with new skills but processing speed as well. Going to be a great year!"
Bella waiting on the bus, August 2014
Bella, you are so beautiful inside and out. YOU are a gift to be prized. You are the weak leading the strong. You may still have a lot to learn, but you have even more to teach.