I stared at the e-mail in my inbox. “I regret the situation we are now facing. Although the school year is set to begin, I must ask you not to bring your child back to the school.”
It was the day before my daughter was set to begin first grade at the elite private American school she was attending while our family lived overseas in Egypt. She had excitedly picked out a new Dora the Explorer outfit to wear on her first day, and we had packed her little book bag together. I had to explain to my then-6-year-old that the school she had attended the previous year would not allow her back on campus. Because she was different.
I first discovered my daughter had special needs when she started school in Cairo. I knew she didn’t speak much and was dreamy. It had never occurred to me that it could be anything other than a child trying to adjust to a new country, a new baby brother and a new way of life. Starting my first child at the American private school, touted as one of the top schools in the country, was a dream come true for me, a child of the often struggling New York City public school system. But the dream was quickly shattered. Within her first month, we were called in for a meeting.
“Your daughter is peculiar,” the guidance counselor said. She was sweet and well-behaved but she was struggling to learn and socialize, her teacher added. She didn’t fit in with the other kids, the principal chimed in. They suggested we look at alternatives. I pushed back. If I provided her with additional support and her tuition was paid, why couldn’t she stay? The school begrudgingly agreed, but her life became increasingly difficult. She was often isolated and overlooked, her needs unmet and considered burdensome. She withdrew into herself and stopped speaking.
The one speech therapist employed at the school took me aside one day and confided that her role was to serve more as a filter of children with special needs: identify them, determine which cases needed more than the basic services and quickly remove them from the school to open up space for kids that fit the mold. As a private school, they had no mandate to provide help to a child with special needs. It was easier to let them fall by the wayside.