Nigel (in the car on the way to the video store): What does ‘mainstream’ mean?
I should have known it was coming at some point. But I didn’t. And I felt like a deer in the headlights.
It’s a simple enough word, perplexingly defined by Webster as “the predominant current or tendency of a movement, discipline, etc.” But it’s the secondary definition that we special-needs parents know all too well: “v.t. put (handicapped students) in regular classes.” Yes, that’s exactly what’s printed in my desk dictionary, complete with the parenthesis. And I cringed when I checked it later, wondering if Nigel had heard or read something similar, causing him to ask. Wanting to hear it from me. Wanting to see what it meant to me, perhaps. Wanting to know what it meant for him. It’s something that we special-needs parents mention at IEP meetings and in blog posts and annual Christmas letters (well I do, anyway): Our hopes of mainstreaming. Our relief and pride when it happens successfully. Our sadness and frustration when it does not. I am unfortunately too familiar with the highs and lows of mainstreaming. Sometimes I think we give that word too much power.
Back to the car. Back to me wondering what to say in the second after he posed his question. I figured I’d keep it general, didn’t want to get too heavy. After all, we were going to the video store. The possibility hit me that perhaps he had read the word in the context of movies. So I tentatively forged ahead and said, “Um…mostly it means ‘typical.’ Like with movies and books – what most people are watching and reading. It’s the usual stuff.”
“Okay,” he said, his way of indicating that he understands something. A few minutes later we arrived at the store, and the conversation didn’t continue.
But the box had been opened, and I couldn’t just close it back up. We needed to discuss what was inside. He’s a sophomore in high school (!), he has started attending his own IEP meetings, and he should know. He should hear it from me. So a few days later (processing time for both of us), I went to talk to him in his room one evening, when I knew he would be relaxed, and I broached the subject. I asked him if he remembered asking me what ‘mainstream’ meant, and where he had heard or read it mentioned before. He confirmed that his question was in regard to movies, and then I told him that there was another meaning of the word that I wanted him to be aware of because he might hear it at his IEP meetings or read about it somewhere. I told him that when students have autism or other differences that affect their learning, “mainsteaming” them means that they are taught in the same classroom with other students, but that they often have aides for assistance. I briefly told him of his own mainstreaming history. I told him that some students have difficulty being mainstreamed and are taught in smaller classrooms or homeschooled, and that they are just as important, just as intelligent. They just have different educational needs. I told him that mainstreaming isn’t best for everyone. That sometimes it wasn’t working for him either, and that was okay. We just had to find something that worked for him. And we did, whether it was full-time homeschooling or part-time mainstreaming. It was all okay.
And gradually, over the years, that powerful word lost its influential quality.
Mainstreaming is not about the right way or the wrong way, superior if you are or inferior if you aren’t. It’s not the Holy Grail of education, as I mistakenly believed in years past. I remember the Christmas letter I wrote ten years ago, how I unwittingly glorified mainstreaming by crowing about how Nigel, age five, was finally starting to talk, and I wrote, “We hope to have Nigel mainstreamed for Kindergarten next year.” In fact, he wasn’t mainstreamed until second grade, and that was difficult at best, even with a full-time one-on-one aide. He wasn’t mainstreamed for most of middle school either. And here’s the thing – he’s a better person for it. He has not had a typical education, but he has had a well-rounded one. He has learned just as much, if not more, and he is happy. And I am just as proud of that.