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"Ice Cream": Third Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011

"Ice Cream," by Kathy Paulsen, is the third place winner in the Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011.

By Kathy Paulsen

Squeaks of shoes and folding chairs compete with the murmured voices of attendees getting settled as the seats around me rapidly fill. We have arrived early, not daring to miss a good view. I turn to my husband and squeeze his hand. Like the other parents here, I am proud of the efforts of my child, those efforts that brought her to this point. She will not win an award today. She will not be recognized in any special way during this ceremony, no notations next to her name in the program, no distinctive colored cords around her neck. But she has earned a high school diploma. This is huge.

It occurs to me that many families here, not just mine, have underlying stories. I remember hearing about the students with drug problems, the attempted suicide that shook the whole community, students who lost their homes during these high school years and struggled for enough stability to finish. There are often stories behind the surface.

And as many here must be thinking, I wonder at the passing of time. Of course there were days and weeks that tested the endurance of everyone in the family. But looking back, the years have passed by quickly, with many memories accumulated in this building.

She did not attend her senior prom. But she did go to the Homecoming Dance this year. She had never been to a school dance before. None of them had. Her close friend, one of three, suggested they all go in a group. With reluctance, they agreed. In so many ways, their process echoed that of revelers in houses all over the town: selecting just the right outfit, applying makeup and doing hair, gathering early for photographs. These four also had a group pep-talk. For two, they faced the question of dancing in wheelchairs. For the other two, including my daughter, they faced other challenges from the party environment. All four had underlying fears of being bullied or shunned. They spoke candidly about most issues, and they agreed that as a group, together, they could face it.

Unfortunately, the night of the dance, rain was pouring down. After the pre-party and photograph session, we caravanned to the wheelchair-accessible entrance of the high school. Holding umbrellas over our lovely teens, we protected them the best we could. They still got wet. Hearing our banging, a staff member opened the door and declared that we needed to go to the student parking lot entrance, where the security check point was. I stared incredulously, as the door swung shut. We piled back into the cars and drove around. We piled out again. The kids got wet again. We passed the check point. We took the circuitous route around to the accessible ramp, toward the ticket table.

Purchasing the tickets, we were the only parents in line. In defensive answer to the silent question on the seller's face, I explained that we would stay long enough to get our students downstairs, where the dance was, then would exit until their calls for pick-up. The woman presumably in charge replied nonchalantly, "I don't even know if the elevator is working tonight." The elevator was working, and our kids attended the dance, determined to be part of the student body. Afterward they gathered for dessert. Dancers and parents alike celebrated, with bittersweet taste, their bravery at reaching yet another milestone.

That was a minor milestone compared to today. The chairs and stands of the gymnasium are nearly full now, and the line of students is visible at the door. At any moment, the band will begin to play the processional. All in white graduation gowns, the students wait uncharacteristically quietly. Some students must be thinking of how this is their last time in this high school gym as seniors, of the all-night party that lies ahead, of the upcoming summer, of work and college, and of the decisions of adulthood. Parents may be thinking of the passage of the high school years, the assemblies and concerts, conferences and celebrations, and of the end of another stage. I remember when my daughter was a freshman. The year was full of growth and adjustments. One particular day flashes into my mind: I had pulled ahead of the other cars in the pickup line. I parked in the fire lane and got out, uncomfortably next to the "No Parking" sign. The familiar twinge of conscience and the looks of the other parents reminded me that I could get ticketed or towed for this. With the budget cuts, though, there was no one to walk my vision-impaired daughter to the curb. Unless I was there to greet her, she would have difficulty locating me or the car.

Walking inside, against the flow of chattering teenagers, I sought mine. I noticed the gangly boys, leaning with cool affect against the wall, idly talking, jostling, watching groups as they approached and passed. Those boys who had not yet matured seemed to feel the gauntlet. I was struck by the difference in appearance, the 14-year-olds who still carried the boyish softness, compared to the manly 18-year-olds who exuded their mastery of the world around them.

I scanned the lingering groups of friends, the pairs and trios who carpooled, the individuals walking with brisk purpose. Finally, I saw my own. She walked alone, as usual. Her awkward gait was impeded by the large backpack she wore. She seemed blissfully oblivious to the glances and faces directed at her from some students as she passed. I was not. I heard the flap of her feet in spite of the noise in the hallway and tried to quell the social anxiety I felt, not sure it if it was from empathy or my own insecurities.

She smiled with recognition, and I hugged her, appreciating that she will never feel embarrassed by public affection. After a day of loneliness, she craved touch and conversation. I unburdened her from her backpack and we made our way to the car. Again that day, I was relieved to find it where I left it, with no ticket on the windshield.

As we proceeded home, I asked the usual questions about her classes and her day. She chattered joyfully about a joke one teacher told, about a prank she witnessed, giggling as she remembered. For the most part, she was the observer in her tales, relating what she had noticed but rarely what she had done. This day was slightly different, though. Her characteristically sunny face clouded as she told me that she got a bad grade on her biology test, returned today. I reminded her that she only needed to pass. I reminded myself of the miracle that she takes biology at all.

Those days, she talked incessantly from the time she joined me until she went to bed. My theory was that she had a certain amount to say each day and needed to squeeze it all in during those hours. Ever since she realized in kindergarten that her speech impairment—not the listener's lack of attention—limited others' understanding of her, she resisted talking in public. We had set a goal for her to be able to order for herself in a restaurant, and for her to be conversational with people she deemed safe, but it did not come easily for her.

She continued talking about biology class, and about how they had to do work in groups. Her group did not include her, so she just watched. Her facial expression told me how she felt about that. I struggled with what to say; she moved on. This afternoon, she continued, her special education teacher was celebrating. The entire class did the assignments this week, so she had brought in ice cream! There was a choice of wrapped bars for each student. Bless this teacher, I thought for the thousandth time.

We pulled into the garage. As I put the car in park and cut the ignition, she turned to me, her face again glowing with the carefree joy I see so often. She concluded her day's description with a decision: "I'll just remember the ice cream."

That is the attitude that has brought her to this place. The music swells. The flag bearers begin, followed by the principal and staff. Students then enter, the middle aisle filling with bodies, some walking solemnly with eyes straight ahead, some scanning for family. As the faculty members take their seats on stage, I glance across their faces, smiling toward the various teachers who have assisted my daughter on her journey. Her special education teacher is one, but there are many more. My throat tightens as I remember those teachers who spent extra hours helping my daughter know what was expected, find her best self, feel relevant and succeed. I remember a blur of experiences: her joyful firsts and hard-won triumphs; the kind gestures and painful snubs of others; commiseration and isolation; and hours upon hours spent with doctors, therapists, and tutors. I remember her delight in every birthday, every gift and gesture of love; I remember my ambiguous pangs of pride in her achievements and sorrow in recognized delays, marked by each anniversary of birth.

I remember where our story began. It could be said to have started with her birth, but for me, it was a few years later. My hands were full, pushing her in the umbrella stroller, carrying her infant brother in a sling around my shoulders. I had learned from past appointments that the double stroller was too wide and cumbersome in these rooms and halls. Looking back, I am not sure if I was hazy with sleep deprivation or with denial. My robotic state cracked slightly with the doctor's words: "People don't come alone to appointments like this." These were her first words to me as she entered the exam room.

"I am not alone," I replied stupidly, gesturing to my two children. She shook her head in annoyance as my son began to fuss. My daughter, as usual, slumped contentedly in the stroller. Perhaps realizing that my competency was low, or wanting to be sure she could move things along efficiently, she called out for a nurse to take the baby. I compliantly passed him over. Then she told me the test news. The world tilted on its axis with her words. She handed me papers with research cases to support her findings, suggested additional medical specialists to see, and told me to contact the local school district for intervention. My mind was reeling with the acronyms and medical terms she had been tossing at me. I caught the word "intervention," though. Dumb, numb, I had only heard it in the context of substance abuse. "Intervention for what?" I asked. "For mental retardation," she replied with an air of the obvious. Even the cut of those words did not fully break through. She proceeded with the prognostication that my daughter would never learn to read, that she would at best attain the cognitive abilities of a kindergartener. "It's all supported in those studies," she added, gesturing to the pile of papers now in my lap. "Call my office if you have further questions," she concluded as she rose to proceed to her next appointment.

With mechanical movements, I wheeled my daughter out of the room, toward the check-out desk, while scanning for my son. Collecting him, I could tell he needed to be fed before our drive home. Oblivious to my surroundings, I sat back in the waiting room to nurse him and to hold a bottle for my daughter, although she was a toddler. She rarely cried, but I had learned to feed her whenever I had the opportunity. After only a few moments, she tired from the effort of drinking and stopped.

I don't remember driving home. All I remember is unsuccessfully trying to reach my husband, then calling my mom. With the news, she started to cry. I did not. Not until a year later, when I cried and cried and cried.

I am crying now, with happiness. I see my daughter pass by. Her face lights up with its characteristic smile as she spots us. She takes her seat just a few rows in front of us. Like the other graduates, she dreams of her future, of finding an occupation, and of finding love. Her grin is full of optimism and pride. I have some fears about what lies ahead for her, but the look on her face reminds me of the power contained in her sweet body. I do not see disability; I see possibility.

Her smiling face, her serenity, her satisfaction, this is what I will remember. This is my ice cream.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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