On the morning of every child's first day in kindergarten parents look into the wide, fearful eyes of their children and wonder what elusive element of education will change babies to capable adults.
The answer for Ann and David Wakefield is more complicated than for most parents, and that's why Mrs. Wakefield took her son Michael to school Tuesday and stayed to introduce him to his classmates.
She explained during her short presentation that 5-year-old Michael is pretty much the same as other kids - he likes eating ice cream, coloring and playing ball - but what makes him a little different is that his legs don't work.
That said, one boy in Marlene Harms' Westmore Elementary kindergarten class blurted, "But Michael can't play ball." Mrs. Wakefield didn't flinch. She's used to blunt remarks. So is Michael, who sat silently behind the boy who was talking about him.
"He can play, though," Mrs. Wakefield told the boy. "Baseball is one of Michael's favorite things."
"Does he have his mitt and ball?" the curious child demanded. "No," Mrs. Wakefield said, patiently. "It's at home."
Michael knew that when he began attending kindergarten with children who weren't handicapped life would become a little more difficult. But he had happily anticipated the start of school since the day last June when he graduated from Kids On the Move, a preschool that integrates non-handicapped children with handicapped kids. It wasn't until just before opening day at Westmore that he got a little scared.
"He's been dying for school to start all summer and today he said, `Don't leave me. I don't want to go,' " Mrs. Wakefield said during the walk to school.
Michael's fear was understandable. He has spina bifida, a congenital incomplete closure of the spinal column that leaves victims paralyzed from the waist down. Michael was apprehensive about getting out of his wheelchair in the classroom, but he did it.
In fact, he handled the first day at kindergarten better than some of his new peers.
As Harms called for the students to line up on the playground and prepare to go to class, Michael slowly wheeled over and was placed at the front of the line, where he sat motionless, looking like a boy condemned. Just behind him, a small girl with tears flowing down her face resisted stubbornly as her mom, hands on the child's bottom, pushed her toward the line.
The challenges for Michael began as soon as he entered the classroom. All of the children were told to put their belongings in the cubby holes, located in a closet-size area. Michael went with the others to the area and then waited, because he couldn't maneuver his chair through the crowd. Seeing this, Harms was torn between rushing to help and letting Michael do for himself.
"What do we do now, Ann?" the teacher asked. "He's just going to have to learn to say, `get out of my way,' " his mother replied.
Next, Michael had to get out of that chair. He'll get some help with things like that from Maria Frampton, the aide who is assigned to help Michael part time and do errands for Harms.
Some of the children stared unabashedly as Michael moved from the chair to his crutches and pushed himself toward the circle of other students. The old maxim that children are the most honest beings around is true in kindergarten especially. They don't try to hide their wonderings, and if they feel like staring, they stare.
So all eyes were on Michael as he moved to the front of the circle to get his name tag from the teacher.
"Doesn't he walk good?" Harms said. "He can't swing," said one boy. "But he's walking so fast," Harms replied.
Mrs. Wakefield listened expressionless. "You expect people to say things," she explained later. "I never let anyone's questions bother me, because I'd rather they ask them than sit there and wonder."
She tried instead to make Michael's peers his allies. "I need to ask you guys if you'll be helpers," she told the class. "You can help him open doors and sometimes push his chair. But only help him when he asks, because we want him to get big and tough."
"Will he get better when he grows up?" asked a classmate. "No," Mrs. Wakefield said matter-of-factly. "He'll always have his wheelchair and his crutches."
Those tiny crutches sat idly against a pint-sized chair behind Michael. He listened throughout his mom's presentation, and later said it was "fun" to hear her talk about him.
For months Mrs. Wakefield has tried to help people in the Alpine School District understand her son. She fought to get him into a normal kindergarten, because he has a normal IQ, and then she fought to get him an aide so he could participate with the other children.
"He's got a lot of potential, and you send him to one of those special schools and he won't fulfill his potential. If they want to put him in there, the government can pay for him his whole life, or they can pay for an aide for a year or two," she said. "Sometimes you feel bad, and yet you have to keep fighting if it's going to work. I think, `How can I ask Marlene (Harms) to do one more thing?' I think sometimes that I'm asking too much, but I know I have to."
Harms said being exposed to a handicapped child will be a good experience for the other students too, and though she's had to make some adjustments in her classroom to accommodate Michael's wheelchair, she's enthusiastic about it all.
"I don't think there will be a ripple with the other kids in the classroom because of Michael," she said. "It's not new to me to build a loving, caring environment in this room, and Michael will fit right into that. We want him to be the least different that he can be. The first thing I want Michael to think is that Westmore is a wonderful place to be. I want him to feel safe and happy."
Michael felt safe and happy Tuesday, the first day the children attended a full session. Later, at home, while standing on his head and chewing a huge wad of green gum, he chattered to his mother about the day and said he'd make bugs at school the next day. He said he's still scared of the swings on the playground, so he'd go early tomorrow and practice.
It had been a long day. It's been a long fight, and it will continue every day, every year of Michael's life. And yet Ann and David and their unwavering child refuse to take the easy way. The boy must become all that he can.
But why struggle so hard for each small step? Mrs. Wakefield paused a moment and looked with tears in her eyes at her young son, who sat cheerfully on the floor arranging play money. "Look at him," she said, "that's why it's worth it. It's his life."