My Family is Special: the Magic and the Heartache

My husband, Brian, teaches dance on Monday nights, so I usually default to fast food, or, even worse, what the boys call “Snacky Dinner.”

Snacky Dinner consists of letting Zane and Aidan wander down the aisles of the supermarket until they stumble on Nillas, ice cream and chocolate frosting. Lest you start dialing Child Protective Services, the other six nights of the week I torture them with pork chops, mashed potatoes and green vegetables. (Aidan vents: “You are the only father in the ENTIRE school who makes his children eat broccoli.”)

For a quarter of a century, I’ve gone to the Safeway in Diamond Heights, and if you blindfolded me I could still find the frozen pizza and boxed wine there. But Denman Middle School was only three blocks from the Safeway on Mission, so I parked the Kipcap and set them loose.

This was early evening and their medication had worn off, but Snacky Dinners make the boys upbeat and charming. In fact, when I called their names, they both appeared, and Zane handed me Hot Cheeto Puffs as well as a box of Ginger Snaps (so I wouldn’t get dizzy).

Zane and Aidan broke into the Snacky Dinner dance.

You’d think the woman behind me on line would be annoyed, but instead she said, “I just love your column.” And my day was made. This was my 15 seconds of fame.

Then shopper behind her said, “Yes, you’re the one with the boys who are special.” Ah, I was not the famous one. Zane and Aidan were.

She meant well, but we don’t always like being special. This month, the parents of Zane’s fellow eighth-graders are looking at high schools and frankly, I’m jealous. They take tours of Riordan and Sacred Heart and Lick-Wilmerding, and Lowell and the School of the Arts, asking questions about college matriculation and superior basketball teams. But special means going to whatever high school will take us.

Uncle Jon doesn’t like it much when I call it “Short Bus Syndrome” as he himself teaches challenged students. But special education has a stigma. It’s easy to feel damaged. And it often means our choices are limited, and it always means we have to fight for things like paras (teacher’s aides) and Individualized Education Plans.

There are days we ache to be normal.

Two schools ago, one of the in-crowd boys in Zane’s class said the f-word, and his mother blanched and asked who taught him that. The boy blamed Zane because Zane is the kind of boy who knows words like that, and so his yoga mother persuaded the other parents to sign a petition to get Zane expelled. Now her son may have been smart, but how had he gotten all the way to the sixth grade without ever once hearing the f-word? Zane has learned what that other boy will never know: We make our own choices for the words that we choose.

But we are the unorthodox family, so we celebrate the small victories. Aidan earned a detention this week (for spitballs), and I should’ve been angry, but instead I said to his fifth-grade teacher, “I’m grateful. We’ve reached November, and this is only his first detention. Last year, we had three of these by now. For us, it’s progress.”

When we were younger, Brian and I joked about “gaydar,” how we could pick out the other gay persons in the room. But nowadays, we have “Zanedar” — we can always pick out the little boy or girl struggling to fit in. We can pick out the mother who is embarrassed in the restaurant because she doesn’t know how to get her son to stop throwing spaghetti. Between the four of us Fisher-Paulsons, we’ve had every possible diagnosis, so sometimes we tell these parents about psychiatry and pharmacology. Sometimes we don’t.

One girl in Aidan’s class is an unrepentant tomboy and suffers that ridicule. On a class trip to the Exploratorium, the teacher put me in charge of her and Aidan. When another girl laughed at her refusal to wear pink, she started crying. So I said, “Don’t try so hard to conform. Average is overrated.”

The stuff that makes us special is also the magic that makes us extraordinary. Normal might get you pork chops and broccoli, but different gets you the Snacky Dinner dance.

Editor’s note: This post, originally published as “Snacky Dinner Dance Celebrates Differences” in the San Fransisco Chronicle, is republished with permission here.

Posted by Kevin Fisher-Paulson

Kevin is the author of "A Song for Lost Angels," his memoir of how he and his husband fostered, raised and lost newborn triplets. Kevin is also featured in "When Love Lasts Forever," "MHR is my home," and writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, his two adopted sons and his four rescue dogs.


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