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Volunteering is best way to learn about special ed

I open the conference room door and invite the next group of people to enter. A mother enters the windowless room last. I notice the tears in her eyes as she searches for a familiar face around the table.

She recognizes her child's kindergarten teacher and smiles briefly in her direction as she hesitantly selects a chair near the door. She pulls a Kleenex from her coat pocket and wills herself to relax. Maintaining a nervous smile, she greets the remaining five education professionals seated around the table.

This is her first special education meeting for her child. I am the required parent representative on this committee, and I know her tears.

Those tears were mine when I sat in that seat by the door at my son's first Committee on Preschool Special Education meeting 10 years ago. The recollection is powerful and I am once again sitting in that chair -- Kleenex in my hand, back in time . . .

My first meeting begins and their names and positions are quickly blurred as I try to understand abbreviations like IEP, OT and APE. I know that as the child's parent, I am legally an active member in this committee. However, being unfamiliar with the special education process, I feel more like an outsider.

During a lull in the meeting, I think about my son. His teacher's voice echoes in my mind: "In order for your son to speak at school, he has to keep his thumb out of his mouth, and to do that he needs to leave his blanket home." So this morning, he kicked and screamed as I buckled him into his car seat on the bus -- without his blankie.

His small piece of security is still in my pocket, and I again resist the urge to drive to the preschool and give it back to him -- the one thing that makes him feel safe.

I refocus as the educators discuss his behaviors and his classification -- a preschooler with a disability. One Kleenex is not enough and the box is placed in front of me. Questions continue to be asked, but few answers are at hand. My question is, how many of the 30 miles did he ride in that little yellow bus this morning before he exhausted his supply of tears?

The director says his secretary will mail me a final copy of the IEP (which I learn is his individualized education plan). The committee agrees that I am doing a great job at home; my son is making wonderful progress. Even though I am grateful for the encouragement, I feel defeated over my lack of contributions during the meeting.

The meeting comes to a close and the director asks if I have any questions. Although I have a million of them, I say, "No. Thank you," and I vow to become more informed.

Weeks later, my mailbox contains a letter from the school district asking me to volunteer for the Committee on Special Education. At that moment, I know where my information on the special education system will come from. I decide to volunteer and learn the regulations first hand. I miraculously find time to volunteer as a parent representative.

Currently, only a small percentage of eligible parents are volunteering. For this reason, I briefly stop the mother in the hall after her child's meeting and suggest she explore the possibility of becoming a parent representative. She looks at me, and I see the same determination in her eyes that was in mine 10 years ago.