It’s that time of year again when the back-to-school buzz is everywhere you turn.

But when you have a child with special needs, back-to-school prep is about more than shopping for shiny new backpacks, squeaky markers and the right bluejeans. It’s about good student-teacher fits, working successfully with your child’s team members, and meeting challenging IEP goals, while trying to realize some cherished parenting dreams. It’s a highly emotional rite of passage for millions of families of children with special needs.

Not all back-to-school needs can be met at Walmart.

So I’m again pulling a sacred letter from my writing archives to provide you with some back-to-school inspiration to help calm your frayed parenting nerves. Letter to Eric was written to my son in 1995 as he left the safety of our family nest to test his fragile wings at our neighborhood school. It was an unnerving time, and an exciting one, too. Inclusion was a rarity and I was incredibly naive about the challenges and roadblocks that lay ahead of us. But I knew what I wanted for my child, and that first day of school milestone turned out to be the beginning of a challenging and rich journey filled with powerful life experiences that continue to fuel my work as a writer/speaker/advocate today.

Unfortunately, Eric passed away in 2003 at 12, ending our back-to-school adventures. But each fall, I feel Eric’s strong presence, smell his sweet hair, see his enchanting smile, and remember with deep love and gratitude the back-to-school adventures of a lifetime that we took together.

May the heartfelt words of one adoring mother inspire you in much the same way as they continue to touch me. Perhaps you’ll begin your own letter-writing tradition, something I highly recommend.

Now, pass the Kleenex……and have a wonderful first day of school!

August 28, 1995

Dear Eric:

Today, as you begin kindergarten, I’m writing you a letter, a tradition I began with your big sister, Jenna, seven years ago.

The first day of school is a fall rite of passage, like brilliantly changing leaves, crisp evening air and earlier bedtimes. For our family, it also represents hard-won success. Some professionals believed the physical challenges of cerebral palsy would prevent you from learning in a regular school environment. Armed with cold, hard statistics, they warned of a life of segregation. But our family doesn’t bank on statistics. We invest in the human stuff, like love, faith and hard work.

We chose a different road.

From the moment you first dramatically graced our lives, we’ve focused on your ability. In turn, you have exhibited a spirit of survival that astounds me. We’ve endured too many moments of grief and ignorance. Yet, what I remember most is your first smile and giggle, your first word and your success at a regular preschool.

You are a wise and handsome child, with inquisitive brown eyes that miss nothing. Much of your ability to positively impact others has come from their first impressions of you as a cute child. Your long and lanky frame holds just thirty hard-won pounds, but you are far from being a lightweight in this life. There have been critical hospital stays, invasive procedures and moments when your life was in peril. But today, we celebrate school and a powerful lesson in letting go.

Today, our family is no different.

In your back-to-school outfit of GAP overalls, white Mickey-Mouse T-shirt and black Oshkosh shoes, you charm me. But there will be challenges. The ground we tread is fresh, presenting a challenge to those uncomfortable with inclusion, a word promising equal educational opportunities for all children. Some people won’t understand our fight and won’t want too. Yet, other educators will also teach from their hearts.

This will be a year of new challenges. When people assume physical challenges include mental impairment, you’ll be the first to forgive. I pray that others in this new world take time to discover how gifted and talented you really are. I want to meet the new friends willing to look past your wheelchair and into your eyes—and into your soul. I eagerly await book fairs, walking down school hallways and making red finger Jell-O at Christmas.

As your special bus disappears from sight, I’m a wreck. In a rare moment, I doubt. Are you ready? Am I ready? Your bus is equipped for wheelchairs and separates you from your able-bodied classmates. Someday, that too must change.

You grin at me through the tinted bus window. You are more ready than I am.

As the bright, yellow school bus disappears from sight, as its larger version did with Jenna many memories ago, I’m overcome with emotion. Safely inside, I release the tears of far too many harsh moments spent in the presence of people wrongly judging your value. But my tears of frustration and anger give way to unconditional love for the wise little soul who has become my greatest life teacher.

You are much wiser than most.

As you begin this new journey, son, you must continue to grow increasingly independent, just like other children. But I promise that dad and I will be right beside you ready to dry your tears on the roughest days, and thrilled to champion the dreams that others will try to tarnish.

Forgive them.

On this exceptional day, words can only begin to express what I feel in my heart, Eric Richard Winter. Thank you for coming into my life and teaching me more than I ever thought I had to learn. I’m incredibly proud to be your mom.

With much love always,


p.s. Have a wonderful first day in kindergarten!!

Judy Winter