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Kaitie goes to kindergarten

Tuesday’s kindergarten orientation at Coupeville Elementary School didn’t impress Kaitlin Richmond. It wasn’t a true first day. She didn’t get to ride the bus as she had planned. During orientation Kaitlin and her mother, Jenny, met teachers, toured the school and met the bus driver who would ferry Kaitlin and other kids to and from school starting Wednesday.

“She was disappointed she didn’t get to sing her ABC’s or count, but she got right in (the day),” Jenny Richmond, Kaitlin’s mother, said Wednesday before walking to the bus stop on Race Road.

Kaitlin, or Kaitie as her family often calls her, sang the alphabet song and counted swiftly past 20 as she played with toy horses before heading to the bus stop. Kaitie glanced over to see if her mother noticed her skipping from 16 to 20.

“You missed some,” Jenny said.

Kaitie tossed her strawberry blond curls and giggled “I know.”

Jeff Richmond arrived from his job at Nichols’ Brothers in Freeland to see Kaitie off to school. Jeff and Jenny walked to the bus stop. Kaitie marched down the lane, adjusting to the heft of a backpack, her lavender tracksuit’s ruffled hood over her head.

When her bus arrived, Kaitie climbed the steps without a backwards glance at her parents.

Some parents weep on their child’s first day at school.

Not Kaitie’s parents.

“I’m so excited,” Jenny said, smiling. “We almost didn’t get this far.”

A birthday present of cancer

Two years ago, Kaitlin’s parents didn’t dare dream about their daughter’s first day of kindergarten. In July 2002, just after her third birthday, Kaitlin was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, the most advanced stage of the childhood cancer. Treatment of the solid tumor in her abdomen put Kaitlin through radiation, surgery and rounds of chemotherapy. A stem-cell transplant after high-dose chemotherapy gave her an entirely new immune system. The rounds of harsh medication saved Kaitie’s life while killing the cancer.

Just last week, Kaitie returned to Seattle Children’s Hospital for immune system tests as well as tests to see if the cancer has returned. Every trip for follow- up tests requires a bone marrow test, complete with puncturing Kaitie’s hipbone with a needle and drawing a marrow sample. It’s a harsh follow-up for a harsh cancer. Neuroblastoma can recur quickly and vengefully, her parents have been warned.

“The doctor said everything looked fine,” Jennifer said. “I asked ‘That’s all?’ Usually they have something to explain.”

In November, Kaitie will return to Children’s for repeat tests. If those are clear, she will shift to tests every six months.

“That will be great,” Jenny said.

The high dose chemotherapy saved Kaitie but damaged her hearing. She wears hearing aids, bright purple ones now but in six weeks her she’ll sport blue sparkly ones.

“I like sparkles,” Kaitie said, fingering her pink, sparkling hair clip.

Hearing critical in kindergarten

Kaitie’s hearing loss concerns her parents but they accept it cheerfully. Without chemotherapy, Kaitie wouldn’t be starting school.

Kaitie doesn’t hear background noises like leaves rustling, birds chirping or the sounds of a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner.

“That could be a blessing in disguise at kindergarten,” Sharon Bardwell, Kaitie’s kindergarten teacher, said Wednesday between her morning and afternoon classes. By not hearing background noises, Kaitie may be less distracted than other students Bardwell said.

But hearing during kindergarten classes is crucial as children learn sounds and how to blend these sounds she said.

In addition to learning sounds, kindergarten kids will learn what Bardwell called “sight words” including “the” and “of” which can’t be sounded out. Kids will learn differences between upper case and lower case letters, arithmetic foundations of addition and subtraction along with multiplication and division. Fraction concepts will be introduced.

Bardwell said every preschooler recognizes fractions but can’t envision the numerals.

“An older child may break a candy bar in half,” Bardwell said. “But younger children know they were given less than half.”

No matter the concepts Bardwell presents her students, she doesn’t see Kaitie having much trouble.

“Kaitie learned so much language development before she had any challenges from her loss of hearing,” Bardwell said.

Bardwell and the school district knowing of Kaitie’s hearing needs means everything will be done to make sure she has every assistance. A team at the school will assess Kaitie and determine precisely what she needs. An FM radio system could be added with Bardwell wearing a microphone directed to Kaitie’s hearing aids.

“Everyone at school is eager to help her find her place,” Jenny said.

But before any special systems have been prescribed, Bardwell made sure Kaitie could hear her. She subtly moved Kaitie from a seat at the back of a table to the front while corralling 14 other excited kids just starting school.

“We’ll find out what Kaitie needs and cherish her – just as we cherish all our kids,” Bardwell said.

“I almost don’t care if she’s a horrible student,” Jenny said. “I know I can smile through anything.”

Wednesday afternoon, Kaitie rolled a cylinder of purple Play-Doh, ready for her next challenges: maneuvering school halls; counting higher; enduring another bone marrow test in November. She could handle it.

As she said when she jumped off the bus at Coupeville Elementary School:

“I did it.”

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