It was volunteer day. After the instructions, given first to me in private, and then to the first grade class, the children broke up into their groups. About eight of them came to sit in a circle around my chair. My son was not among them.
“We need the eye-guides,” said one child, as they pulled their readers from the long ago, worn-out, plastic bags used to haul their books from school to home and back again. There was rustling of papers and, of course, that one student who tells me the reader is at home. Once settled into their spots, with the books open, or shared, the reading begins. With each sentence, they are to tap their “eye-guides”, clear, plastic, ruler-type devices, with knobs for holding their place, as they read along. Two taps for the end of a sentence, one tap for a comma.
Confusion abounds. Pronunciation issues arise. Disputes occur. A couple of well knowns, snicker and goof off. Other students whisper pronunciations to those who are stuck. Four children lose their place and don’t know where to start when their turns come.
They all muddle through. I ask questions to check their comprehension. Inevitably, at least three children raise their hand and wave frantically. When called on, they go silent or make up an answer far afield. Eventually, after much discussion, I think they’ve come away with a general understanding of the story.
They write down the pages I assign, moaning that it’s too much. I must repeat the assignment 3 or 4 times. As they straggle away, the next group immediately comes to sit down. This group includes my son. Three of the girls play a bit of musical chairs, minus the chair, as to the space to my left. They know I will start with the reader to my left, and they all want to be that reader.
My son plops down mid-circle, facing sideways. Even his physical location is different from the rest of the children. He is engaged in self-talk about iBasket, an iPad app. “Did you make a basket?” “Mommy, what does the iBasket guy say?” I really did not know how to respond to him in front of the group. I try to get him to open his book, and then I’m relieved by a distraction of a question from another student.
My son remains smiling and mumbling to himself. He knows I’m there but makes no eye contact with me or anyone else. He laughs. His tutor stands nearby but makes no move to realign or redirect him.
I ask everyone again to open their books. Some ask which page. Others simply do it. A couple argue about what page the group “should” read. My son, staring off in the distance, talking of his iPad app, is not with the rest of the group. I address him directly. “Tootles, open your book to page 16.” Hearing me, he snaps to attention, opens the reader and asks, “Where is page 16?” I let him alone. I know he can find it.
I begin with the reader to my left. Off and running, most of the group has difficulty tapping the correct number of times at the right places. Some either forget to do it, or think I won’t catch them, but I do, and everyone is forced to back track until we are all tapping in unison. Well, almost all. My son taps but only after he hears the others. He is consistently a beat behind.
When it is his turn to read, he is silent. I have been watching him out of the corner of my eye. He is following along. He knows where we are. He reads loudly and clearly at home.
In the corner of the classroom, in this small group, preoccupied with thoughts of the iPad app, he reads at a whisper and then goes silent. “Speak up!” I urged. “I can’t hear you!” A bit flustered, he reads loudly, stumbles, and finishes nicely. I move on.
After the story, we discuss the questions in the book. My son and I had read those very questions as homework the night before. He knew the answers. I had no idea whether, in the group, he was listening, hearing, shielding himself, engaging in a coping mechanism, or simply ignoring me. He did not respond.
I ask him what kind of chores he does at home, a question that all the other kids answered. He does not respond. I remind him how he dumps the garbage. Instead of answering, he says, “Wanna play iBasket. iBasket is a fun game.” And, on that note, the group received their next reading assignment.
As the others wrote it down, my son did not. Still facing west in a group facing south, he was smiling and mouthing words to himself. His tutor prompted him to write it down. He got out his paper. Two of the girls offered him a pencil. He took one but did not say thank you as asked. There was too much going on around him. Rustling papers, voices, questions, other kids wandering around the class, the teacher’s voice with another group on the other side of the room, a need to concentrate on making the numbers that constituted his assignment and the date. Before I knew it, he had gone back to his desk to work on something else. Another group of reading students was before me. The routine replayed. And before I knew it, my volunteer duties were over.
As I left my son with a kiss, he acknowledged me softly with a “yes” when I said I’d see him after school. There was still no eye contact.
As I walked out into the bright light of the parking lot, the icy wind whipped around my face, forcing stray strands of hair over my mouth and in my eyes. A combination of a scraping, bitter cold and a light tickle overtook my senses. Oddly, the feelings matched my emotions, as I thought of watching my son in a roomful of peers, yet all alone.
Questions scraped my heart, cutting my insides. What will the future hold for him? At the end of this year, next year, after elementary school, in adulthood? What is he capable of? Will he someday take off the blinders that leave him socially isolated? Or will those blinders always remain to secure the greater purpose of protecting him from anxiety, pain, hurt?
I must be patient. A nudge here. A tiny push there. Inside, there is always a deep-seated angst that scrapes at happiness, for what I fear might happen when I’m no longer there. Will the connections he is missing impede him from climbing a rung toward ‘community‘ that will help him cope when I am gone? Will he someday achieve interdependence that is healthy and free? Will he be prey to the unsavory in seeking someone to trust?
I don’t like to talk about it, much less think it, but it’s always there in the dark corner of my mind. Oddly, co-existing in that moment was the tickle of pride.
Pride that my child is fiercely smart and accepts that he cannot always express it. Pride in the way he copes with his anxiety with smiles. Pride in how far he’s come.
It’s hard to explain how I feel both at the same time. But I do. And all I can do is teach him what I can, let him feel my love every minute, give him space, and let him grow. Because scrapes and tickles are part of growing up, whether your child or mom.