Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Searching for Our People

I was really pleased to learn that Ryan's school's PTA was hosting a Family Night. An opportunity to meet local parents! A chance to see Ryan's classmates! An excuse to get out of the house on a Friday night!

The event was billed as a pizza and ice cream party, and it was just that: each family having pizza on its own picnic blanket, with kids running around a field. There was no easy way to start a conversation with these random strangers on their individual islands. I suppose it was easier for families with typical kids - you're naturally thrown together when your kids gravitate to each other and start playing.

But Ryan wasn't making any attempt to engage with other children, and nobody was approaching him, either. I tried introducing myself to the one mom I saw sitting by herself, but she just wasn't that into me.

Stu and I stood on the periphery, looking for Our People. All the elementary-age kids there seemed typical.

Then Stu said, "How about that eleven-year-old boy with the headphones that aren't plugged into anything?"

Yup, he's One Of Ours.

We gravitated toward his family. I tried to figure out the secret handshake, a way of saying "I know we have something in common, but I don't want you to feel like your kids stands out, even though he totally does, but hey, so does mine, so let's hang out."

Eventually, the boy's father started blowing bubbles for a gaggle of shrieking kindergartners. I saw my opportunity. I complimented him on becoming the most popular parent around. We made small talk about what suckers kids are for bubbles. He jokingly asked when the band was coming on to relieve him. We re-imagined this event with free babysitting and an open bar.

We didn't actually discuss the thing I knew we had in common, but I felt comfortable talking to him because he's one of Our People.

And when I had to excuse myself because it looked like Ryan was having a meltdown on top of the parachute the other kids were trying to duck under, I knew he'd understand.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Too soon?

On Tuesday, Ryan came home with what I can only assume is a 9/11-themed craft.

It's a red and white striped construction paper thing with a blue pentagon in the middle, with an 11 in the middle of the pentagon. And he drew a few stars on it with a red crayon. And there's a piece of yarn on top so you can hang it - maybe it's a flag? 

All this begs the question, what was the lesson that went along with this craft? How do you teach second graders - six- and seven-year-olds with special needs - about terrorism? About non-state actors who attack civilians? About the possibility that their parents might not come home from work one night? About war and fear-mongering and heroism and bad politics?

Eleven years ago I was living in Queens and working in Manhattan. I still can't stand to look at photos from that day, because they make me smell that awful ashy smoke.

I stared at the wobbly-cut edges of the construction paper pentagon and wondered how this lesson was framed for my son. He is too young, too innocent, to understand any of the emotionally-charged lessons of our recent history.

Then I wondered, how did schools teach about Pearl Harbor around 1950? What do kids learn about Martin Luther King Jr. when they're working on those MLK Day coloring sheets?

I have no doubt it is important to teach about 9/11 in schools, but how, and at what age or level of development? I read a beautiful lesson plan written by the 4 Action Initiative. They recommend, "It is crucial to teach difficult topics in a way that doesn’t increase a child’s sense of vulnerability or helplessness," and then suggests highlighting the importance of proper evacuation procedures and emergency preparedness. They also suggest, "Start a conversation about how students can help through service projects and individual good deeds." The lesson plan itself starts with basic themes of diversity and being nice to people, then from this context builds up to historic events.

I asked Ryan to tell me about his craft; he said, "It got stars on it." I don't know what Ryan is learning, or what he's capable of understanding at this point, but I hope he learns more about diversity and good deeds than about anger and fear.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Getting there is Love

Behavior is communication, but it's incomplete communication.

Last last couple of years, when Ryan was regularly throwing fits almost every morning as I wrestled him to the school bus, I knew he was trying to communicate his dissatisfaction with something, but I didn't know what. Was he telling me he didn't like school? That he didn't want to interrupt whatever game he was playing? That he would miss me? That someone was hurting him?

Crying and going boneless express unhappiness, but not reasons.

I would twist my brain in knots trying to ask the Right Question that would prompt Ryan to reveal the Right Answer. But when a kid lacks the language to reliably answer yes/no questions, it's all but impossible to tease out the information you need to ease his misery.

This year, Ryan gets on the bus happily, without resistance and without looking back. I can even announce "Ryan, the bus is here" when he's not ready, and he'll come running to get his shoes and get out the door.

Of course I'm thrilled that he clearly likes his new school more than his old school - that whatever had been making him so miserable has been resolved.

But all I can think about now is how upset he was about school the last two years, and how totally useless I was to him. He tried to tell me...something...in the only way he knew how, and I didn't understand the message. I failed him. I tried my best to understand, and I failed. And I kept putting him on that bus, sending him to that school, not knowing if there was some monster he saw every day, not knowing what form that monster might take.

I don't blame myself for lack of trying: I tried as hard as I could to decipher Ryan's coded pleas for help. But I didn't understand what Ryan was trying to tell me, so I didn't know what to do for him.

And I fear that the next time Ryan hands me an indecipherable message, I'll be just as useless to him.

All I can do is try to interpret the behavior. As some wise, faceless person on the internet said, "empathy is understanding; getting there is love."