We’re all piled up on the couch when Bear says something characteristically sweet. His English at age six is still rough, but we collectively adore his special way of speaking. Huey gets his points across in a series of hand gestures, head wobbles, and sentences at once verbose, and completely devoid of pronouns. “It just doesn’t get any cuter than this guy,” I say, and I kiss his cheek. “Hey”, says Cleo, teasing, but her voice betrays real hurt. “Stop stealing my spotlight Huey.” Shit.
Cleo has been on autopilot for some time now. She bounces out of the car each morning ready to learn, ready to participate and engage. She’s right on target academically, and I’ve always thought she was emotionally mature. At the age of five she wondered aloud “so if the universe is God, and we are all part of the universe, then that means…we are God.” She quite regularly blows my mind from the back seat of the car with similar such observations. She knows exactly how she’s feeling and she’ll let you know. If she is envious of a birthday sibling, for example, rather than stage a full mid-party meltdown, she will state, quite plainly, that she feels jealous. So on this evening, when I proclaimed Huey the cutest, she let me know I had a few things to explain.
I recently did what we call an “observation” of Huey’s classroom. Parents are invited to watch without intruding as the Montessori morning unfolds. It was sweet and beautiful, fascinating, as I knew it would be. But I’ve never done one before. I’ve chosen not to because I know myself. I know that I will measure my sweet child against every other child, and I will worry. I’ve chosen instead to keep a dialogue with his teacher, to trust her judgment, and to trust myself, that I have made the best decisions I could for him with the resources available. He is doing fine.
He’s my tender little boy with the awkward gait. His shoes are always on the wrong feet, but we celebrate because he can finally pull them on himself. He can’t pedal a bike, but he tears down the road on his big boy scooter behind his big sister. He trails along behind her at birthday parties and basks in her confidence. And if he loses her in the fray he will he retreat to my lap, scanning the room in search of her.
At age six, he’s gearing up for first grade. Maybe. Because now it’s time to start asking the hard questions, to find out. What’s wrong? How does he measure up? There’ll be figures and percentiles, and that goddamn dot on the bell curve. We will try not to let it define him, but it inevitably will.
We’ve been here once before. We already have one child who struggles. We’ve thrown money at the problem, and time, even drugs, and we’ve called in the reinforcements. We’ve discovered, a decade on, that there is no real fix for a child who is academically challenged in a society that primarily values academic achievement. We are wrestling now with the toll that takes on a child’s confidence and his emotional wellbeing.
I tell Cleo how much I love her, and I laugh as I remind her just how often I say so. I explain that since Huey has some trouble with his speaking and his learning that sometimes we have to work to make him feel extra good. She nods her understanding. We agree that her little bubba needs some extra encouragement. She knows.
I’ve held on to these years when he was just “Huey”, when milestones mattered, but not terribly. And I will continue to resist what I know will come. There is no place in our society for the sort of challenges my boys face. They are different, but not different enough. The words we use to describe a slow processor or a child who is developmentally delayed are unkind, and I can’t shield him from them forever. I can’t keep from him a world that seeks to belittle and diminish the parts of him I know to be extraordinary. But I can tell him all the ways that he is more than enough. I can tell him I’ve never known a heart as big. I can bolster his confidence with extra hugs and kisses, and I can send him out into the day with his cup overflowing. And for today, at least, I can kiss his cheek and tell him he’s the cutest goddamn thing there is.