“Hurry UP! It’s my turn next,” Jack said urgently, pulling on my arm and pitching me forward.
We were navigating the busy classrooms of Riddle Brook Elementary for open house –the pinnacle of the back-to-school season—and Jack was getting impatient.
“Okay, okay, let’s find Henry.” I looked over and signaled to Joe it was time to head out of Charlie’s room with a quick shake of my head. I glanced over my shoulder to see Henry had plopped himself in Mrs. Cushman’s chair, and was banging on her desk and shouting, “Kids! Kids! Wisten to ME! I the teacha!”
Seven Cariello’s merged back into the crowded hallway and threaded through the throngs of parents and teachers and kids. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall, pretty woman I met at a barbecue in August. Sue.
At some point during the summer party, Sue and I were standing together in the kitchen, watching Jack steal pickle after pickle from a small glass bowl whenever he ran past. We laughed about how hard it is to send healthy snacks to school, snacks that don’t resemble orange fish or teddy bears or the booty of a pirate. She explained how much she loves to bake, listing all of her favorite things to make; pumpkin muffins and banana bread and granola.
Straightening some napkins on the counter, she said, “Well, I don’t make beans from scratch. I buy them.” I stared at her blankly for perhaps ninety seconds, my brain struggling to find a foothold on this culinary concept.
Make beans? Can one make beans? Don’t beans grow on a vine or a tree or something? Or better yet, come packed in a can?
(This is completely unrelated to my post, but now whenever I see her at things like Open House or Daisy pick-up, she sort of avoids me and rebuffs my attempts to be friendly. I think the bean thing is a thing. STOP PRETENDING IT’S NOT A THING, SUE RUSSELL.)
Anyway, back to open house. We trooped up to the second floor, past the bathrooms and the art room and into Jack’s classroom.
Overexcited, he started to leap and stim, bouncing from one end of the room to the other while Joe and I stood in front of a large whiteboard that had self-portraits of each student posted above it.
“Jack,” Joe called him over. “Come show me which of these self-portraits is yours!”
But I didn’t need Jack to point out his artwork to me. I recognized his portrait immediately, posted right next to Mr. Hines’. His face and body were out of proportion to one another, and he’d made his eyes green with purple eyebrows. He had no hair. It looked like something Rose—or even Henry—might draw, not the work of a fourth grader.
I felt my face flush and the buzz of moms and dads and kids talking filled my ears with a dull roar.
I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to feel a rush of sadness and fear when I see Jack’s work hanging on the wall, the neck of his self-portrait outrageously long compared to everyone else’s, the eyes the wrong color. I want to be bigger than this. I mean, who cares, right?
I do. I care.
Because if nine-year old Jack can’t so much as draw a picture of himself accurately, how on earth will he write book reports or figure out algebra or understand Mayan history? How will he keep up?
The week prior, Joe and I sat in a stuffy, airless classroom at the middle school, listening to Joey’s teacher describe a day in the life of a fifth grader; the arrangement of “pods”, the switching of classes, some weird-sounding quiz called a Frindle. As I mentally noted my oldest son’s increase in responsibility from fourth grade and his continued grace in handling the changes, a nagging feeling washed over me.
How will Jack ever do this next year?
Ten minutes later the presentation ended, and parents swarmed into the slightly cooler hallways, released from the room like middle-schoolers ourselves. Joe put his arm around my shoulder, bent close to my ear, and whispered, “How will Jack do this next year?”
Standing in Mr. Hines’ classroom, comparing Jack’s self portrait to the rest of the fourth graders, a quote by Albert Einstein popped into my head:
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you’ll spend your whole life believing it’s stupid.”
Let him be a fish, I thought. Not a tree-climbing, bark-gripping fish, but a shimmery silver fish, sleek and weightless in crystal blue water.
Fish don’t know how to climb trees. They don’t know how to do algebra or Frindle tests or draw self portraits.
Their sleek bodies aren’t built for soccer or running or trees; they’re built to swim, to navigate vast oceans and clear lakes. Their minds aren’t wired to read people’s expressions or understand geometry or figure out how Pippi Longstocking feels when her pet monkey Mr. Nilssen gets lost.
Fish do what they’re good at; they swim in schools and hunt for food and swim again. They never stop moving. And fish survive, they thrive, they even flourish.
Just like Jack will.
Be a fish, Jack, I thought as I watched him lead Rose and Henry over to the rug to point out where he sits for morning meeting. Keep doing the things you’re good at, like being a brother and spelling tricky words and sailing down our long driveway on your silver scooter. And swimming.
Swim, Jack. Swim like a fish.
Feel the cool rush of water on your face, your body light and buoyant as you glide through the streams of fourth grade and crunchy pickles and karate. Swim fast and swim far. Swim, and the rest will follow.
And when autism makes ripples in calm waters, keep moving. With long, quick strokes, push past the waves of anxiety and no one talked to me about a play date today and eye patches to the quiet seas beyond.
Because one thing is certain; you are not stupid.
As we headed out of the school I noticed Sue Russell again, standing and chatting with a group of women. I reached out and touched her shoulder when I passed by, waving a tentative hello. Her face broke into a wide grin. And walking down the crowded hallway holding Henry’s chubby hand, I thought about something else fish don’t do.
Fish don’t make beans.