I imagine that, as a teacher, you come across all kinds of learners.
There are the eager beavers—the kids who just soak up everything around them and can’t wait to dive into their workbooks and always keep their pencils nice and sharp.
Then there are the kids who are very smart but also very lazy; who do well on tests but rarely finish their homework.
You have your visual learners, and the ones who need to mix the paper mache with their very own hands before they fully understand the way the water and the paste combine, and others who get everything they need from their textbooks.
My son, well, he is none of these.
Or maybe he’s all of these.
I don’t really know. It’s hard to tell how he learns.
In the beginning of the school year, I like to write a note to each of my kids’ teachers and introduce myself and my child and our family.
My name is Carrie. I am Jack’s mom.
Jack is twelve. He has autism.
By now you’ve probably seen all of his paperwork—his IEP and the neuropsychological test and the notes about his progress and whether or not he can write in cursive and how his anxiety interferes with just about everything in his life.
You’ve seen the report that identifies him as an individual on the spectrum.
I have all the same paperwork. I keep it in a bright blue folder that I bought over ten years ago when he was first diagnosed. Once a year or so, I leaf through it all and look at the forms filled out by almost a hundred doctors, therapists, counselors, and behavioralists.
In the very beginning, they made me cry. Maybe not cry, exactly, but my eyes would fill with tears when I glanced over the words and I got kind of pit in the bottom of my stomach. I don’t really cry that much anymore. Over the years, I’ve learned to not take them so seriously.
When I read them now, mostly see the big gaping holes between the black and white sentences. I see how flat and colorless the words are. See, there’s a lot more to my son, Jack. There’s a lot that the reports don’t say. And that’s the stuff I really want you to know.
For some reason, whenever we go out to eat, he has to smell the menu before he orders his food.
He believes in Santa, and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
He’s scared of fire drills.
Never, under any circumstances, let him near your phone. In an instant, the very boy who had trouble understanding a simple math equation will figure out your password, download updates, and order a ton of movies off of Amazon.
He loves movies. He always orders a medium-sized popcorn and eats practically the whole thing himself.
Try, if you can, to avoid all topics related to Disney, Brazilian wood spiders, and whether pumpkin-flavored Oreos taste better than the red velvet ones.
He loves to swing, especially when he’s agitated or mad.
He does not have any allergies. He may, however, tell you he is allergic to citrus fruit, which is a bald-faced lie.
He rubs his fingers down the side of his nose a lot. I think it makes him feel calmer.
He will not be easy to teach, although he longs to learn.
Have you ever had a key that you tried to fit into a lock, but no matter how much you tried to turn it this way and that way, it still wouldn’t open it?
That’s how I feel about Jack. In my hand I hold the keys—the reports and the notes and folder and the diagnosis—yet still, I cannot unlock him.
Last Wednesday was his first day of school. The morning was kind of terrible. He woke up at 5:30 and it was just barely light outside and he was already agitated and jumpy. He kept telling me he wasn’t going to this new stupid dumb hideous school because he needed to be like everyone else not so different all the dumb time different sucks.
I managed to get him to hold his backpack and steer him out the door and just as he stepped onto the front porch, he stopped. He laid facedown, with his head in his hands. I wasn’t sure what to do.
I mean, nowhere in that big blue folder does it say what to do when my son sprawls out on the smooth, hard boards of the front porch just a few minutes before his bus is supposed to come.
It will not be easy, to teach my son.
The next day was a little better. His mood was lighter. He walked to the bottom of our driveway without me prompting him at all, and he even smiled just the tiniest smile before he climbed into the minivan that now brings him to school. It was as though a big heavy weight had slid off of his shoulders and fallen to the floor.
And this weekend, for the first time in months—literally, months—he laughed out loud.
When our Jack-a-boo stopped laughing last spring, it was though someone had shut off all the lights inside of our house. He and I sat together in the shadows, and we waited for the sun to shine.
The reports don’t warn you of the darkness.
He likes to pray before he eats dinner, even when we’re in a restaurant.
He can’t see a thing without his glasses.
He loves cheeseburgers.
Every once in a while, he will crack a joke that is so funny, so surprising, you will nearly fall out of your chair.
School has already begun, but our family holding on to the last days of summer as tightly as we can. Last weekend, we went tubing down a great big river. In this river, there were beaches and rocks and, every mile or so, rope swings.
We all sat in tubes or stood in the water, watching the kids and the grown-ups swing like Tarzan into the deep, clear water. Then Jack decided he wanted to jump. He stood at the top of the beach with the rope in his hands and hesitated.
People started to yell things. Mostly good things like come on you can do it! but after a few long minutes the crowd got a little restless. They got tired of watching Jack lift up on his toes and bend his knees a little and try to jump but being too scared to actually do it.
Let’s go, kid! You are holding everyone up!
It was one of the most painful moments I’d ever had as a mother, listening to people get annoyed and feeling a little annoyed myself and also sad and protective and mad.
I watched my husband Joe, standing in the water. I saw him put his hand in the air and hold up his fingers, one-two-three Jack come on buddy swing!
It will not be easy to teach him, this boy Jack.
I can’t tell you what kind of learner he is.
I can tell you that I love him so much I can’t breathe. I love him for all of his vulnerabilities, his challenges, his pride, and his naiveté.
I can tell you he is so much more than a report. He is beyond the paper, and bigger than a folder. He is progress and change and hope and sadness and longing all wrapped up in one tall, blue-eyed boy.
He is the long, smooth arc at the end of the rope on a sun-drenched afternoon.
I did it. I jumped.
My name is Carrie. I am Jack’s mom.