It’s May now. The days are longer and warmer, and the air feels soft. Summer is so close, it’s as though we can reach out our fingers and touch it.
Your backpacks are probably all worn out and have a bunch of stuff rolling around in the bottom—elastic bands and fidget spinners and old worksheets you forgot to hand in to the teacher.
All of my kids are excited for summer, especially Jack.
You remember my son Jack, don’t you? He was in your class last year, for sixth grade. He had autism.
He still has autism, but he doesn’t go to your school anymore. Now he goes to a school in the town next to us.
I want you to know there are very good reasons why he changed schools, but it wasn’t because the teachers weren’t doing their jobs right, or because kids were mean to him, or because he wanted to leave.
He did not want to leave.
He left because last spring, when fidget spinners weren’t even a thing yet, he became very, very frustrated. He became aggressive, and unpredictable, and difficult to control. I’m sure you remember all the times you had to leave the classroom because he was throwing stuff on the floor and yelling loudly.
It was because in sixth grade, he did not understand why Pippi Longstocking might be very sad when her father died in a shipwreck, or how to divide three cookies between two children who were having a snack together.
The thing is, Jack’s brain is different. I mean, it has the same parts we do–the cerebrum and the cerebellum and all of that–but it doesn’t quite work the same way yours and mine does.
For instance, let’s say someone tells Jack that his money is burning a hole in his pocket. The part of the brain responsible for interpreting language will hiccup a little as it tries to put the words burning and pocket together in a way that makes sense.
Then the place in his mind that handles something called cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch your thinking between various concepts and ideas, will seize up like an engine without enough oil. See, his way of thinking is too rigid to understand that money doesn’t burn holes–it’s just an expression that really means he likes to buy things.
He might start to get agitated, and pace the room, and maybe even scream, because the part of his brain that manages fear and anxiety is a bit off, and when he hears about something burning a hole in his pocket he’ll right away think about a fire in his pants and he will get scared, because he’s scared of fire.
I bet your mom or dad helped you with your homework a lot this year. Maybe they sat with you at the kitchen table or the small desk in your room, and as the late afternoon sun turned to a purple-y dusk, you bent over the papers and read the directions out loud. They reminded you to borrow the one and subtract the two, and quizzed you on your spelling words.
I didn’t always do that for Jack when he was in sixth grade. Whenever I tried to take his homework out of the blue folder he decorated with smiley stickers, he would scream and hit his head with his hands and run circles around the room like a lot of bees were chasing him.
So I did the only thing I could think of to do. I put the homework back in the folder and I tried to forget about it. I hugged my boy Jack even though he does not like hugs and I tried to make him feel calm again. I tried to quiet the bees.
For this, I failed him.
This is the exact thing I thought to myself last fall, when I had to peel him off of the front porch on the first day of his new school. He was crying the kind of cry that makes no noise. He just had tears sliding down his face. I held his hand down our long driveway and convinced him to get into the minivan that for him, had replaced the long yellow bus.
As we walked together, he put his head on my shoulder and he squeezed his eyes shut tightly.
He did not want to go. He did not want to leave your school with your cafeteria and noisy hallways and loud, clanging lockers.
There are no lockers in his new school.
I failed him.
Do you know what failure feels like? It feels like a scratchy coat in the middle of July. It is hot. It is uncomfortable. You hate it, but at the same time you pull it close to your body and button it up tight because it reminds you of who you are—of all the things you did and didn’t do when you had the chance.
All last fall, as the leaves turned orange and gold and crunched beneath our sneakers, Jack was devastated. He was frantic. He was sad. But as winter’s new snow covered the landscape like smooth, white paint on an empty canvas, he began to settle.
And his new school, well, it’s fantastic. It’s full of amazing, kind people who know a lot about autism. It’s very, very small with only ten kids in the whole middle school so the teachers have a lot of extra time to listen, and watch, and figure out the way his brain really works.
And when he gets very, very mad, they have strategies to make him calm again so he doesn’t hurt anyone else—so he doesn’t hurt himself. They know about the bees.
At last, he has room to spread his wings—to fly and to fail and to soar yet again. Slowly, he is learning.
Yet still, he wants to come back. Almost every day, he asks if he can go back to your school and be with all of you. He checks his big brother Joey’s backpack for the lunch menu and he sits at the counter and studies it carefully.
Joey. For you. Have tacos on Thursday.
No matter how many times you wave to him at the baseball field or come up to him in church and say hello, somewhere deep down inside of his heart, he feels forgotten. He feels lost.
He still misses you. He misses your games at recess even though he never understood them and he misses sliding his lunch tray through the line and picking out his milk.
The thing is, we need people like Jack. This may be hard for you to understand right now, but we do. People like my son—whose brains have all the same parts and yet think very different thoughts—well, they add something special, and important to our world. They take the white paint, and they make it colorful.
They should just make. More cookies.
I guess what I am trying to say is that even though his brain is different from ours, it is not broken. He is not broken.
I hope that next year, when you look around realize he is still gone, you’ll think of him. You’ll remember him. And you will smile.
Have a wonderful summer.