Snapshots

December 01,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

On Monday, when I walked in to pick up L., he had his nose buried in a book. While I tracked down math homework for his tutor, and made a copy of a worksheet, and tried to find his Trapper Keeper, he stayed reading, huddled in a corner in the hallway. He read across the parking lot, and once we got into the car. This is good, I thought to myself. Because if L. can focus on something like that after school he stays calmer, and relaxed, instead of being like a blown-up ballooon, untied and let loose to ricochet around a room. We drove off in silence, L. still reading. Then, "Mama, what does laudanum mean?" I thought for a moment, trying to recover information gleaned from Victorian novels. "It's a type of drug, used mostly in the old days." "Is it Opium?" "Um, yes." This then sparked a burst of very detailed description from L. about where opium comes from, and how it's made. Silence again. Then, "What's penance?" "Well, it's when you do something you think is wrong and you try and atone for it." Silence. Then, "What's a convent?" "A place where people might go learn how to be nuns in a church." "Well, I guess there goes any hope of Matt and Maria ever getting married." That conversation left me intrigued enough that I made a mental note to start reading L.'s book, which he's working through in his language arts class at school. He loves the book, and it's been a long time since he's devoured a piece of fiction like that. He prefers non-fiction any day, and will spend hours reading the same visual dictionaries over and over again, so I'm happy to see him take a detour into a good science fiction novel. I'm happy, too, to see him thinking about the relationships between characters in the text, and that he's asking me about the definitions of words; I can see him filing them away, for future use, which also makes me very, very happy. *************** After school on Tuesday, though, there was no book. I took L. to the local market near his school, on our way to pick up T. We discovered, years ago, that L.'s sensory disorganization after school can be helped if he has a snack and a drink to focus on. I think this probably holds true for most kids after a long day at school, but unlike most kids, L. rapidly falls apart if we don't intervene in some way. So I keep a bag of snacks in the trunk, and pack of drinks. If I'm caught without these, I might take him to the store for a drink and a roll, or a bag of pretzels he can crunch on, and so forget about the painful cacophony of the world pressing down upon him. On Tuesday he was unraveling, I could tell, bumping into things on our way to the car, snapping at me when I asked one too many questions, unfocused, and irritable. He was in unexploded bomb mode, and I knew the smallest thing could set him off. When L. was an infant, we couldn't take him into stores or he would ball up his fists and scream-cry until his face was a dark, angry red. But as he got older, and learned to hold things in his little hands, we could give him a toy to focus on, and later something crunchy to gnaw, and so escape the crying and frayed nerves (his and ours). We breathed such a sigh of relief when the day came and we could push him through stores again, or on walks, without all the accompanying screams. We learned a lot about parenting L. in those early weeks and months. At the market checkout line the nice lady watched L. trying, as he does every time we're there, to crack the floor safe by the store office. Then, as she does EVERY time we're there and she sees this (I'm not kidding), she tells me about her brother's child, who goes to a wonderful private school in Florida, where the curriculum is all arts focused, and the kids learn outside, and everything is very hands-on learning-oriented. It sounds like a dream school, really. Except we're not in Florida. I nod politely, as I always do, and make murmuring noises about how great that all sounds, because it does. Then I pull L. away from where he crouches, ear to the safe's door, and we head out to the car. He unwraps his doughy roll and pops the top on his Zevia ginger ale and the car is suddenly filled with the smell of bread, and the tension, once so sharp and heavy and bitter, dissipates along with the satisfying sweet fizz of his drink.