“My life is over!” the child’s tone says it all. It has been an especially rough day. He failed a test he’d studied for, got passed over for the team he wanted to play in, and just found out he needed glasses. Oh, and that he’s allergic to dairy. The food he loves most in the world is pizza. Figures.
I could see something was wrong when he came up the stairs with shoulders slumped and legs dragging. He’s usually content enough to come here, but today the last thing he wanted was to have to spend time after school doing ‘after-school’ learning. He likes me well enough, but in the competition between play-date, video game, movie, or seeing me, I don’t stand a chance. It’s as it should be. I get worried if children prefer coming to me to having spare time or play time or get-home-and-relax time. He’s unusually unhappy to come this time. Or rather, he’s unusually unhappy, and it shows. Make sense that it would. Am glad it can.
“And I’m never ever going to be like everyone else,” he adds, having listed the tally of difficulty, bummers and unfairness.
“Why is it good to be like everyone else?” I ask.
He returns the look I probably deserved–the one reserved for adults who ask stupid questions when they should know better and when the query is not even worthy of the effort of forming a reply.
“Okay, okay …” I chuckle, hands up in trounce. “I didn’t mean it that way. I do, however, truly think that everyone is different and that it fine and often even better that way.”
Eye roll. At least he regained enough energy for sarcasm. “Yeah, sure. But you get to be really different and you end up being weird.”
“And anyway,” he sighs. “I don’t have a choice. Everyone has to do the same stuff at school, and everyone is supposed to get good grades, and be popular and that kind of stuff.”
“Hmm …” (when I say less, the kids tend to say more … I wait).
“School is too hard and it is too boring. And my dad thinks I’m not trying but I am working hard. I’m not a genius or a nerd or something. I’m not good at reading and I suck at math. And science … I failed science … my dad is going to hate me when he finds out.”
I wish I could rush to reassure this boy–barely 11 and already so jaded–that he is not expected to be like everyone else, that he is not expected to excel in everything regardless of his relative strengths, that his perception of needing to be popular is not correct … or that his father would not have a reaction that would crush him. Oh, I know that the father would not hate him, but he can be critical, and he tends to view grades as the only reflection of effort. He would likely see a failed test as an immediate proof of his son not trying hard enough. Even if he does not ‘punish’ him by taking away computer time or confiscating his phone for a weekend, the disappointment alone will devastate this child.
“He doesn’t understand,” the boy adds. His voice catches and he looks away, old enough to have internalized the (mis)conception that tears are somehow yet a marker of weakness. He doesn’t want to show me how much this matters. “I studied really hard and I knew all the notes but then the teacher changed the questions. How was I supposed to know the answers to those?” the color rises in his cheeks, wetness in his eyes. He looks away again.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I mean it. “I know how hard you work and I can see how having different questions–even if it was about the same material–can make it much more difficult. It is hard to figure out what the teacher meant and what the questions are about.” He nods. This boy is not making excuses. He comes to see me because he has difficulty with retrieving information–the access to what he knows is hit-and-miss, his brain behaves more like one big dump of knowledge than a filing cabinet. Information comes in haphazardly and is later hard to recognize or organize. He is smart, and he understands the material. However, change it around and he gets lost.
The teachers only marginally understand it. His father thinks that there’s nothing wrong with his son that a bit more ‘motivation’ won’t fix. It is curious, you might think, that he is that harsh when he admitted to having had learning issues himself. Or maybe not curious at all: people can pass judgement like a hot potato–what they cannot stand to hold, they put onto another. It can be especially so between mother and daughter, between father and son. Mirrors are a painful thing for what one did not accept in oneself and sees reincarnated in their progeny.
“Would you like me to speak with your father?” I offer. I’ve done it before, and it helps some, if temporarily. The father is of the opinion that I am far too soft and that kids wrap me around their little finger and I think they can do no wrong. He is not all that far from the truth, actually. I do believe that softness and kindness get farther and build better than harsh critic and demand. To his credit, the father also respects my opinion, and he does–quite touchingly–love his son. He told me once, in a moment of vulnerability, “I don’t want him to go through what I did. I want him to fit in better. To be a better student than I was. To be like everyone else.” (Yes, the boy now worries about same. Children will take on our fears and worries–they are acutely tuned in to what we think, even if we do not say it. They will know, and take it on)
The boy nods. He looks up at me then, hopefully slightly relieved–if not with the possibility of his father’s understanding, than by being believed. “If it is so good to be different,” he challenges, “what am I good in?”
“What do you think?” (my standard answer-query. I figure, if a child is asking, they already have a hypothesis in mind)
Moment of thought, pursed lips, raised eyebrow. “I’m good at drawing,” he states.
I energetically agree. The cartoons this boy can doodle put my best attempts at stick figures to shame. He smiles. He knows–as I often emphasize to the kids–drawing is not one of my strengths (five-year-olds come to my aid on a regular basis. “Let me do it for you,” the munchkins offer, “you are not very good at that…”). He smiles.
“And at snowboarding,” he adds. I nod. He began snowboarding only the winter before last, and reportedly advanced super fast from level to level. He snowboards with children several years older now. “I want to be a professional snowboarder when I grow up,” he says, the spark back in his eyes, “and wouldn’t it be cool if I drew, like, cartoons of snowboarding stuff, you know, for newspapers and maybe comics and such? I bet I could do that. Would that be awesome stuff?!”
I smile. “That is pretty cool stuff! You have got to do school work because that’s just how it is, and you have to do your best with that. But I am thinking, there are a lot of kids who would love to know to draw as well as you do, and most can’t snowboard half as well as you can.”
He grins. Proud.
“So …,” I note gently, “maybe life is not quite over … and maybe it is not such a bad thing to have some stuff where you are not exactly like everyone.”