The Language of a Smile

smile

This may be cliche to some, but not to me. I’ve seen it. Many times.

Just the other week, I saw a group of children–preschoolers–play at the airport, in the space between gates with flights departing to globe spanning destinations.

Some among the handful of kids spoke different languages, and none of them knew each other until a moment prior. 

Nonetheless, there was a long wait to be had, a few empty water bottles, a ribbon to pull, and play-ready age-mates to pass the time with. So they found a way. Their giggles filled the space with the ripple of childhood joy that knows no borders, religion, nationality, language, tradition, or race.

The children babbled to each other in their own respective languages, understanding not the words but at the very least enough to go on playing, to take turns, to get a notion for a silly something that sent waves of hilarity through the lot of them …

Adults sat nearby, keeping an eye on their child with a little less wariness of each other, now that their young ones felt so at ease. After all, these were just children playing together: they were not political statements or status symbols or religious flagships. They did not carry burdens of group-mentalities or dogmas or beliefs. It was okay to just be. To share a moment. And a smile.

For the adults, too, smiled. A careful, half-lip smile, weighted by whatever notions and knowings, history and worries adults often have for those they do not know and whose language they don’t understand. A half-smile it began but it grew warmer when eyes met following a child’s antic, a cute gesture, a silly face, a giggly laugh.

Like the children, the adults smiled the same smile in every language. Or rather, they smiled in one language–the one we all recognize and know by heart. The language of humanity. The language of a smile.

 

Heartbeat of love

heartbeat

The little boy had a difficult beginning. Born unwelcome, left at an orphanage in a rural area overseas, raised in a crib in a room full of other babies in cribs–bereft of stimulation or affection or even much in the way of nourishment, when funds at the orphanage were low.

He was among the fortunate ones who survived infancy, and was adopted at age two, to parents who showered all the love they had on him and then found that they had even more to give when that threatened to run out. He was not easy to care for, you see. Unresponsive, non-communicative, alternately rubbing himself against their legs like a kitten, squirming to get off, or slumping like a lump of potatoes in their arms. He either cried inconsolably or stared stoically. He would eat things that should not be eaten and hide foods that should. He could not fall asleep unless he was in an empty bed, never a quiet room, and only after a long while of rhythmic head banging. He barely spoke. Only sometimes responded to his name. It was not looking good.

Fortunately, these parents had excellent instincts, stout souls, and good guidance. They sought help to know how to best assist a child so traumatized that he had learned to take himself away to cope. How to support a child who did not know others could be relied on. How to guide into love a child who did not recognize affection as markers for attachment or caring. They did not believe those who said that their son was autistic. “Maybe he is,” they argued, “but how could we know if he’s autistic, if he never had a chance to truly communicate?”

They sought other opinions and took him to speech language therapy and sensory therapy. They went to counseling themselves–there was much heartbreak to deal with in finally having a child and finding him unwelcoming of love. They looked for help with someone who understood developmental trauma and the adjoining dissociation that often follows–they wanted to know more how to best support him. They knew just loving him more was not enough: they had to find a way to help him process what he’d lived before he could find hope to live differently. Together with professionals, they worked to help give voice to what had none, they walked with him along the story of his lost beginning and his suffering and his strength and masterful coping and his current safety. He needed to know it in all of his being before he could trust it. Gently, they helped him heal.

Persistent gentle kindness integrated with knowledgeable attention and direction helped. The child bloomed. He is no longer checked out from his world, or words, or feelings. He’s in first grade now. Still closing gaps in language and communication, and he may always carry scars from his early years and a plausible exposure to substances before birth that make it difficult for him to regulate his body’s reactions and excitement. However, a more affectionate little boy you would be pressed hard to find. He’s happy. He knows he’s loved.

Not too long ago we were busy with a task where we listed things one does in the morning, or after school, or on weekends, or in a mall, or a park, or before going to sleep at night. To the last he said: “take a bath, brush my teeth, read a book, put my head on mama or papa’s chest.”

I smiled at that–the mom told me that they had a nightly routine where they’d cuddle, making up for the many lonely nights of empty cribs and no arms to rock him. They would snuggle together for a while, let him use them as a pillow, then kiss him goodnight. The parents had held him most the night when he was younger, once he let them.

The boy nodded at me, maybe taking my quiet smile as a sign that he needed to convince me of the veracity of what he was saying, or its importance. “Mama is softer, …” he continued, “and papa’s chest boo-booms louder. I like it. It makes me feel nice inside and it helps me not feel like I have to bang my head.”

Enough said.

Be You!

beyourself

“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.

Fair enough.

“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.”

hopeis