Making Friends

schoolmates

“I have a best friend!” he announced.

The little boy was a tad breathless from climbing up the stairs, but also from the excitement of the news he had to share and what it meant to him.

“You do!” I grinned. This was the first time I saw him since the summer break, and evidently this was the highlight of the boy’s current experience.

“Yes! His name is Andy and he is in my class and he has a sister and he is my best friend … my BEST-friend!” Breath, breath, grin, “we’re even the same tallness!” (delighted sigh)

“You are best friends and you are the same height?” I smiled. His joy was absolutely infectious. “This is super cool!”

I am yet to meet a child who is not delighted in friendship though it is harder to come by for some than for others. This little one had it the more challenging way. Always the smallest in his class in stature, always a tad behind in understanding, two seconds slower to get to an answer, a bit clumsy, a little late to catch a joke or ball … Remnants of the difficult beginning of his life and the deprivation that his brain endured to oxygen and possibly nutrition even before he was born; remainders of the excess of chemicals that no developing neurology should have to be exposed to. Alcohol. Narcotics. Who knows what more.

A heart the size of the Pacific, and a soul to light the universe and yet … friends did not come easy to this boy. Somehow groups formed to his exclusion. Somehow best-friends paired up without him. Most children were not unkind, just egocentric, and he was just odd enough, slow enough, different enough, to fail first-choice.

“Andy’s a total doll,” the boy’s adoptive mother confirmed. “They have been inseparable all summer. They are exactly the same height, by the way … They met at summer camp,” she paused, letting me understand. The summer day camp my little client went to was geared especially to include those who had some challenges: children whose difficulties may be invisible to most and yet no less compelling; children with sensory integration issues, with language and attention and learning and a-little-slower-on-the-uptake issues; children who often found it a little harder to keep up … or to make and keep friends.

“Yea!” the little boy jumped in, “and then he came to my class and he was new but I already know him so we are each other best-friends!”

How perfect. For once this boy–so often the follower and tag-along–was let to lead … even if he was to be a shepherd for one (for now …). For once he knew more about something or someone than others or was at the very least aware enough of it. For once he did not have to compete because the connection was already made during the summer and seamlessly continued from day-campers to schoolmates.

“Other kids can be his friends,” he noted sagely, “I have other friends, too, and some of them want to be his friends also. That’s okay. But Andy and me … we are best-friends anyway.”

Heart the size of the Pacific. Soul that lights the Universe. Eyes that twinkle to the Gods.

This little Andy, he got lucky. He got himself the best best-friend there was.

Inside Your Hug

by robert wagt

by robert wagt

She’s a dark-haired gal with doe eyes and willowy body. All arms and legs that find corners and bump into tables and spill things and break stuff and mess up what appear to be the most child-proof settings. She doesn’t want to be clumsy. It is just that her body is full of angles that don’t quite plan their movements and her brain does not quite catch up to what’s happening until it is a moment too late and the damage done.

She wants to be an acrobat or a ballerina. The graceful movement, the delicate balance, the painstaking patience–they are to her the incarnation of what she would want to be and all that she finds terribly difficult. She would do better at hip-hop, her caregiver thought at some point, only to find out that a child who cannot quite catch a ball or toss it without hitting someone or breaking a window, cannot quite coordinate her movements in an elaborately sequenced dance. The teacher all but fired her after one class. Literally too many toes stepped on.

Still, the girl dreams.

She adores delicate, filmy, whispery clothing. Her caregiver thinks it would be more practical to put her in iron-knees pants and canvas but had resigned herself to letting this elephant-in-china-shop gal wear tights and lace-edged shirts. It is an act of faith, as they last about five minutes before they don a massive stain or spring a hole (which, perhaps thankfully, the child rarely seems to notice).

This little girl is a life on steroids. A roller coaster of emotions–she is either elated or devastated, overawed or broken-hearted, eager or despairing. She tries so hard. She keeps failing, falling, disappointing. Adults frown. Teachers scold. Caregivers sigh and try to keep a restraining hand nearby.

It is difficult to make friends, or rather, to keep them. Oh, she’s never mean; in fact, she is quite sensitive at reading others’ emotions and wants to take care of their needs, real or perceived. It is just that she pulls too hard when she holds hands, she pushes when she only wants to touch lightly to call someone’s attention, she messes stuff up and breaks things, she barges into conversations, she speaks too loud.

Her official diagnoses are all kinds. Some of you who recognize the symptoms may have an idea what those could be. Some of you would know why in my work with her, we tackle symbolic language, idioms and stories, auditory memory and following directions. Why we talk about social situations and solutions, practice narrative and inferences, work with predictions, and rephrasing, identifying context clues and finding the main idea in what to her is a soup of details. Why we make charts, write bullets, jot lists, follow steps, check items one by one.

She’s a bundle of everything–stories, anecdotes, questions, observations, feelings spilling over, hands tapping, legs wagging, hair twisting, lip biting, noise making.

I love working with her.

Oh, she’s a handful–in more way than one–but that’s okay. I work with many kids who struggle with managing incoming information, who need help regulating what their body senses and require direction to make sense. Fidgety bodies don’t faze me. Nor do spilled water cups, sticky fingers, rocking on chairs or crumpled papers full of holes from erasing too hard.

What fazes me more is how some of those kids who have an alphabet soup of diagnoses and a history of testing enough to fill a filing cabinet, have internalized that something in them is somehow eternally broken or ill-fitting. How all too often adults around them have come to believe this, too. I absolutely see the places needing tending, but along with the fizzy energy, there is all too often an untapped possibility, just waiting to be helped along through less correction and more connection and an ample dose of calm.

This one? She fiddles with a top while we’re working. When she’s thirsty, I offer her a water bottle (I’m super fast at twisting on a cap …). I corral pencils, crayons, papers, tape, bits of this or that. She hums and makes popping noises while she’s writing–I don’t mind. There is enough control to manage while at school, where it can bother others. With me she can just be and is exactly and perfectly good enough. Indeed she is. She’s working hard. She’s trying even harder. She’s making small but certain steps to a less chaotic path.

And she gives great hugs. They go straight to the heart.

She asks to give one, at the start and end of every session. She wraps her arms around me and leans her head against me as we stand side-by-side. She breathes. Through my hand resting lightly on her shoulder, I can feel her body slow down some.

The other day before she left, arms still around me, she said: “You make my head feel more quiet. You don’t get mad or yell and I can think.” Then she looked up at me sideways, doe eyes filled with wisdom of those whose knowledge is hard-earned and dog-eared with practice. Her arms tightened around my midriff and she sighed: “My quiet place is right here, inside your hug. Sometimes I think about it when other people look at me mad and it helps me not feel I am bad.”

inside hug