This summer, Chatelaine Magazine held a personal essay contest. I submitted a piece, crossed my fingers, and waited. Today, I learned that my piece – one of over 700 entries – was not chosen by their judges.
That’s okay. I still like it, anyway. So it won’t be published in the glossy pages of what is arguably Canada’s biggest woman’s magazine. That’s okay, I will share it with you here, instead.
It starts with Meet the Teacher night, at the beginning of first grade.
Gap-toothed, lisping little people pull their parents through a brightly coloured room, leading them to tiny tables and chairs that may not be up to the challenge grown-up bodies present. My son tugs me along too, and I struggle to squeeze through narrow spaces, to keep up.
When we reach his desk, I perch upon a blue plastic chair with tennis ball feet and admire the scraps of paper Liam presents to me: a construction paper turkey, a stick-figure family portrait, a book that’s all about him.
Next, we wander the perimeter of the room. I ask him about the art on the walls, and we try to find something with his name on it. Most of the other kids ignore him, but a few call out “Hi, Liam!” as we shuffle by. He glances in their direction, but barely. He mutters something that might be a greeting and twitches his hand in a sort-of wave. I’m shy too, but not like this. I ache for him.
When our tour of the classroom is complete, Liam sits down in the reading corner with a book while I watch for the teacher; her red hair makes her easy to locate in the crowd. Finally, she is beside us. She greets Liam, turns to me and smiles.
“How are things going so far?” I ask, inclining my head toward my son.
“Good,” Mrs. Teacher replies. “Liam is a bright little boy.”
We talk about his strengths: an excellent vocabulary, strong patterning skills, and artistic ability. My shoulders loosen a little.
“I’m so glad to hear he’s doing well,” I say. “I was a little worried about the transition from kindergarten to grade one. I know he can be a little quirky sometimes, and he had some developmental delays when he was younger. We worked with an Early Interventionist in JK.”
“Did your EI suggest pursuing an Asperger’s diagnosis?” Mrs. Teacher asks. Casual, like she’s just asked me if Liam were right-handed. I feel like I’ve been slapped.
“No,” I say. I can feel my heart beating, heavy and fast. “You think Liam has Asperger’s?”
“I think it’s something you should look into. The symptoms are there.”
The room is too full of people, too warm. I can’t quite catch my breath. She talks about how Liam fixates on things, to the point of obsession. She talks about his literal-mindedness, and his social difficulties.
“Thank you,” I say, which is a completely ridiculous response because I don’t feel thankful at all. “I’ll contact his pediatrician.”
She smiles, tells us to have a great weekend. She moves on to the next family, apparently unaware that she’s just blown a hole through mine.
“Let’s go home, sweetie,” I say, ruffling my son’s hair. He looks up at me and I search his face for clues. His brown eyes meet mine; he smiles and reaches for my hand. My eyes prickle with tears I refuse to shed. I blink, swallow, and smile back. He doesn’t notice; he’s already turned away.
On the walk home, he chatters non-stop. His tongue is loosened the minute he steps out of the school and we are alone. The quiet, awkward boy is left behind. Labels are, too. This is Liam. This is my son. Nothing has changed, even though it feels like it. But I realize he is going to need more from me and I resolve to love him harder.
The tone for the year is set: Liam needs help and it’s my job to get it for him. This should be easy — who wants to see a child fail? — but it turns out that it’s not easy at all. He isn’t a behaviour problem, and academically, he is keeping up. Other children present bigger challenges, I’m told. They are disruptive in class, they use their hands instead of their words. My son smiles, almost all the time. Subtext: my son is not considered a priority.
But he is my priority, so I email and I phone and I follow up. Doctor appointments, questionnaires and professional evaluations follow, but slowly. Who knew that it would take so many people and so much effort, just to get him on the wait list for a psychological assessment?
Sometimes, a well-meaning acquaintance will tell me that Liam is “just being a boy”, that he is a “late bloomer” and I shouldn’t worry because everything will be fine, he will outgrow it. Sometimes I even let myself believe that these things are true, but never for too long.
I make my own observations, constantly measuring him against mental checklists that I’ve built from the results of my never-ending Google searches. Inability to recognize and appropriately respond to social cues and body language. Difficulty identifying emotions in others. Trouble making eye contact. Obsessive interest in one particular subject. Rigidly adheres to routines. Literal interpretations. It worries me, how many checkmarks I’m handing out.
The lists help in other ways though; they help me to understand him. Before, I always assumed Liam was purposely being difficult, that he was intentionally misunderstanding my instructions. But I’m beginning to see that it’s not a conscious choice on his part; he simply processes information differently than other kids because that’s the way his brain works. So when we get home at the end of the day and I tell him “Please empty your school bag”, all I can do is laugh when he turns it upside down at my feet, shakes everything out onto the floor and then, smiling proudly, hands me his empty backpack. He’s done exactly what I’ve asked, after all. Literally.
Grade one draws to a close. It’s been a year of too few birthday party invitations and too many notes home from his teacher, but I’m trying not to dwell on the negatives. It is the end of the year, and we’ve made it through to the other side.
I consider it a small yet meaningful victory that we’ve completed all of the required preliminary steps and are now officially “in the system”, awaiting an assessment and diagnosis. I’m still not sure exactly what that will do for us. I only know we need help and this is the first step toward getting it.
It is too soon to celebrate, however. Final report cards are sent home and receiving Liam’s is like taking a punch to the gut. It knocks me down and robs me of my breath. Every sentence reminds me of what Liam is not, of what he can’t do…and it’s like Meet the Teacher night, all over again.
“Liam needs reminders to use class time appropriately…He is inconsistent in using appropriate behaviours…”
“Liam needs support to manage time well when working on activities…”
“Liam follows instructions with assistance…he needs to persevere and make an effort when responding to new challenges…”
“Liam is inconsistent in taking responsibility for his behaviours. He needs support and reminders to use appropriate behaviours more consistently. He is not always willing to use feedback from peers and teachers to improve his work..”
My hand shakes a little, and my eyes fill with tears. I read through the comments as fast as I can, hoping that if I rush, it will be like ripping off a bandage: a quick, sharp pain that’s soon forgotten. But it’s not like that at all. Hours later, the ache remains, and I lie awake most of the night, imagining every type of horrible future possible for a little boy who is different. Quirky.
The next morning, I’m tired and cranky after my mostly sleepless night. Thankfully, Liam manages his morning routine without issue. As a reward, I decide to surprise him, and download his latest favourite song: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I plug my iPod into the car stereo, press play, and we listen as I take him to school for the last day of grade one. I peek in the rear view mirror to catch his reaction and I am immediately rewarded for my efforts. His eyes widen in surprise and then a big, blissful smile spreads across his face. He sings along with the chorus: “Because I’m happy…”
And, do you know something? He is.
It suddenly dawns on me: this whole year, I’ve been focusing on all the things that are going wrong and in the process, I lost sight of everything that is going right. Liam is a six-year-old boy who loves watching Pokemon and building cities out of the cast-offs he finds in our recycling bin. He is full of noise and energy and love. He is happy. This is what really matters.
As we drive down the road with our own personal soundtrack filling our ears and our hearts, I think about how, if our life was a movie, the credits would be rolling right now. The audience would leave us here, while we still have a journey ahead of us, but they would feel good about it, optimistic. Because every life has challenges, and everybody struggles sometimes. But if we love each other and help each other — and if we’re happy — then things will turn out okay in the end. Even if we’re quirky.