morning in the classroom
31 January 2001
It’s ten a.m. I’m sitting in a corner of Damian’s classroom. Miriam, the teacher, brought in a small table and chair Monday, so I even have a desk now. I’m a fixture.

Right now Miriam sits on the floor behind me. A neon-bright orange fuzzy glove adorns her right hand. It has a beak. I think it’s supposed to be a duck.

Circle time. The kids are finally calm. Simone and Sophia, who were squabbling in the book corner a moment ago ("my book!" "no, my book!") have been ushered outside by Nora, the assistant teacher. Gabriel reached across the circle to stick his paw into Michael’s bag of goldfish and filch a handful, which led to a chorus of "goldfish!", so Miriam tucked the enticing bag into the back of her box for later. Tyson stood up and started stamping around, wanting her water right now, but Miriam persuaded her to sit quietly beside her and listen to the songs.

Yes, the kids are finally calm. Damian, my gentle soul, sits on Miriam’s left. He has a bead tower in front of him as a kind of protective talisman, but he’s watching the puppet on Miriam’s hand with fascination as Miriam sings a song about – what else? – ducks.

Simone’s back. She just came up to me and exclaimed: "I’m sad because Sophia hit me and I’m not happy."

Tyson’s up again. So is Gabriel.

Whoops, Damian’s wandered off. Kiddie overload. He’s gazing at the fish tank. Fish are quiet, orderly, contained. Kids, not so much.

Now everyone’s settled in. They’re all wearing cat sock puppets and Miriam is singing about kitties. Damian stands a little way away, holding a "fountain": two soda bottles glued together, filled with a bright blue liquid and shimmering sparkles floating inside. You squeeze one bottle and the liquid spurts into the other in a gusher. He holds and squeezes, but he watches Miriam and the group with an intensity to his wide eyes.

This is school. I find myself tearing up at the oddest moments. A child will come up to me and offer some tidbit of toddler wisdom ("look at my di-sour") or angst ("she hit me") and my heart hurts for my own son who stands mute and separate. And my eyes water.

But sometimes my heart expands for my little guy when he claps his hands and stamps his feet along with a song, along with the other kids. When he joins in and seems, be it ever so tentative, like he fits in.

I wonder sometimes if I’m expecting too much, pushing too hard by putting him in this scary place. But if we take him out of school, if we get another nanny, he’ll form yet another one-on-one connection with an adult and continue to treat other children as alien life forms to be ignored or treated with utmost caution. And, too, he learns by observing. He’s doing plenty of that these days.

My weeks and months of Jami time, four sessions per week, four hours a pop, now seem like such a luxury. A distant memory. I still have her one or two afternoons a week, I need it for my sanity. I need to have that time to let go, to punch out, to be off the clock. It’s exhausting, this struggle to teach Damian ever so gently how to emerge from his shell, to teach him to enjoy the sunshine and, yes, to even enjoy the chaos of small bodies hurtling themselves across a room in a mad improv game of touch can’t-catch-me pile-on-top-of-each-other. To talk and to listen, to ask and to answer. To be present in the world. I teach by example, I teach by coaxing, I teach by being there for him when he needs to bury his head in the shelter of my arms. It’s a full time job and more. Nowadays I mostly cut my phone conversations short so I can have more time to play with Damian. I mostly cut my computer time short so I can have more time to talk to Damian and coax him to answer me. I cut my life-as-a-non-mom short so I can have more time to give him what he needs. Yep, I need my one afternoon off per week.

But for now I sit in the classroom, ready to give a reassuring hug, feebly resisting the other kids’ desire to bond with me (it interferes with the only computer time I have left when they keep coming over to chat me up). I sit here hoping I’m doing the right thing by keeping him here.

Life sure has changed. So very quickly.

Evening now. We had a good day, Damian and I. We played. We talked (well, okay, I talked). We laughed. He wanted to paint, so I got out the supplies and when I came back, he’d set up the pad of paper, opened it to a clean page. He painted, I kibbitzed. He took all the brushes out of the paint pots at once. I suggested they might make a mess on the page. He stuck the brushes in the water. Oh. He said, "I wash the brushes." I thought, "you talk!" And I was content.

Dan and I are coming to terms with the idea that Damian’s diagnosis may well end up being a mild form of autism. Everyone's busy telling us how very not autistic Damian acts, but we've been looking at online autism checklists until our eyes cross. And Damian fits the profile. Somewhat. Not completely. Which is enough to cause sleepless nights and disturbing dreams. But what we’ve both realized today is that it doesn’t matter, not really. Damian is clearly capable of great love. He’s capable of connecting with people though sometimes it’s harder than it could be. He doesn't have the prototypical rages, and he retreats inside himself only sometimes. If he’s autistic, it’s a label and a way into treating him – helping him – but it’s not a life sentence. He’s no Rainman. We can choose to be scared of the future or we can look at our little boy and see him for who he is and know that in the end everything really will be all right, no matter the diagnosis.

My friend Chris asked me if I have a sense yet of how this might be changing me. I told her that I can see myself becoming a different, more engaged parent. Not that I wasn't, but there's a different, more pure quality to it. I've always been a little restless, now I'm right there. I know the same is happening for Dan. Our love for Damian is right on the surface. Accessible. And I hope and believe that will make the rest of life accessible to him.

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copyright 2001 Tamar