7 January 2003
11:30 a.m., we’re on our way home from school. Surrounded by this surrealist Los Angeles January. Dry winds that grab trees by the trunk and hurl them to the sidewalk like so many cracked Tinkertoys. A stillness afterwards that wraps you in a warm, supernaturally bright cocoon.

Into this bright stillness, a phone call. Kahuna. To say his back went out again, he won’t be able to accompany Damian to the afternoon school yet again. If I weren’t actively driving, I’d bang my head against the steering wheel in despair. Kahuna was in a car accident early last fall. He’s missed nearly as many sessions as he’s attended. And if he cancels? Damian says “I don’t want to go if Kahuna’s not there.” Or he says “Mommy, you can be there instead.” Which is well and good – once. Twice, tops. But after that? Old, old, old. I did that two years ago. Three months sitting in a classroom. Never again.

And, too, what if I go and sit and Damian ignores the other kids? Walls himself off again? Then the time there has done more harm than good. So always before, I’d say, “Kahuna can’t come. We’re not going to school this afternoon.” Sigh for the lost work time. Sigh for the lost social opportunity for my son. Sigh for the unattainable and move on.

Not today. Damian hasn’t been to the afternoon school in a month. This is bordering on the absurd.

“Damian, Kahuna hurt his back, so he can’t come to the afternoon school, but I think we should go anyway.”

“I don’t want to go.”


“Because I only want to go if Kahuna is there.” Circular reasoning at its best. But his words sound muffled, strained.

“How do you think you’ll feel at school if you do go?”

A long pause. “I would feel lonely.”


“I understand feeling that way. You know Kahuna best, he’s your friend. But you also know –“ and then I list every teacher in the place, all the children I can remember, especially the ones I’ve seen him play with and enjoy. “So you won’t be alone. And I can stay as long as you need me today, too.”

Silence from the back seat.

“Would that be okay, do you think?”

“That would be okay.”

After another beat, “Sarah is my favorite person at the afternoon school.” (Sarah is the head of the school.)

12:30 p.m. At home now. I eat lunch, or try to, as Damian systematically destroys my office. He wants to play. He wants, it turns out, to go already. “When will we be ready to go to the afternoon school, Mommy? Is it almost time to go?”

I explain about naptime and how we always schedule our entrance after the children wake up because it would be deadly boring to arrive only to find everyone fast asleep. This segues into a discussion about naps and the fact that he doesn’t take them. He says maybe he will when he gets older.

1 p.m. “Is it time to go to the afternoon school, Mommy?”

2:30 p.m. Damian is practically bouncing in his carseat in anticipation. Chatty, too. As I pull into a spot along the curb, he wants to know why I chose that spot. As we walk through the gate, he wants to know what I think the kids will be doing when we go inside. The sound of “Happy Birthday to You” rendered in a high pitched, off key chorus gives me a pretty sizeable clue.

2:31 p.m. We walk down the steps to the back yard. The other children all file out the other side, down the other steps. Heading for the picnic benches. Damian doesn’t quite get the concept of “birthday party in progress, dessert type objects on the immediate horizon” and goes for the twisty hanging swing.

As he passes the tables, little Rosie of the dark curls intercepts him. “Damian! Hi Damian!” She gives him a huge hug.

His body goes stiff. She’s invading my space, she’s assaulting my currently unsteady sense of personal grounding. But then I see a shift. He relaxes, his arms come up. He tentatively hugs her back. This is his pal Rosie, after all. This is okay.

A moment later, Rosie tells him he can’t play now, it’s time to sit and eat cupcakes. Damian obeys. I hang back, hoping he’ll pick her table but instead he walks to the very end and joins one little boy sitting all alone.

For all Damian’s enthusiasm about coming here today, this is still not a comfortable thing. He’s guarded, unsure. But he sits on the bench. And when the teachers ask him which cupcake he wants, he tells them. Eats it with obvious enjoyment. And when he finishes, he hands me the cupcake and runs off to play.


That is the question, isn’t it? Always the question.

First he tries the four-seater turtle teeter-totter. He’s had some great times playing on it with other kids (and with Kahuna’s help getting things going). The thing about a four way teeter totter with just one child? It overbalances. Teeters but doesn’t totter.

This is no good. Damian looks around. Spots a boy straddling one side of a see-saw. Jumps up, races over. Sits down on the other end.

And that’s when I know this will be okay.

2:50 p.m. Damian and Rosie race across the yard together. She grabs his hand. He keeps the connection, holding hands as they run.

And that’s when I know this will be more than okay.

Rosie and Damian try the see-saw, the teeter totter (she drafts two other kids to join them), and I don’t know what else because just then Sarah comes outside, accompanied by a phalanx of prospective parents.

This is significant for Damian.

You see, every time when we come here, he tells me, “You can leave when Kahuna comes.” It used to be that he’d remind me constantly, anxiously, “You can’t leave till Kahuna comes.” Then he began to tell me as soon as he spied Kahuna, “You can leave now, Mommy.” Shooing me out the door.

But Kahuna’s not here today. So Damian has drafted Sarah. Earlier, when I talked to the teachers, I told them we were here sans Kahuna and that I’d probably stay all afternoon. But Damian piped up, “Mommy, you can go when Sarah comes outside.”

So as soon as he spots Sarah, even though she’s on the stairs and busy with four fiercely concentrating women, that’s his cue. “Mommy, you can go now. Sarah came outside.”

3:15 p.m. I stand inside the classroom, peering through the Venetian blinds at my surprising child. (What, you think I was really going to leave him there? His first day sans shadow? Yeah, right.)

Damian and Rosie enjoyed each other’s company for a while, ending up in the small sandbox with four other kids. They’re all parallel playing now. Which is fine. And normal. And typical. I don’t expect constant interaction. Well, only in my idealized fantasy of a school afternoon, and then only because I’ve put so much weight on any interaction, so now that I’m seeing some I’m greedy for more, more and still more.

3: 20 p.m. Wait, now he’s left the sand box. Uh oh. He’s heading away from civilization, to a lone table spread out with manipulatives: in this case, large interlocking blocks. He immediately gets to work, his dark head bent over his work. Obviously deep in concentration.

A little disappointing, this. I mean, he’s got Legos at home. He should be playing with – or at least near – other children here. That’s what we’re missing at home. I reassure myself with the thought that he did, did in spades, and that he surely will again, and that these things go in cycles. Kids come together, move apart, shift, crash together and retreat like ocean waves on the beach.

Another boy joins Damian. I suddenly yearn to know every child’s name who attends this school, to have the flavor of each personality. To know how they all suit and what each interaction might therefore become.

This boy seems fascinated by Damian’s engineering efforts. He starts to build something but soon abandons it and just sits, watching. Standing up here, so far away, I can’t tell what’s going on exactly, can’t tell if Damian enjoys his audience or is tuning the kid out. I watch for interactive building but see none. I do see Damian swish his newly created object around on the table. I also see the kid leave.

3:35 p.m. Time to come back, to find out if my child is zoned out or still present in the world of the school yard.

As I sit down at his picnic table, and after the greetings (“Mommy, you came back, why did you come back?” Um, because I never left?), he shows me his masterwork. “It’s an elephant with flowers on his back.”

This set of blocks has a complete menagerie, it seems. Damian has inserted the plastic elephant into the front of his creation, made it pull a sort of train or boat, which he’s used as a platform for a rising structure of curved shapes. Flowers. “This flower looks like wings,” he tells me. Well, yeah, because it is wings. But I’m enchanted by his imagination and forgive him any antisocial behavior. There has to be a place in one’s life for this too.

And it becomes clear now as I see him glide his invention across the table that he was just playing out the pretend scenario before. Swishing a toy does not necessarily mean he’s not engaged, does not equal perseveration. Not anymore.

Damian frees the elephant from its flower pulling duty and pulls a rhinoceros out of the box. They skirmish. Damian tells me, “Look, they’re fighting!” The elephant wins and the rhino gets tossed back in the box. A giraffe, a hippo, and even a lion soon follow the rhino’s fate. The elephant conquers all comers.

The other boy returns to the table just as Damian starts dismantling his flower float. He’s disappointed. “Why are you taking that apart?”

“Because I’m done playing with it.”

And in this moment, observing the ease of the simple exchange, I realize that this boy wasn’t passively observing Damian earlier and that Damian wasn’t oblivious to his presence. They were talking.

4 p.m. I talk to Sarah about adding an extra day to Damian’s weekly visits here. Instead of two afternoons with Kahuna, it will now be two with, one without. Damian’s ready.

I can’t believe how ready.

I know what steps we – and he – have taken to get here. I also know here is yet another step and not quite the final destination. And yet, somehow, I find myself in awe yet again. How did this happen? How did Damian overcome fear that was so devastating it froze him in his tracks, caught his voice in his throat, made him run – actually run – away from other children? How did he get from there to here? How did he do that? You can trace the path on a map, plan the trip for months, but somehow when you’re actually standing on that selfsame path, seeing the trees and flowers and moss and mountains, smelling the pine-scented air, feeling the soft breeze on your skin, that’s so real it seems like a dream.

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