My Only Friends

There is a boy in Frank’s class that is feeling out his place amongst his peers. Well, probably every boy in Frank’s class is feeling out their place, and every girl, but this boy you can read this on him. He has a joyful spirit, a great smile, a bright mind and a wellspring of energy that will not run dry. He has all the makings of a track star or something that requires quick movement. He does things at his own speed, in his own time, and I imagine that the tempo of the drummer he marches to is really tapping his toe at an incredible pace.

From and early age I worked to impress upon Frank that there are some children that do things “in their own time and in their own way.” This was the phrase I used when I introduced him to the son of a dear friend of mine who was on the spectrum, at that point nonverbal, and not toilet trained. I think Frank was 3 at the time. Frank liked that boy and liked going over to their house and playing with them. My big fear was that he would notice that this boy wasn’t using the potty like he was, something he was incredibly proud of, and turn it back on this friend and criticize him for it. But Frank didn’t. Those talks about “in his own time and in his own way” seemed to satisfy whatever difference Frank would notice between him and this sweet, sweet child.

Preschool began and Frank came to meet other children who did things in their own time and in their own way. Sure, kids on the spectrum, but also kids whose parents had neglected and abused them to the point that they lashed out violently and to the adults in the room in scary ways, showing what they’d been exposed to through vulgar language or crude gestures. Nonverbal children who hid in playground tunnels or shoved their friends down slides. Very verbal children who couldn’t sit criss cross applesauce hands in their laps. We came back to the discussion time and time again. He would tell me that so and so kicked down his block tower and I’d let him know that I was sorry that’d happened, and here’s what he could do next time, but I wanted him to know, this is a child who does things “in his own time, and in his own way.” When I would say that to him, it would settle the matter. He would extend boundless grace to any child who I characterized this way.

It could be a struggle. Frank is a rule follower. He was often described in those days as a “police officer” or “very good at encouraging others to follow the rules” which are both nice ways to tell me that he’s a narc who spends half of recess yelling “Slides go down, not up!”and the other half reporting to the teacher which rules were being broken.  As he worked through the concept that he would never have any street cred if he was going to be a fun killing tattle tail, and to worry about himself and not everyone else, he grasped the concept that not every rule applies in the same way to every kid, and that’s ok.

I’ve heard stories about this friend he has at school now. I’ve sat down to lunch with his class a few times over the past few months. I’ve seen this boy testing the waters not in the way many children do, by dipping in a toe, but by cannon-balling right in, and I’ve watched kids squirm as they got splashed. He’s figuring out his place, just like 8 year olds do.

Frank talks to me, often at bedtime, about what’s on his heart and mind. We’ve talked a number of times about this boy over the course of the year, about conversations he’s had with him or heard others have. This isn’t the only boy Frank has noticed struggling to find their place. We talk about those boys, too.  I remind him that he has the right to be friends with whomever he likes, with everyone if he’d like, and that being friends with one person doesn’t mean he can’t be friends with someone else, a lesson that has come up every year since he’s started preschool, and I really hope doesn’t continue all the way through high school.

I’ve never described this child to Frank as someone who does things in his own time and in his own way, though I’ve thought it to myself. Through Frank’s conversations I could tell Frank was giving this boy the same grace he has learned to extend to other kids who are just a little bit different, no matter what the difference may be.I don’t have to repeat my phrase anymore because it has become part of Frank’s world view.

Last week I lay next to Frank and asked him about his day, about his friends, and if there was anything on his heart that he wanted to talk to me about. He started to tell me about this boy, this friend of his, about what he saw this boy wanting and his struggle to make it work for himself and his attempts to get positive attention from the other kids in his class. Then he said of one other boy and himself “Mom, he says we are his only friends.”

I can’t remember how I replied. I can’t remember anything except my eyes welling up. Frank does not want for friends. He is kind, and kids like him. But in that moment I heard that I understood something about Frank that makes me so proud of him. My kid is not just a well liked kid, not just a nice boy, he’s a kid who makes someone feel valuable when they struggle to see themselves that way.

Frank is developing a competitive spirit recently, and starting to enjoy sports, but at this point he doesn’t show that he has some hidden Olympic destiny. Frank is an incredibly smart boy who thinks outside the box, but sometimes if you ask him to pick up the socks on the floor directly in front of his feet it could take him an hour to find his feet. In America parents push to find not just the thing their kid is personal best at, but the thing their kid can trample all other children at with their mad skills and super awesomeness, the light in their child that outshines everyone else’s light.

How beautiful it is that what I see as Frank’s greatest skill, what he’s super awesome at, what is his light that shines brightest…is his ability to make others shine brighter.

I hope that I can be like that when I grow up.


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