Friday, February 15, 2008

Bowling alone

I walk to school most days, but one or two days a week I like to drive so that I can get off campus for lunch or to run errands. I usually eat lunch at a Tropical Smoothie Cafe about a mile and a half away from the office (they ring up my usual chicken mango habernero wrap with pretzels and a large soda as soon as I walk in the door).

My route to the lunch spot takes me past Archer's school, and if it's warm enough and dry enough, his class will be out playing on the playground after his lunch period when I drive by. I always crane my neck while driving through the school zone, looking for him in the swirling morass of first-graders running around in the yard. And usually I see him.

It's what I see when I see him that haunts me.

Today, for example, he was standing all alone on one of the railroad ties that border the swingset area, not another child within twenty feet of him. A week ago, I saw a couple of other kids tugging at his coat -- I couldn't tell in the five-second view I got whether they were playing with him, teasing him, or worse.

Early this semester we got an e-mail from his teacher that two boys in his class had taken advantage of Archer during recess, telling him to say "dick." (When he told his teacher about it, he said they had been trying to make him say "ditch.") His teacher was livid, and the boys had to go see the principal.

As heartened as I am on a daily basis by Archer's accomplishments, both social and academic, I live in fear that he will be taken advantage of by cruel kids. He doesn't understand the intricacies of social life -- he's inordinately excited by any attention paid to him by another child, although he doesn't have the skills to hold up his end -- and that makes him vulnerable to those who want to use him as a pawn in their own games.

On the other end of the spectrum, I worry that his classmates, singlemindedly pursuing their own projects, will just ignore him. Even though he doesn't seem to mind it -- he'll just go into autism mode, humming and flapping his hands as he spins in circles -- the fact that he knows to be impressed and grateful when others do reach out to him makes me think that underneath the self-absorbed behaviors, he's lonely.

Or maybe I'm just projecting. The image of my serious little boy, clad in a slightly-too-big black jacket, doing his private, obsessive dance all alone on the playground, tugs at my heart. I know it's not what he's doing all day. But what I saw in that instant as I drove by, catching a glimpse of his slightly furrowed brow and unfocused gaze, made me feel all alone in the world, too -- isolated from the normal comforts of friendship and anxieties of dislocation, trapped in a universe of mysterious particles whose interaction with me can neither be understood nor managed.

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