En El Medio

Hay sí o hay no. ¡No hay en el medio!” Señora A exclaimed in frustration. (It’s yes or no, there’s no in between.”) She was trying to get Noah to admit or deny having pushed another student earlier in the day. She and Noah and I were sitting around a child-sized table and she was filling out the scores on his behavior contract for the day.

Noah looked shame-faced and wouldn’t meet her eye. “No sé,” he said repeatedly. (I don’t know.) It was hard to balance in the tiny chair with June squirming on my lap and it was hot in the room. Noah, June and I were all in jackets because after the meeting we’d have to rush to drama. I knew we’d be late, but I decided to stay as long as we needed to. It was his first day with the contract and I wanted to know how it had gone.

Señora A and Señora B (a school counselor) had drawn up the contract after our meeting with them, a rather frustrating meeting, truth be told. We’d prepared by asking Noah’s preschool (and now drama) teacher and one of the moms who volunteered at his school last year for advice about what works with Noah in a school setting when Beth and I aren’t there. Their advice, given separately, was remarkably similar. They spoke of Noah’s difficulty attending to directions given to the group as a whole.

“Noah won’t hear you unless you’re talking directly to him,” Kathleen, the mom, said.

Leslie, the teacher, added it was a good idea to touch him lightly on the shoulder when you spoke to him to keep him focused on you. “He has a busy mind,” she said, making it sound as if it was perfectly understandable it can be so hard to get him to pay attention. He is, after all, engaged in thinking deep thoughts. (One of his recent musings to me actually regarded the existence of el medio. “There is no highest or lowest number,” he told me. “But there is a middle. Zero is the exact middle.”)

But it turned out there were more pressing problems than securing Noah’s wandering attention. Señora A reported he had been hitting and pushing, that the other children were afraid of him. Noah’s version of events on bad days usually pointed to an accident, so we were unprepared for this narrative about an aggressive boy we scarcely recognized. As a result, and because the teacher and counselor spoke mainly to each other and not to us, Beth and I were more passive in this meeting than we intended.

When we came out of the meeting, which took place right before school started, we noticed Noah’s classmates all huddled around him, interested in the toy he’d been playing with while he waited outside in the hall. None of them looked particularly afraid.

In the end, Señora A and Señora B drew up a contract for Noah covering three types of behavior: keeping his hands to himself, staying in his chair and not talking or singing when he was supposed to be quiet. If he received seven out of nine possible points in any given half-day, he gets a sticker redeemable for prizes worth ten or fifteen stickers.

It took almost a week to get the sticker system in place. In the meanwhile, Beth and I tackled the problem like any overeducated, middle-class parents would: we hit the library, checking out books on six-year-olds, “spirited children,” and sensory processing disorder (Beth’s current diagnosis — I haven’t read that one yet). We also signed him up for a psycho-educational evaluation at Johns Hopkins, something we’d been considering for a while, given Noah’s quirky mix of intelligence and social immaturity. Right now we’re reading our books and waiting. Señora B said the contract would need two weeks before we knew if it was working. It’s been a week, but more often than not when I ask Noah he says Señora A didn’t give him a score for the day. I suspect she’s having trouble finding the classroom time to implement the system.

So we’re en el medio, neither here nor there, not really knowing what comes next. And there is an in-between; there always is. In the contract meeting, Noah freely admitted to every charge other than the pushing incident (in such beautiful Spanish I kept getting distracted from what he was saying by my delight and pride in how well he was saying it). This struck me, so once we were home, I pressed him further about it. “Why did you say you didn’t know?” I asked.

“Because I don’t know. I don’t remember pushing her…” He trailed off.

“But you think you could have?”

“Yeah.” Noah knows himself well enough to know that he runs into people without meaning to, sometimes without even noticing it happened. So in strict honesty (and he is a very honest child) he couldn’t deny pushing the other child, but at the same time he wasn’t quite ready to accept blame. It was an in-between kind of situation for him and faced with the declaration that such situations do not exist, he didn’t know what say.

All this angst about Noah’s school situation sometimes causes me to forget to worry about June. She’s in a bit of an in-between place herself. I took her for her thirteen-month weigh-in on Tuesday and despite all the extra-fat strained Greek yogurt and shredded cheese we’ve been feeding her she only gained five ounces in the past month. The nurse practitioner was a bit disappointed, but since she is growing and her head continues to grow (exactly a half centimeter a month) we don’t have to take her in at fourteen months and we have two-month reprieve from all this focus on her weight. I know she’ll have a growth spurt at some point, I just don’t know when and I’d like to just let it be until she does. Developmentally, she’s normal, just on the verge of talking and walking. She knows about six or seven words but rarely uses them. She is very close to walking. In fact, today I thought she was going to take a step.

She and I were at a coffee house and she was cruising around and around a low table, eating bits of Fig Newton I handed her every time she passed by. She paused every now and then to remove the sugar packets from their container and scatter them across the table and floor and then she replaced them. As she reached the corner of the table closest to me, she let go and stood, swiveled on her feet to face me and smiled, as if she was going to do something dramatic. I waited, holding my breath, thinking this was the moment. Then she chickened out, dropped to her knees and crawled to me. I don’t know when she will walk any more than when Noah will start having an easier time in school. It could be months from now or right around the corner.

Meanwhile, Noah’s week has been better than last. Monday and Tuesday he didn’t say anything about missing free-choice play or being called out of class to the disciplinarian. They had a substitute both days and I noticed he came home in a better mood than usual. On Monday afternoon he even agreed to take a walk with me, an after-school activity I often suggest and he rarely accepts. Today when I went to pick him up from school and take him to drama, I asked Señora A, “How was his day?”

She smiled, gave me a thumbs-up sign and said, “Super!” I thought about asking for more detail, but decided to leave it at that. I liked super. Why mess with it? (Later Beth speculated that the onset of warmer weather and with it outside recess almost every day, plus permission I secured from Señora A for Noah to suck his thumb in class has helped relieve some of his pent-up energy and stress and improved his behavior. Time will tell, I suppose.)

At drama it was Noah’s turn to come up with the idea that would start the improv. He’d decided ahead of time he would set the action in a haunted castle, but his imagination had been captured by a movie they watched in music class that day, about a musical child prodigy and he wanted to act that out instead. However, they’d only seen part of the movie and the information he’d provided Leslie was scant. She wasn’t sure where to go with it and she was trying to convince him to use another scenario. A long but unhurried negotiation ensued, with Leslie, Noah and the other students all chiming in suggestions. Leslie handled the situation with her usual respectful aplomb. Finally, they found el medio. The scene started with the prodigy’s story but ended up in the haunted castle (and somehow an alien egg from last week made a repeat appearance).

As we waited in the next room for class to let out, I told Kathleen that June still weighs only sixteen and a half pounds. She waved her hand. “You only have to look at her to see nothing’s wrong,” she said. Her little dramatist Caitlin is also small for her age, but very self-assured and strong-willed. She’s six going on thirty-six, so Kathleen knows small doesn’t mean sick or weak.

On the way home, I bought Noah a popsicle to celebrate his super day. We’re in-between, but there are worse places we could be.