Escaping the Boa Constrictor

Noah likes to give us homework assignments on the weekends. (Just this past Sunday I did twenty-five two digit by two digit multiplication problems for him—and I got them all right. Apparently I can still do elementary school math.) He relishes his role as teacher and often gives a lecture with examples on his chalkboard before we complete the assignment. A couple weeks back he gave us a language arts assignment that was more fun than the multiplication. “Summer!” the paper proclaimed in yellow-orange letters, “Write a summer story.” That was it, but he gave some oral instruction as well. It should be a true story and not a fictional one, he said. I thought about all the memorable summers in my life, good and bad. Would he like to read about 1987, the summer Beth and I fell in love? Probably too mushy for a nine year old, I decided. How about some of the trips Beth and I took in our twenties and early thirties? (We have traveled to all fifty states together, most of them before Noah was born.) Finally I settled on something more mundane, but possibly of more interest to him. This is what I wrote:

The spring I turned nine years old my family moved to a new house. We moved from the city to a small town. I remember that summer (between third and fourth grade) well. I’d never had a yard before and I loved playing in it. Every morning before breakfast I would run outside to see if anything had changed overnight. There might be mushrooms after a rain or new roses or interesting bugs on my mother’s rosebushes or something new growing in the vegetable garden. The yard had a patio enclosed with cedar trees. That summer my mom read me The Hobbit and we usually sat on the patio to read. I used to stare up at the tall hedges all around me rising into the sky and imagine I was traveling along with Bilbo and the dwarves.

This was also the summer I learned to ride a bike without training wheels. I’d always had trouble learning to do things like that and in the city I could only ride up and down my block anyway so I didn’t have much motivation to learn. My father took the training wheels off my bike that summer and taught me how to ride. It was hard but I finally got it and then I was allowed to ride far from our house. I had never had so much freedom before. I could even go to the ice cream store (with permission). These are some of the reasons 1976, the summer I was nine, was one of the best summers of my life.

I had ulterior motives for telling Noah this summer story. I want him to have as wonderful a summer as I did that year and even more importantly, I want him to believe he can. I put in as many details that might connect him to my nine-year-old self as I could. (He and I just finished reading The Hobbit on Tuesday; he still can’t ride a bike.)
Things have not been going well for Noah recently. I haven’t been this worried about him since kindergarten, what Beth and I now think of as Noah’s bad year.

He’s been saying that the kids at school don’t like him and that he has no friends. I don’t think it’s quite as dire as that, even though he and Sasha do seem to be drifting apart. That’s a natural part of childhood but Sasha has a new best friend and Noah doesn’t, so that’s sad. They are not completely on the outs, though. Noah had him over last weekend and yesterday Noah went to Sasha’s second annual end-of-school pool party. Meanwhile, another good friend has been giving him mixed signals, excluding him from his birthday party (and telling him so) and teasing him at times and but acting friendly, trading books and inviting him over to his house at other times. However, when I asked Noah what he did at recess, which I did from time to time, for the last few months of the school year he always said he played alone and he sat by himself at lunch every day, too.

As they get older the boys in his class are more and more interested in sports, which hold no interest for Noah, and the kind of imaginative, role-playing games he likes to play are getting less popular. He’s also being teased at school for sucking his thumb. As much as I hate to suggest he change for other people, I finally got desperate enough to ask him if he could try to stop sucking his thumb at school and make it an at home thing only. He said he doesn’t realize he’s doing it when he starts and then when he becomes aware he figures everyone has already seen and so he doesn’t stop.

It’s hard to look at this objectively because I was never a popular kid. I went through a few years of being part of a nerdy, frequently teased quartet of girls (fifth through eighth grade) and then after we moved again in the middle of eighth grade, I just didn’t make friends until the summer before eleventh grade (except for a brief but intense friendship at the end of ninth grade). I can say, for me anyway, that it was better to have a few friends, even if we were teased and shoved in the halls, than to have none at all. I don’t want Noah to be in a position to make this comparison ever, but especially not now. He’s only nine years old.

So between his challenging social situation and the lack of academic challenge at school this year, it’s something of a relief that yesterday was the last day of school. I’m going to be proactive about having him invite kids over this summer because one on one is the easiest way for him to relate to other kids. We’ve also decided to do at least the first step of Asperger’s testing. It’s a parent interview. After that, we’ll decide whether or not to have him tested.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Noah’s looking forward to our two beach trips this summer and to day camp (three weeks of drama and one week of art). At home, he’s his same cheerful self most of the time, except when he’s bickering with June. And there were quite a few highlights in the last two weeks of his third grade year. He was in the Variety Show for the first time. He didn’t choose to be in the show. Some teachers decide to have their whole class perform a song or dance and some kids prepare their own acts. Señor Salinas had both his morning and afternoon classes learn a song called “Que canten los niños” (“Let the Children Sing”) and Noah had fun learning and performing it. Beth took a video and he and I have been working on a set of English subtitles for it. I don’t know why Noah has never created his own act for the Variety Show, given how he loves the spotlight. Sometimes he lacks initiative, especially when it comes to putting something together on someone else’s schedule.

Anyway, the show was a lot of fun. Where else can you see kids playing piano and flute, kindergarteners dancing inappropriately sexy dances, a mime, children in fedoras and sunglasses singing the times tables, Irish step dancing, Indian dancing, a number from High School Musical, a Recycling Parade of mothers dressed in dresses made from tea bag wrappers, Dorito bags, umbrella fabric, etc. and a Michael Jackson tribute? Beth thought the moon-walking was a bit weak, but I thought some of the zombies in the Thriller section were quite convincing.

The carnival at Noah’s school often conflicts with the Lantern Launch but it was a week earlier this year so we got to go. It was a nice relaxed evening. We ate pizza, June played a carnival game (she won a toy by fishing the right rubber duck out of a kiddie pool with a net), Noah threw a ball and successfully dropped the Vice Principal into the dunking tank (much to my and Beth’s surprise) and both kids spent a long, satisfying time climbing and sliding and jumping on the huge inflatable play structures.

Field day was the next week. Noah said he liked the potato sack race the best, but he also enjoyed some of the other games. I asked him if they divide the students into competing teams on field day and he said no. I kind of figured that would be the answer, but I told him how when I was in third grade it was the Bicentennial and they divided us up into the British and the Americans on field day. The British won. He lacked the cultural context (of 1970s culture, not the Revolutionary War) to understand how funny this was.

I think my favorite end-of-year event was the poetry slam in Noah’s afternoon class. To clarify, it was not really a poetry slam. As at field day, there were no winners and no losers. It was really just a poetry recital. But if it had been a poetry slam, I think Noah would have been in the running, not so much for content as for delivery. I say that because even though we were in the front row, three-quarters of his classmates read so quietly I have no idea how good their poems were. They may have been brilliant, but they were inaudible. Noah was loud and clear, though, and very, very serious. If he ever needs to address the U.N, he’ll do a great job. He read two haiku, a diamante (, a limerick and a biographical poem. I liked the limerick best:

There once was a boy named Noah
And he got attacked by a boa
That horrible snake
Had made the ground shake
But still it went home with no Noah

Here his serious demeanor cracked a little and he grinned.

Beth and I attended all these events except field day and they reminded me of some of the things I like about his school, its community spirit being chief among them. And I kept thinking how bittersweet all the end-of-year hoopla would have been for me if Noah had gotten into the gifted center for fourth grade.

And then he got in. On Monday afternoon we got the call telling us he’d been admitted from the waitlist, and all of a sudden we went from thinking he’d have two more years at his current elementary school to thinking it might be two more days. Tuesday morning we took Noah out of school for an hour to tour the new school. And that night while we were eating dinner at Mark’s Kitchen (they were having a fundraiser for his current school), he announced he wanted to try to gifted school. So it’s official. Beth’s made the calls and emails and all that’s left is some paperwork.

There are drawbacks. Faced with the prospect of leaving his school, he realized he did have friends and he says he’ll miss them. (Several kids from his school will be switching with him but none are close friends.) We told him he could still have play dates with his old friends. And there will be logistical difficulties. The bus stop will be at his old school, a twenty-minute walk from our house, and the afternoon pickup time doesn’t mesh well with June’s school schedule. Also, he will have more homework and less time to finish it since he will be getting home later. And he’ll be leaving the Spanish immersion program, which has been a good experience. There is the possibility of an after-school Spanish club forming, the principal told us on our tour, but then he’d get home even later so I’m not sure I’d even want him to try it.

Despite all the challenges, we’re going to try to we make it work. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Noah that opens up all kinds of possibilities. His academic needs should be better met at his new school and while there’s no guarantee of this, I’m hopeful that some of his social difficulties could be ameliorated by changing schools at this point as well. It will be a chance to start fresh, with new kids, all of whom will be in a new school and looking to make new friends. Plus they will be as smart as he is, so possibly his quirks won’t seem quite as quirky. I’m hoping that’s how it works out anyway.

I’m feeling more optimistic about him than I have in a while. Take that, boa constrictor.