My son is a fencer.
It's a weird sport, all white stretchy pants, funny hats, bendy swords, and French words for everything.
But that's not why I've come to love it.
School has always been hard for my son. He's passionately social, too social. Like a lot of kids with ADHD, he tries too hard, he wants to fit in, and he pushes the others away with his exhuberance. I've watched it for year after frustrating year through grade school and into middle school, as he struggled to fit in, tried to explain to other kids what dyslexia means, why his handwriting is so bad, and why he has to go to the resource room.
He's impossibly skinny, blue-eyed, and freckled, with curling blond hair that his sister would kill for and he wishes wasn't.
He tried soccer. Basketball. Baseball. But there's so much standing around, so much waiting, so much angst over what happened or didn't happen, what somebody else did, why is it never my turn, why did he do that, why didn't the ref call this. And we'd talk about sportsmanship. No, I'd talk about sportsmanship in the car on the way home, and he'd sulk.
I'm convinced that there are team sport kids and individual sport kids. And a wide gulf between. And unfortunately, it's the teams that gets the notice. Do the high school cheerleaders ever cheer for the golfers? The swimmers? The cross country team?
When he found fencing at a Parks and Rec summer day camp, he was a desert-dwelling duck who found his first pond. "Mom! Did you know that if you do this, like that, and step over here, it's called a... oh nevermind, you just do this..."
I found the local fencing center and signed him up for a class. While I adjusted to my new parent-hangout zone, it was the older kids, the high schoolers, that caught my eye. They were like a tribe, boys and girls together, laughing and flirting over lockers full of smelly socks and grubby white jackets. Lockers covered with names, stickers, tournament ribbons, hand drawn comics. Then the coach would call them to order, and all of a sudden they had the intense focus I've seen in ballet class--legs just so, lunge, hands and arms up, now the other leg, complex exhausting drills across the gym and back.
While my son trained with the younger kids, what I saw in the older ones was confidence. Those high schoolers had poise and self-posession I wish I had ever possessed, in high school or anywhere else.
My son has been fencing for more than a year now. Week after week. Classes, lessons, and tournaments. Learning how to win, how to lose, how to be. We've slowly collected gear--a mask, then a glove, now a jacket, pants, and two swords. He got his own locker for Christmas, that badge of belonging in the long row of lockers down the side of the gym, there's one now with his name on it.
And I saw him today at his tournament, talking with kids from his class, laughing, encouraging his friends. Disappointed in his lost match. But still there, still present. Beginning to show signs of that confidence I saw a year ago in the older ones. After classes sometimes he tells me about ridiculous fencing moves that they name after each other, usually moves that resulted in a spectacular loss. The Steve, the Owen, the Karen. He told me about the one they named after him, and I realized he's finally, finally learning to laugh at himself. That alone is worth every penny of gear.
School is better. It's still hard. He's still dyslexic. But he talks more about friends, and less about being left out. His smile is back. He likes a girl.
I wouldn't care if it's fencing or tiddlywinks. What I want for him is the confidence that comes from hard work, from working together, from being in a place where people know him and like him. Where confidence comes from incremental, slow improvement over months and years, where he can begin to see a future that includes that lesson if I work hard at this I will get better. He can take that with him anywhere, to college, to Timbuktu, to the moon.
To all the places he'll need to go where I can't follow.