I heard the gentle flapping of soft feet on hard wood well before he emerged from the darkness into the stark kitchen light. Judging by the timing of the stride, I knew it was Alex and not his three year old little brother. Instinctively or by habit, I felt myself tense up slightly. Would he be starting the day off well? What was his mood? Do we need to proceed with caution? One never really knew…
It was 6:15 am and I was just packing lunches and getting ready to leave for my own one and a half hour commute to work. Alex shuffled into the kitchen, arms folded over his chest and shoulders hunched up to his ears. His blonde wavy bed head bounced in such a way and at such heights that reminded me of the way he used to bound out of bed. As his eyes squinted to adjust to the overhead lights, he headed straight for me.
“Good morning, Sweetheart,” I whispered to him with arms outstretched. I enveloped his body in a warm hug, nuzzled my nose to his cheek and planted a kiss on the top of his head.
“Hi, Mommy,” he said leaning into me with a level of neutrality that served to address absolutely NONE of my internal questions.
Sometimes I can get a read on him. Some days it’s just plainly obvious that he’s on edge from the moment his head leaves the pillow, and while we do try to give him a wide berth on those days, his little brother has yet to learn that lesson and often ends up a victim of Alex’ wrath. I have to be honest and say that I see a little of myself in him on those days. I know what that edginess and irritability feels like: a firecracker just waiting for a spark.
But today wasn’t one of those days. Today, he didn’t let on that he had any emotional agenda on tap. He was just himself. Alex.
He continued onward to the family room and quietly curled up over the heater vent to get warm. We exchanged a few more neutral words before I left my family as I often do three days a week: longing for the end of the day when I will see my boys again, and hoping that the hours in between are kind to them, and that they are kind to their peers, educators, and caregivers.
In the last six and a half years, I’ve come to expect any and everything that the course of a day can provide. We’ve had really good days in which Alex earns a “star” on his chart at school and we hear reports that he socialized well with his peers. And we’ve had bad days, when the principal has called us to come pick him up and not bring him back the following day due to such bad behavior. Yes, kindergarten suspension does happen.
On my commute in, I reflected on some recent conversations I had had with him about his friend, Tania. Tania is a darling little girl with a level of energy that comes close to surpassing Alex’. Her social skills are about on par with Alex’, too, which means that there is certainly room for improvement. Her hyper-competitiveness, bossiness, and show-offiness run a close second to Alex’ ability. I’ve often reflected that this may be the reason they found each other—her energy burns out all the other girls in the class. To Alex, she offers the Girl World that he so intensely desires. She is, in so many ways, the mirror image of him, if he were black and a biological girl.
Tania is both a blessing and a burden for Alex. She accepts him for who he is. She does not judge his preferences. She sincerely enjoys his company. Yet, like magnets, they also possess an anti-magnetic dynamic between themselves.
Lately, Alex has been in a reflective space and has expressed hurt feelings over some of the things she has said to him. Perhaps it is our recent work with a behavior specialist and upping the ante with regard to expectations in our house that got him there, or maybe it’s his own developmental maturity. My greater and inner sense told me that he was about to turn a corner and reach a milestone. I speculated that the acting out over the weekend was directly related to his frustration at essentially being called to the carpet for the same behavior that Tania was still allowed to get away with. I speculated that he was beginning to deeply understand social mores that Tania had not yet been privy to. In some ways, it feels like watching a chalkboard get wiped clean with a damp eraser, leaving behind a smooth, fresh surface for rewriting the necessary scripts for lasting friendships and positive educational experiences.
At our designated time, 3:00 pm, I called his teacher for the daily check-in (we are so blessed that he has two extremely committed and compassionate teachers who want to see him succeed). As it was a Monday, I was prepared to hear anything, but what I got almost brought me to tears. In her reporting of his day, I could hear all the excitement and enthusiasm and sincerity that meant he had had an unprecedented stellar day.
His teacher went on to rave about how he sat in his seat quietly, worked intently, didn’t disturb any other kids, and did exactly as he was told. In her words, he was “on” today, and quite a different child than last week. She went on to say that he was a “model student” today. Proud mama moment. To. Be. Sure.
With this news, I couldn’t wait to get home and congratulate Alex and let him know how his efforts have been recognized. I finally get to savor these delicious moments when I can scoop him up and swing him around in delight, showering praise at a job well done.
The evening continued in this vane all the way to bedtime: he was cooperative, charming, tuned-in, kind, considerate, and thankful. He was not perfect, but understanding the difference he is today from who he was a year ago, even that is debatable.
No sooner had I turned out the lights when Alex gushed, “I had SUCH a good day today! It was really the best. I loved, loved, loved this day! I’m proud of myself.”
“And you should be! I’m so proud of you too! Wow, what a great day!” I echoed.
As I snuggled next to him in his semi-lucid, artificial sleepiness that we have come to depend on (thanks to “King Clonidine”), I appreciated this rare “open window” opportunity in which he divulges everything that is in his heart at the time. Alex Unfiltered. The conversation then turned to further reflections of Tania, her hurtful behavior, and the kind of behavior that is good to have in friends. Not wanting to send him off to the Land of Nod with any negative conversation, we left the conversation at “It’s important to have friends in your life that make you feel good about yourself.”
Today, he allowed the loving, positive qualities that had once been wrapped in a veil of negative and habitual behaviors to come flooding forth. In doing so, he offered the people in his life that matter most a glimpse of how spectacular he can really be.