AJ’s summer vacation has been packed. He started school on Monday, meaning we jammed a surplus of events into seven short weeks, weeks filled with apprehension and anticipation in equal measure. Our trek began shortly after he demolished the 2nd grade—highly efficient academically, coupled with his energy, like that of a tropical storm wiping out decorum and structure in the classroom—and embarked on a crowded To Do List that had him careening around the state, facing new family challenges, shuffling between three homes, and trying to find a suitable place to sleep.
First, his mother got married. He was cool with the nuptials. Less enamored of having to spend nearly three weeks sharing a two-bedroom apartment with nine of his Swedish relatives who were in town for the festivities, an arrangement that not only forced him to sleep on the couch, but left him without blankets. Must be some sort of Scandinavian tradition of which I am not aware.
Second, he joined my girlfriend and I for an extended weekend of beach camping in gorgeous San Clemente with a bulk of her family and friends, nearly 80 of us in all, including dozens of kids all full of summer energy.
Third, he moved into a new house with the step family, followed by a week in Yosemite with the extended version (step cousins, step godchildren, step golden retrievers).
Now, poof! Summer's over. His school adopted a modified year-round schedule for the new term. This will also be his first in a GATE class, a change that I hope keeps him from getting bored during the school day. Considering the size of the packet sent home last night--complete with homework for me--I'm guessing there will be little downtime, much like our summer.
I think AJ summed the month-and-a-half up perfectly when he said his favorite part of that lazy weekend of beach camping was that he “finally got some sleep.”
As is evident, this is a transitional time for AJ. Gone is the coddled nature of 2nd grade, where the classes can be no larger than 20 students (or, that used to be the mandate here in financially-strapped California; now, due to budget constraints—and “constraints” is a euphemism for “horribly screwed up”—classrooms will be more like “Lord of the Flies”). In that setting, his teachers could afford to be more patient with him and his tendency to dominate a room, a conversation, an epoch. Loudly. (My mom recently said, “AJ’s just like Kent, except Kent was very quiet as a child. AJ’s like Kent is NOW.”) His new living arrangement includes a teen-age step-brother in the next room, a potential influence that leaves me nervous. He’s dealing with my advancing relationship, one that is verging on co-habitation. Clearly, this is a time for communication, to be watchful of his moods and reactions to the adjustments forced upon him.
It’s not so simple as interrogation. AJ doesn’t work that way. If I ask him a specific question, I get a mundane reply.
“Did you have fun in Yosemite?”
“What did you do?”
Of course, he proffered details later on, without prompting. There’s no such thing as a non-sequitur with this kid, even if the statements come randomly. If something is bothering him, I will know, as long as I pay attention. He offers these insights regularly, and not just with words. Sometimes, it’s simple action.
Once we got about 100 yards down the beach, he and I were basically alone. We scanned the sand for skipping rocks and rifled them into the surf. He chased after the seagulls and laughed in the whitewater banging on the shore. It was Saturday afternoon in San Clemente, our third day there. We were both hot and tired, walking away from the crowds and noise.
All the stimulation had gotten to him. An only child, he’s used to the attention on him, and him alone. For weeks, he’d been pulled from his routine, custody days shifted, far-away family members to engage, new kids to meet, his voice, usually dominant, now simply one in a cacophony.
Minutes before, he’d looked forlorn, sitting there by himself on the beach. He mindlessly packed sand. I suggested he join a group of other kids building a castle. He declined. A few minutes later, another boy came and asked if he could help AJ with his task, whatever it was. AJ ignored him. Then, a wave came splashing up the beach and drenched both AJ and his pile.
I watched his face deflate. He started to cry. Was inconsolable. I sat him down next to me under the shade of an umbrella to cool down, a 15-minute timeout. I tried to talk him out of his meltdown, but when the injustice just feels too great to him, his default reaction is a put-out, “But…!" I can only step away at those moments, give him time to regroup. In the meantime, I tried to ignore his sniffling sobs.
Easier said than done. Parental reaction #1: Make it better. So I asked if he wanted to walk down the beach. Just he and I.
He jumped at the offer, perhaps just to avoid the rest of his timeout. The tears stopped, but as we pulled away from our group, he started talking about his new step-brothers. About how they tease him, say he has a "funny face." How he’s feeling hemmed in by these changes, fostering a new anxiety. Complaints and insecurities flowed out of him, echoed against the sound of the waves. He was overwhelmed. I pulled him to my hip as we walked, leading him forward calmly.
It's a helpless feeling sometimes, waiting. Knowing something is wrong and also knowing the information will come out in its sweet time. In parent-child relationships, lines of communication are apt to narrow as the kid grows older, learns to keep his own counsel, handles his emotions without relying on Mom or Dad. The helplessness is exacerbated by the time he spends away from me, at his mother's house where I have less idea of what his successes and struggles entail.
I listened, fighting my own anxiety, and gave him even responses. Kept the emotion out of my voice and told him some stories of my own childhood hurdles, how everyone faces these issues growing up. That his struggles are no different and they will all pass away.
It's not what happens to you, son. It's how you react.
His words exhausted, he ran across the sand on the balls of his feet. He was unburdened for the time being.
Behind us, the umbrellas got smaller, the shouts of the children turned to silence. My effervescent child returned, shouting, jumping into the steep angle of the shore, chasing after sand crabs. His face burst with a sunshine smile and we just walked. His laughter buoyed me and I felt for him that all-encompassing love that only a child can inspire. We continued on in those timeless moments, both of us satisfied, carefree, before I finally noticed how far we'd gone.
"Do you want to turn back?" I asked him, glancing behind us at the retreating throng.
"No," he said. “Not yet.” As he said this, he took my hand in his. And we walked on.