John went to the dentist today. We checked in and then we sat down to play in the waiting room. The train tracks were in pieces, so John chose the Duplo table, which was stocked with some other brand of blocks that held together loosely. We played Duplos for a long time, blessed that the dentists were running late.
I went and got a wooden school bus puzzle. It was old, with a varnished wood background. I uncovered a piece with a boy getting on the bus. Beneath it was the same boy, but with a bathing suit and towel on.
At first John didn't like the puzzle. Right when I was about to return it to the shelf and pick one of the five other less-interesting puzzles, he changed his mind. He started talking about the two wheels. The school bus puzzle that we have at home has two very round, easy wheels. These wheels were not round. The rear wheel was round on top and flat on the bottom. The front wheel was round on the bottom and thrice truncated on top.
He took a wheel out and couldn't put it back in. I put it in the first few times. "Turn it," I said, but he turned the piece a little and gave up. The next time, holding the front wheel close to its place, I showed him how the round part went on the bottom. I touched his finger to the round half of the wheel.
I slouched in my kid-sized chair and yawned. He was studying the wheels. The rest of the puzzle didn't exist. He kept trying again, turning the piece, asking for help, repeating. Then, he got the front wheel in.
"John, that was the first time you put that wheel in by yourself."
He looked slightly happy.
The dentist was still running late.
A little more success, a little more asking for help. I got tired of the chair and knelt on the floor where I could see his face. Soon I was telling him it was the third time he put the front wheel in by himself, and then he was on to the back wheel. Same process, different details.
He did it. He figured out how to put both of those difficult wheels in. Visual and motor impairment and all, he saw those glorious black wheels and he went for it, slowly, and with incredible persistence.
He was able to assess what a reasonable goal was. He chose something motivating. He asked for help and he used his words when he was frustrated. And he mastered those two wheels in only 20 minutes. All I did was watch and assist.
Last week John had a fine motor evaluation and scored in the 5th to 7th percentile for his age. It was an improvement from the evaluation six months before, when he scored slightly higher than a carrot.
Do you know how inadequate it is to provide a test and score like that, as the main mode of comment on the movement and purpose of a child's hands?
The fourth time we crossed the country to see John's teacher Bonnie, she allowed him to discover the toy shelf. When I entered her treatment room, I would find that a range of toys appropriate to my child at that very time had magically been put out, while looking instead as though it was put away where it belonged. The toy shelf had just the toys that I didn't know John was ready to discover at the time...the time when he had stabilized crawling and was learning to pull to stand. One of them had four colored, rubberized holes on top, with four correspondingly colored balls. There was a hammer, and if you hit a ball with the hammer, the ball would squeeze through its hole and drop onto a series of ramps, traveling through holes and making wheels spin while you watched it through the transparent front wall of the toy, where it finally popped out through a little doorway. We now call it the hammerball toy. Bonnie--mindfully, I don't know how else to put it--demonstrated the toy. She helped John hold the hammer and pound one of the balls. She seemed to enjoy it as much as if it were her first time to try the toy, too. After hammering and watching the the balls travel through and roll out, there was the task of putting the balls back on top. After a couple of days of watching, I noticed that Bonnie wasn't trying to make him match the colors. She was just naming them. If the blue ball went on the red circle, she said that. Something in me pulled away from that a little, wanting to hurriedly suggest the right spot for each color, but the strength of everything teacher and student did together was enough to quiet it.
A copy of the hammerball toy arrived at our house soon after we got home, from a friend of Bonnie who loved children. Over the next few months I played the toy with John and I stated the colors as he placed the balls on top. "Red in yellow. Blue in blue. Green in red." He loved the toy, he absolutely meditated on it, and I saw him noticing: these colors...there is something going on here. It appeared that he couldn't see the difference between them at first, and given his vision of 20/200 at best, I didn't know how possible distinguishing colors ever would be. He would put his face right up to the toy as he slowly touched the ball to the ring, taking one ball and resting it briefly in one hole, then the next. Unlocking a mystery.
Soon when I would name the colors, there were some matches. "Blue in blue. Yellow in yellow. Red in gr...oh, red in red." I allowed a little enjoyment into my voice.
And then, I saw humor blossom in John. He would check for my attention, then take the red ball and place it in every ring except the red one. Pausing, he would finally glance sideways at me one more time and then place the ball in its red home. I couldn't take it anymore. I hugged him and joshed him about knowing the colors. How he loved being able to play that trick.
Bonnie showed him. Yeah, she showed him how to hold the hammer, she showed him how to work the toy, but that only took a minute. She showed him that it was his choice. She showed him that all the time in the world could exist in one hour. She showed him the pathways that were already in him, waiting as his birthright; or maybe she showed the pathways that he was there to take them. He was the most satisfied, meaningfully engaged little boy possible in those moments. He was real, and though she had tremendous strength she didn't take his reality away from him, but she touched it and warmed it a bit, so that he could remember later.
She showed him that as long as you are breathing, there is a place for success. He took all that and he kept it, and that's how he could teach himself how to put the wheels in the school bus puzzle today. And that's how his mom could both bear and be thrilled for her son's slow, masterful relation to two flat black wheels in a 20-year-old puzzle.