Monday, May 16, 2011

Temporary Impasse

Hand in hand, we make our way through the school hallway after hours.  The halls are surprisingly busy for 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon. We mix and mingle, fall into lines with other after school groups.  Addie and I had just finished our last Daisy Girl Scout meeting of the year.  We chat about how we’ll both be Brownies next year, she as a scout, me as a leader.   Well, I chat and she signs or makes herself clear in other ways, the communication device slung over my shoulder not required for this mom/kid exchange. As a linked set of two, we merge with a line of after school daycare kids.  They must be headed to one of the playgrounds outside.  No longer needing to tune in to a separate kid-frequency, my ears automatically pick up what I should expect by now, but which still delights me; unfamiliar voices gladly greeting Addie by name, asking “Is that your mom?  Did you have Daisy scouts? Do you remember me from the library? We were book buddies last year, remember?...”  I smile and listen while I let my well-known, non-verbal first grader choose to respond or not respond.  These kids know her.  They know she will not answer in words, but in some other way, and they will accept that answer.

Abruptly, my happy fuzzy sunlight feeling is chilled and shaded over as one repetitive voice gets louder and louder, surpassing the din. 

“She looks lazy.”

I search the knot of kids we’re stuck in to find the source of the voice.  He is looking at me and clearly expects a response.  I know how this works. I am either to agree or disagree, with explanation.  But  I am certain I am not hearing his words correctly.  He is probably about 7 or 8, not much older than Addie, if at all.  He says it again. 

She looks lazy.

I am considering his lisp and trying to figure out what words can turn into “lazy” with such shifting of the sibilants.  As I run through my short list he says it at least three more times, impatient for my acknowledgement.

Another voice near him matches his volume in retort, “She looks like a LADY?”  To which the first boy simply responds in the exact same tones, while looking at me “She looks lazy.”

The second boy disregards this confirmation and continues to counter each of the first boy’s remarks with a definitive “She looks like a LADY.”  He, like me, cannot understand what the first boy could mean by his words.

I finally gather the words to ask just as we descend the stairs.  “What do you mean?  How does she look lazy?”

“I don’t know.  She just looks like she’s very lazy…”  His voice trails off as the wave of kids pushes him to the door.  He races to the playground out of sight.

While holding Addie’s hand in the middle of the stairs, I stopped for a moment to commit some things to memory, much like one might etch a license plate number in: his stocky frame, the curl of his dark hair on his forehead, his round shiny cheeks and his matter-of-fact brown eyes.  Yes, got it.  I will remember him when I see him again. 

Because I need to see him again.

I do not understand anything about his position on my daughter.  He clearly has one and is making it known.  But it is mistaken.  

And I can't have that.

What did he mean she looks lazy?  As though her inability to speak is a choice?  As though she walks slower than everyone else because it’s too much bother to fall in line?  Is she not at 1st grade reading level yet because she declines to do the work?

I can manage many other mistaken impressions: that she is not smart, not valuable, cannot be a friend, should settle for being stared at, but not talked to.  I can teach to those and set the connection between other kids and Addie on another path.  Because I know what those impressions mean and how they got there.  But I just don’t get lazy.

I need this boy to help me understand.  I never heard or anticipated that one might think Addie’s differences could be attributed to a laissez -faire attitude about all she attempts.  I need to study how to uproot such an impression, how to teach it away.  Because he is just a boy and curiosity, rather than ignoble intent, was at the heart of his repetition, I would not use what comes to mind first - that she works harder than he does at every single thing she attempts.  That she puts more effort into asking for a drink of water than he does in an entire math period.  I would not want to share how she learned to walk late and then had to learn again after she had surgery on both feet.  It would be too much to share with a 2nd grader about the 6 day precarious battle she fought and won with pneumonia and a collapsed lung.  I don’t think I’d want to relay how little she sleeps at night, how often she is sick, how every minute of every day she must prove herself to be worthy.  Worthy of acknowledgement, of tolerance, of a hello, of kind words, of friendship, of respect.  I’m just not sure the message would reach him about how her absorption of insensitive, degrading and ignorant comments (much like his) makes the word “lazy” irreconcilable with who she is to me and anyone that knows her.

That’s all too much for a child.  But I will find this bold young seedling.  And I will ask him to help me understand better what he sees when he looks at my girl.  Then I will help him understand, befitting a second grader, how to see her more clearly.


  1. Wow. This really got to me. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I am learning so much from all you Moms here at HP how to deal with issues like this. My son will be in pre-k in a public school in Sept and I am so worried about what lies ahead. He's 3 1/2 and is non-verbal. I don't know how I will handle other children who don't understand him. I don't know if I will be able to find the appropriate words when I need them. But you handled it well ... You stayed calm. You didn't assume the worst about that boy. You took a minute to try and see things from his angle and then you asked a question. That is amazing to me. I think my 1st instinct would be to get mad. Oh this isn't going to be fun. Good luck to you and your daughter with ... everything.

  3. Jay Train - I totally understand. My non-verbal girl was also facing her first public school experience not long ago. And I won't lie - I'm pretty certain I was developing an ulcer from worry that summer before. While my daughter is non-verbal, she makes plenty of noise. I was so worried about the kids being put off by her sounds, by the classroom teachers feeling like she needed to be removed because of distraction.
    That was 3 summers ago. I am looking forward to a very peaceful summer this year, same as I had last year. Kids figure it out. This fellow and his lazy message was an exception to our general experience. But the default state of kids is indeed good. They don't always know how to navigate things, particularly social things when it comes to differences. But they take our lead. When a classmate of my daughter's sees me nudge her and good-heartedly rib her about something, they know they can let their shoulders down and not walk on eggshells. When they see me ask her a question and wait as long as it takes for her to sign or use her communication device to answer, they see that she does indeed have answers.
    So I guess I'm just saying I recognize the scary summer you are about to embark upon. But it does get better with a little intentional modeling. Even in the case of this boy, I know he and I just need to spend a little time clearing things up for each other.
    Wrote something a bit back here on HP that came to mind from your comments. Hope it is of some use. Hang in - next summer will be less worrisome.