It’s just after 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. I’m standing by the window in my kitchen, looking out for my son Finn. I’m nervous because he’s late walking home from school. The walk is just a half mile through our tree-filled neighborhood, but he’s only 8 years old and I always worry.
Something you should know about Finn - he is twice-exceptional. He’s gifted, with an extremely high verbal comprehension, while at the same time his dyslexia and ADHD mean he struggles with reading, writing, and acting like everyone else. He’s always been fiercely independent - he regularly wears mismatching socks, prefers to wear many of his clothes inside-out, and isn’t shy about asking adults questions until he fully understands something. He loves to explore the world and let his mind wander, and with all his extra energy, lots of exercise is critical for him - so the freedom and independence he gets from walking home on his own is very important to him.
So I breathe a sigh of relief as I see Finn’s floppy mop of brown hair and backpack bouncing along up the street. As soon as he walks in the kitchen door, I pounce on him with questions - Why was he late? Did something happen?
He tells me that something funny did happen on the walk home - someone pulled over and asked him if he was lost and needed a ride. Now, I’m trying to stay calm, but anxious worst-case scenarios are definitely running through my head. I take a breath and ask him if he has any idea why that would have happened.
He thinks for a moment, and then says, “well, it might be because I was standing and staring at a tree for a very long time. I was watching a line of ants climb along up through the bark, and then as I looked up I noticed some birds high up in the branches, and I thought about where they had been and where they were going, and then I noticed how wide the branches were, and then I looked down and wondered about the roots and how far under my feet they went… I guess that maybe was why.” Then he ran, carefree as ever, up to his room to grab his headphones and listen to his current favorite fantasy audiobook, leaving me in the kitchen trying to sort all this out.
On the one hand I felt relieved; my worst fears were unfounded. But a new worry had sprung up in its place. Now I was concerned about what others think of my son, and how they treat him, especially when I am not there to protect him.
When I was a kid, I didn’t fit in with other kids my age. In elementary school I was sent to a gifted program, which was housed at a different local elementary school in our district. The kids at that school were not kind to us gifted kids, and the playground was especially rough. One day I found an old twisted metal structure in the far corner of the field, up against the forest. I collected pieces of wood and tree branches, and I built us a fort. From that day on, our group would eat lunch in that fort, telling stories, laughing and talking, feeling safe and separate from the rest of the school.
Fast forward to high school, and I’m a bit of a rebel. Bleached hair, nose ring - I take pride in not fitting in. My Long Island high school had this bagel place across the street, and every day after school, most of the students went over there to hang out. One day I was walking out of the shop, hitting the back of my Snapple, and I saw my sister - who is one year younger than I am - talking with a group of girls. The girls were laughing and smiling, but as I got closer, I could hear what they were saying, and as soon as they saw me, they scattered. They had been pretending to be friends with her, and trying to convince her to eat broken glass - saying, “it’s what all of us friends do!”
You might be wondering, ‘who would eat glass just because some people tell them to?’ Well, my sister has Williams Syndrome. It’s something similar to autism, but with a twist - people with Williams don’t know how to guard their emotions. They are enthusiastically kind and loving to everyone, but they can’t tell when people are being unkind in return.
I still remember riding the bus in elementary school with my sister and having to sit and listen while the other kids ruthlessly teased her. She had no idea people were being cruel, she thought they were her friends. But I sat there in silence and absorbed the hate instead.
Over the years, I felt the brunt of much of my sister’s bullying, and my own inability to fit in. I had learned to adopt a shell to protect myself. So, back in that moment, as an adult, in the kitchen with my son, I knew that above all else I wanted to figure out how to protect my own child from these sorts of experiences as well.
The next day, I dialed into my online support group for parents of twice-exceptional kids. I explain what happened on Finn’s walk home and ask for advice. Someone suggests that he carry a camera, so that when others see him standing still, they think he is merely waiting for a great photographic shot. That seems like a really clever idea to me.
But when I suggest it to my son, he is less than enthusiastic. He says, "ok mom, I’ll try it if you want, but I don’t really see what the big deal is." He asks me - "So what if someone doesn’t understand me or what I’m doing? Why does that matter?"
I look at my adorable son, with his bright eyes and that floppy hair, in love with the world. And I realize he is right - why does it matter? It should be ok to let others misunderstand your kindness, your thoughtfulness, your intelligence, your quirkiness.
So Finn goes back to walking every day, bringing home dead birds at the ends of sticks, pockets full of discarded nuts and bolts, smooth rocks, interesting leaves. He once brought home a hubcap he found lying in a gutter, because it would be the perfect thing to turn into a shield to go along with the rocket launcher he’d made out of an old, discarded vacuum. In fact, I suspect at this point everyone in our neighborhood knows that if they leave some piece of broken furniture outside for free - A deflated exercise ball! A rollable Tupperware box that’s only slightly broken! - my son will be by to come take it off their hands.
I’m still learning how to let things go, and I make mistakes. At a restaurant one night, I tell Finn to stop bouncing in the booth and banging his head against the seat-back cushion because, “that’s not what ‘normal’ people do”; later that evening, I apologize.
Finn is nearly 13 now, but of course I still worry - I’m a mother, and the world can be an unkind place. But I’m doing my best to take my cues from him, so that my children and I will be proud of who we are, and we won’t try to fix it.