Since my son’s first week of school, I’ve been struggling. I knew going in that he was going to be different, that it was going to be an adjustment, but I wanted to wait and see. I didn’t want to write anything off without at least trying. So off to school he went, happy to go, but within days problems arose.
“I can’t read. Kids don’t read. They just look at books.”
“School isn’t for learning. It’s just for playing.”
“I’m not allowed to spell words at school, just make ABCs. I’ll get in trouble.”
“When do I get to go to real school?”
And on and on and on it went. Of course, he was allowed to read and spell at school, but no one ever asked him to. He knew that there were classroom rules to follow and was afraid that spelling crossed an invisible, arbitrary line. But possibly most importantly, it was obvious that he was trying to be like the other kids. He didn’t want to be different.
When your kid is only 3 and already recognizing he’s very different from everyone around him, it hits you in your gut like a ton of bricks.
I was a mess. So I headed to the one place I knew I would find answers: the library. I needed back up. Anything to help me show him (and me) that it was going to be okay.
I happened on this book called Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Guys, I almost cried right there in the middle of the children’s section, sans child. It was exactly what I needed. A book to say hey kiddo, yeah you’re different. But that’s okay. And one day you’re going to find someone who’s different too. Maybe not different like you, but different in another way, and they’re going to understand what it’s like. And hey, for what it’s worth, just because you’re different doesn’t mean no one will like you. You just have to give them a chance.
It’s what we all want to say to our kids. Because all of our kids have that little oddity that makes them them. It’s what we love about them. And how sad would we be if they shoved that down in the interest of being normal? Yuck. But they can only hear it from us so many times. As parents, we need to arm ourselves with reinforcements.
Of course, I don’t think my son actually heard any of that. He giggled and laughed. Asked to read it again. And that was it. Back to the library it went.
That was a few weeks ago. We hadn’t mentioned it since.
But then today we were walking home. He was telling me about something or other that he hadn’t done in a while, since like, “September 8th.”
“Wow. September 8th. That’s around the day you started school.”
“Well, actually, I started school September 6th.”
I laughed. “You’ve got a cool brain there kid. I don’t know how you remember so many dates.” And it’s true. This kid is my walking agenda. He can tell you what day our milk expires. I, on the other hand, have trouble remembering my own birthday.
“Yeah,” he shrugged. “It’s ’cause my brain works a little differently than some peoples’. It’s like an exclamation mark.”
I had to slow my pace a bit so he wouldn’t see my excitement. Weeks ago, when I nonchalantly sat down with him to read just as I had hundreds of times before, he sat beside me listening. Not just to the words, but to the meaning I had so hoped he would find. I’m not pretending that one book, one moment, in his childhood is going to impact the rest of his life. But it was one definite building block that combined with many others, may just do some good. And it gave me hope.
Because I love him just the way he is. Not because he’s “smart” or “gifted,” but because loving to learn and discover and ask questions is just a part of who he is. His big imagination, his ability to think outside the box and come to wild (and often correct) conclusions quickly and easily is as much a part of him as his sensitivity or kindness or excitement. And I will fight to ensure that it doesn’t get diminished for the sake of fitting in. Because he’s my exclamation mark. And who doesn’t love an exclamation mark?