In the gymnasium at North Bend Elementary, a smallish school in a mostly agrarian county in northeast Maryland, we parents sat packed together in tight rows. We were prepping for a transition.
In the front of the gym, on the floor, were rows of children from kindergarten through fourth grade. They were present as witnesses to this celebration of the fifth graders. Today, the school would laud their individual accomplishments and bid them farewell as they headed to middle school, and teenage-hood, and things like figuring out class schedules and locker combinations – both of which make me silent-scream because it’s all I can do to just get Noah out of bed in the morning, let alone help him figure out a master lock.
In the fifth graders came, one by one, as the principal announced their names and they took their place on the bleachers facing the crowd. Most shuffled in, heads bowed, unwilling to acknowledge us. I imagine nerves played a part for most. Some made begrudging stops for pictures by their parents who had crammed themselves in the front of the crowd. Then came Noah. Head held high, he stood his lanky frame straight up and swayed slightly side to side toward the center of the gym in that way he does when he’s walking with purpose. Then he stopped and turned to the center of the seated crowd.
He offered a two-fingered salute. His goodbye salute.
Up came a howl of laughter from the audience. I caught the eye of some of his teachers. I caught the eye of his special education coordinator, too—a woman I love intensely because of her love for Noah. Noah couldn’t mask his grin as he took his place with the other students. He met my gaze at the back of the gym.
Wordlessly, he said: “I did it.”
Noah had more than done it. He had been on the morning news team, in band and choir, in running club, and perhaps most impressively, on honor roll, ending the year with six A’s and one B.
His lips were pressed together as he sat facing the audience—one of two remaining “tells” he has of his anxiety.
The flapping that once attended his autism is gone. The rocking is mostly gone, too. Now, there is lip pressing and arm folding, both of which any of us might use to express our own unease in a stressful environment. Not much of his autism “shows” any more.
As I wrote this, Noah came up from his bedroom at 9:45 am. He is a late sleeper, and a poor sleeper. Without the rigor of his school schedule, later wake times usually mean better days for him, so I thanked God for extra rest as he stepped into my office. He placed his hands lightly around my neck. Delicately, as if I was made of something breakable. He put his head in the hollow of my neck, on my shoulder.
“I am just now writing about you,” I said, wrapping my arms around him, squeezing tight.
“Yes, I see my name.”
“Would you like to read it when I’m done?”
“Yes, please” and then he left.
So I’m finishing here with my son in the other room, a gangly tween who is shuffling through the pantry for more food to fill his nearly 12-year-old belly. There is never enough food, of course. Pre-teen boys act like they are forced to subsist on air, when really, they’ve just managed to eat a whole shelf’s worth of food and still complain about there being “nothing to eat.” Because they don’t understand groceries shouldn’t require bank loans.
Funny about his hunger, though. Noah’s ever-empty stomach reminds me of his growth and his advancement.
The moving forward of things. Of how far he’s come. It reminds me he was the boy who once refused eye contact and balked at social interactions, a small child who had all the stereotypic autistic behaviors, one who couldn’t tie his shoes or throw a ball or forget any of the 150-odd Star Wars characters.
And now, after his goodbye salute, he’s ready to move on—a kid for whom it was always unlikely to be easy. A kid for whom everything took dedication and effort beyond that required by all his peers. A kid for whom numbers and people were nearly impossible, though now, he’s mastered both.
Now, I can only think one thing.