By Robin Finn
Walking across the blacktop of my son’s elementary school after the last bell rang, I couldn’t help but scan the faces of the boys at the handball courts. “You’re out!” a blond boy called, tossing back his hair to reveal a streak of dusty soot as if he’d recently emerged from a coal mine. “It’s a sticky!” a redhead countered, tucking the rubber ball firmly between his hip and forearm. A swarm of boys argued and pointed until the ball once again smacked against the large gray wall and I went lo look for my son.
Playing handball after school had once been my fourth grader’s favorite afternoon activity. For years, he’d shoved an oversized ball into his striped backpack, crushing his SpongeBob lunchbox, and pulling hard on the zipper to close it around the unsightly bulge. He’d looked more like a camel than a boy as he trudged up the hill on his way to school, the misshapen pack forming a kind of hump across his back. But my son didn’t play handball anymore.
The conflicts on the courts over the years had apparently been too much for him. He’d impatiently smacked the ball out of someone else’s hands, stormed off after what he deemed a bad call, or refused to leave the court, even when the other kids insisted he was ‘out,’ one too many times. And although he read social cues poorly, he read them well enough to know the other kids no longer wanted to play with him. I spotted my son in the distance, leaning against a wall in a yellow T-shirt and black sweatpants, reading a book.
A dad I’d been friendly with over the years—our boys were in the same grade—approached me and asked how my son was doing. This dad, I’ll call him Joe, was a stay-at-home parent and frequently hung out after school to oversee one of the handball courts. My son had once been one of his regulars.
“Not so great, Joe” I said, unable to hold back. “He’s having a hard time with friends. He doesn’t seem to have anyone to hang out with.”
“You know,” Joe said, adjusting his baseball cap, “your son’s a good kid. I just think …” he trailed off, choosing his words carefully, “he’s a bull in a china shop.” He looked away toward the kindergarten yard and then back at me. “Eventually, when the shopkeepers see the bull coming, they lock their doors. Y’know what I mean?” He squinted as the afternoon sun slow-roasted our flip-flopped feet on the pavement.
I liked Joe; he seemed like a decent guy. But watching my son sit alone at the edge of the playground, reading The Lightning Thief for the third time, his yellow Apple Store T-shirt rubbing against the side of a classroom, hurt. It was the kind of slow wound that festered.
Once, when the boys were in preschool, everybody in the class was a “friend.” “Friends,” the teacher would say, “it’s time to go outside.” Or, “Let’s ask our friends to help clean up the lunch tables.” Even though my son lay across his classmates at circle time and interrupted class conversations frequently, the other kids had accepted him.
But by the fourth grade, the universal “friend” had narrowed. Friends were people who invited you to their house after school and included you at their birthday parties. Friends were people your mom (or dad) liked and who were similar to you. Friends were easygoing and agreeable. Friends were not impulsive or hyperactive or emotional. Those were bulls.
But my son wasn’t a bull.
He was a ten-year-old boy who struggled with impulsivity and hyperactivity. And he didn’t live in a china shop. He lived in a community.
How could I tell this dad, who I knew to be a sweet guy, that he was way off base? That a bull is, after all, a wild animal, but a boy is not? A boy has feelings and the need to belong.
What I wanted to say, what I should have said, was, What if it was your son? Learning to get along with others is a life skill. Learning to see through other kids’ limitations and find the goodness inside changes the world. And my son, without a doubt, is filled with goodness. He’s just rough around the edges. But maybe that’s too much to ask of fourth graders. Or their parents.
I thought about all of this after I’d walked away. After I’d found a shady spot to nurse my hurt and wait for my son to finish the chapter so we could leave. I pulled out my phone and pretended to text so I wouldn’t have to talk to another parent who might wander by. I tried to work out my complex feelings—not just about this parent but about the long list of people I perceived as quick to judge my son, quick to shoot me the stink-eye, quick to delete my contact information or never return my e-mail asking for a play date.
When I pick up my son after school in the afternoons, I frequently see Joe surrounded by a large group of boys playing handball. If he happens to look my way, I give him a wave and he shoots me a dimpled smile. I still think about our conversation that day. How could I have conveyed what it feels like to be a parent of a child who is different and frequently misunderstood? It’s easy to classify a boy as a bull when he isn’t your boy. But what if he was?
Robin Finn, MPH, MA is a writer/author/essayist and the mother of three spirited kids. Her background in public health, spiritual psychology, and motherhood- including raising a child with special needs- informs the lens through which she views the world. Robin lives in L.A. and is working on her first novel. Learn more about Robin at robinfinn.com.