His Own "Kind"
I park under a beautiful grand maple in a far corner of the school parking lot: the tree is lit with gold, yellow, and crimson leaves, the sun peeking behind a chorus of colors. It is mid-October, a perfect autumn day in New England. I glance in the rear view mirror. Though the engine is off, Vaughn is still gazing wistfully out the window, his chin resting on his right shoulder, before he stretches cat-like into a full body yawn, his arms and legs propelling into every direction.
“Ready?” I say to him.
No answer, though I don’t expect one.
I step out of the car. Vaughn weakly opens the passenger door, leaning his weight sluggishly against the door. He slinks out, allowing the door to barely shut itself.
“Door” I say to him as a verb. Vaughn opens and shuts the door. This time, I hear enough of the door’s locking mechanism to feel confident that the door is actually shut.
“Backpack” I say. Again, a noun becomes a verb. Vaughn re-opens the car door and listlessly pulls his book bag out of the back seat. The wheels of the backpack crash onto the pavement, before making the familiar low rolling sound on the pavement. Every time I watch my son drag his backpack behind him, he reminds me of a focused airport traveler, rushing to his destination gate.
“We’re in a parking lot Vaughn. Now what does that mean?.......”
“Vaughn, we’re in a parking lot. What does that mean?”
“………..Look for cars….”
“That’s right. Any time we cross a road. We look both ways.”
As we make our way up the sidewalk leading to the school, I feel Vaughn’s hand clasp mine. A reflexive, automatic gesture on his part that nonetheless fills my heart. Let all the other Dads see this, I think to myself, my son still likes to hold my hand in a parking lot. I’m more than okay with this.
I haven’t brought Vaughn to school in a while. This duty is performed almost entirely by Jen, but today is one of those days where we had to switch roles. Jen has a key doctor’s appointment that she cannot miss. Worse, it’s in downtown Providence and she’ll have to travel during the morning rush hour commute. My work day thankfully doesn’t have any meetings until late morning, so I happily sign up to drop Vaughn off at school. “Man..” I think to myself, “…when was the last time I dropped Vaughn off at school?” This is certainly the first time this school year. When did I do it last year?
Vaughn and I enter the school gymnasium and auditorium. As we enter, I am struck by the sheer volume of activity: the cacophony of shrieks, laughs, loud, boisterous conversation. The children are supposed to line up with their classes until the morning announcement, the Pledge of Allegiance, and opening prayers. But until that time, the children play impromptu games of tag; girls rushing from one line to another to gossip with their friends. There are even kids sitting in cliquish circles, makeshift tribal councils with animated conversations. I watch Vaughn meander over to his class’s line. He makes his way to the back, leans his backpack against his leg, and stares off into the distance.
I stay to hear the morning announcements and prayers, figuring this would be a great way to start my day, not just for the disruption to my routine, but to watch my son with his classmates. I make my way to the back of the gymnasium and recognize some familiar parents. I see Gina, whose son is by far the tallest in the class, a very likable redhead who has all the makings of a future CEO. Stacy, whose daughter is the only child who politically straddles the cliques of both girls and the boys in the class. None of the other girls will have anything to do with the boys at this age. And lastly, Robb, whom I haven’t seen in some time. Robb is a Dad I’ve become friendly. He speaks with a loud, sonorous voice and an amiable smile when he’s talking to you. I’ve seen him at past birthday parties and school events. His son, Jacob, is the most likable boy in the entire class. His ability to work a room has caught my eye. This kid’s going places, I think to myself.
“Hey Robb!” I say extending my hand.
“Long time no see….”
“Yeah, it’s been a while. How’s Jacob?
“Great. Great man. He’s doing fall soccer. Crazy - we just wrapped up the summer league and we moved right into fall. It never ends.”
“Yeah, I bet”.
“How about Vaughn? Does he still play soccer?”
“ No, no – he gave that up a while ago.”
Robb’s comment takes me back to the one season of soccer that Vaughn played. I was the coach of his team. He was okay with practice drills, but a disaster during the games, spending most of his time trying to chat with me - his Dad - who was coaching the team, or picking dandelions. At the end of the season, when he declared he did not want to play anymore, I privately breathed a sigh of relief.
“Gosh, how old is Jacob now?”
“He’s going to be 10 this Sunday.”
“Wow, they really do grow so fast”
“Yeah man, not looking forward to Sunday. We’re having a big soccer-themed party. Tons of kids, the usual craziness. Having at Teamworks on Jefferson Boulevard. because there’s going to be so many kids, running around like little maniacs.”
At one time, Vaughn was invited to Jacob’s birthday parties. The last one I recall was a huge gathering at a bowling alley, all the kids running back and forth from two frames of bowling and then scurrying to a dark yet alluring video game room. I know that he was not been invited this year. Jen maintains the family activity calendar, every event documented on a Dunkin Donuts calendar perched on the pantry door in the kitchen. Thinking back, I know Vaughn wasn’t invited last year either. The non-invites now hit me. When exactly did my son slide to the B list?
“Did Vaughn do any camps last summer?
“Not really, well – he actually did one. He spent a week at a robotics camp. Just half days in the morning”.
“Did he do any sports camps? Rocky Hill has tons of them.”
“No, that’s not really his thing…”
There’s a pause that hangs in the conversation. Robb and I shuffle around a bit. I look off into the distance, until he breaks the pause in our conversation.
“Yeah, he’s at the age where he’s probably better off with his own kind…”
My breath stops midway through the inhalation. It’s like a punch in my solar plexus. “His own kind?” I look down at my feet, blood rushing to my ears and to my temples. His own kind? What does that mean?
My paralysis is interrupted by Mrs. Goodman, the principal. She grabs a microphone at the front of the gymnasium and shouts “okay, kids, line up with your classes. We’re going to start morning prayers.”
The children scatter quickly and line up with their respective classes. Vaughn remains still as all his classmates line up in front of him. He is still looking off into the distance wistfully. I no longer want to be here, no longer want to see the morning opening. I shuffle past the other parents without saying goodbye.
Walking to the car, I pass a large sign at the front of the school reminding everyone of this year’s Christmas pageant. Last year’s pageant is a painful throwback memory. Vaughn’s class presented last in order of all of the classes. All of the younger grades fell behind in the schedule, causing Vaughn’s 4th grade class to have to wait in what was essentially a walk-in closet for over 20 minutes. When they finally took the stage, I could see the anxiety written all over his face, even from the third row. His face was bright crimson and crestfallen, tugging on his left ear hard, and rocking back and forth like a pendulum to comfort himself. The claustrophobic prequel to his class’s section caused his cortisol levels to skyrocket. The look of pure consternation broke my heart. Even amidst this, he spotted me in the audience.
“Daddy, can I leave? Can I leave, DADDY?" he shouts tugging on his ear, continuing to rock back and forth.
I wave my arms like some clumsy football referee, using improvisational sign language to signal to him “calm down”. I can hear people in the audience laughing, laughing at my son.
“Look at the kid up there, he looks just like I feel….”, I hear someone chuckle behind me.
In the audience, I can see the furtive glances, the hardly-concealed whispers, and laughter, laughter directed at him. My adrenaline starts to match my son’s, fueled with anger and a fuck you belligerence to everyone in the crowd who finds this amusing. My son is suffering; this is not funny.
As I commute to work, I reflect on when I’ll have the courage to go back, when I’ll summon the fortitude to meet up with Robb and the other parents. Will I be quiet? Will I be complicit with the intention to keep my son “with his own kind”?
Later, when I return home from work, Jen asks me about my day.
“How’d it go? How’d it go at school this morning?”
“Fine” I respond.
“Did you stay for morning prayers?”
“Oh, that’s nice. Did you see Robb? He’s usually there every morning”.
“Nope…….I didn’t see him. It was just the usual set of Moms”, I say looking past the window over our kitchen sink, my gaze fixed on the grand maple in our backyard.