The Visit and The Panic
As I take the right hand turn onto Atwood Avenue, I can already feel the blood rushing to my face, my heart is beating faster. I even feel my pulse flickering in my wrists on the steering wheel. Man, am I really doing this? Am I really, really doing this? C’mon, is this really necessary? My brain is firing on all cylinders at the next stop light. We’re probably over-reacting, I assure myself, you’re such a worrisome Dad, I say to myself, pulling into the Autism Center parking lot.
I find a parking space and turn off the ignition, though this dialogue still plays in my head. You’re such an over-reactive helicopter Dad. Just let things play out. He’s only 5 for God’s sake. But there’s a small seed of doubt, just enough doubt to propel me into action, to visit this Center. This small seed of doubt is something we’ve all felt and only occasionally acted on, like when a spouse retreats to a corner of the bedroom secretively checking their texts, or a small lump you can feel in your chest that you choose to ignore. I rationalize my action by telling myself that I am a good Dad, albeit an over-reactive and sensitive one. Haven’t I over-reacted before? Like the time when I was twenty and I thought I had testicular cancer and the doctor assured me it was a common condition called varicoceles. Or what about that time I was certain that I had an intestinal tumor and it was just a stomach infection? I do tend to be a worrier, I tell myself.
The building is old, straight out of the early 1980s. As I enter the waiting area, I take in my surroundings - the walls are completely bedecked in wood paneling, the carpeting is gray, dirty, and industrial, with torn rivulets of string pulled up where the carpet tiles don’t align. The fluorescent lighting is harsh and painful, causing me to squint indoors.
“Hi, my name is Paul Carroll” I say to the attendant at the window.
“Do you have an appointment?” she responds.
“No, I don’t have an appointment. I’m here for the class. I mean….rather……I want to shadow the class”
“Shadow the class?” she says with a quizzical look.
“I mean….observe the class….. the 6 o’clock Social Skills class. It’s today, right?”
“I don’t see any notes on having a visitor”
“I spoke to Donna on Monday. She said it would be okay if I observed. She said I could sit in the back and just watch”. I hear an unnecessary apologetic tone in my voice.
“Let me give Donna a call. We’ve never had a visitor in the class and it could be disruptive”. I sit down in the waiting area without being told. I didn’t realize this could be a big deal, that my presence could impact the class.
After about 10 minutes, the receptionist shouts from behind the window “all set, Mr. Carroll, I just got a text from Donna. She said it’s okay.” Although I am relieved to receive permission. I take a look at the clock. It’s 6:08 pm. The class has already begun.
She escorts me down an unnaturally narrow hallway where I can only walk immediately behind her. From there, she takes a sharp left turn. Even before she places her hand on the doorknob, I can hear the class has begun, a cacophony of muted voices.
The room is large and surprisingly deep. There are 4 kids, and 6 adults in the class, all assembled in the furthest part of a room. One of the teachers is telling a story holding the book up high and outwards for the kids to see. Only one of the kids is seated, the others are standing or walking in circles. I sit in a small classroom chair and plant it quietly in the furthest corner of the room, folding myself up to be as inconspicuous as possible. Surveying the group, I am struck by the high teacher to child ratio and quickly understand why. Each of the children is receiving ongoing instructions in the activity. Some struggle to focus more than others and the teachers spit a list of one word commands: “sit”, “eyes”, “quiet”, “eyes”. One boy in particular draws my attention. He is walking in wide circles around the area, grazing every object with his left hand in a deliberate fashion. His assigned teacher gives him some freedom, but is clearly trying to reign him in. The boy’s eyes are vacant, looking at nothing and everything at the same time. The story has done little to pull him in.
When story-telling ends, the teachers instruct the children that they will recreate one of the chapters from the book. The scene is where the main character approaches her classmate at recess and asks if he wants to play with her. Though the instructions appear straightforward, there is mild chaos in the room, as the children talk over the instructions, meander about, and generally ignore the teachers. During the fray, the boy who caught my eye earlier has now discovered me. He walks directly towards me, looking at me intently, and yet not really looking at me - looking past me, looking through me. It’s unnerving. He closes in quickly, his teacher 4-5 steps behind him. He lifts his hand up high, as though he’s going to slap me, then looks deep into my eyes and brushes his hand from my left shoulder and across my chest -- followed by a quick 90 degree turn where he continues touching random objects in the room: a desk, a bookcase, a floor lamp.
When the incident is over, a swell of guilt comes over me - I reacted so warily to his invasion of my personal space – how he was able to discover me, despite my attempts to camouflage into the corner; his laser-like commitment in coming at me, and his eyes, God - his eyes, so wide, looking at me, through me, past me. I’ve seen enough. I need to get out of here. Just as I didn’t announce myself to the teachers in this room, I depart with the same level of stealth. No hello; no goodbye -I just leave.
As I tread back down the narrow hallway, I retrace my steps to the waiting area.
“I’m all set” I say to the receptionist behind the window.
“That was fast. It hasn’t even been 15 minutes. Are you sure you’re all set?
“I’m all set” I say over my shoulder, walking unnaturally fast.
I need to get out. My heart is racing. Those kids. Those poor goddamn kids. So unfair. So completely unfair. My son doesn’t belong here. He’s nothing like these kids. I made a mistake.
Climbing back into the driver’s seat, I hear myself exhale loudly and shift my gaze to the rear view mirror. What will I say to Jen? I still feel a seed of doubt. But this - this has rocked my world. This is not what I expected. How will I even narrate what I saw, when I can’t even process this myself? Is this a window into our future? A seed that may actually take root……