For about a nanosecond this afternoon, I had my biggest fear realized. I was talking with Jake, who is in second grade, about his day at school. Today, the class had a session with the school counselor, who talked about solving problems, and when the problem is big and needs adult intervention.
So, I asked Jake if he is having any problems at school. And he replied "Yes."
And my heart skipped a beat. I tried to keep my face still, and said, "Oh really, what?"
And he said, "I get picked on because I'm not popular."
And my heart broke into a thousand pieces.
"Who picks on you?"
"The popular kids."
This is my biggest fear for my son. I know that there are larger things to fear, like cancer, but this is so much more a of possibility for Jake. He is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome (although this may be up for debate, but a different post entirely). His Asperger-ness essentially translates to being a little nerdy with little understanding of the social workings that run school, and virtually no ability to appropriately problem solve a social dispute. He is the type of kid that the counselor's lesson is designed for. He needs to have spelled out for him what is a small problem and what is a large problem. He needs to be told what to do in specific situations. Although it is improving, he has little ability to carry-over problem solving techniques from one social situation to another. He also has pragmatic speech issues, which means he has difficulty expressing his thoughts in a way that is easy for another person (especially a peer) to understand. He essentially needs a translator (me), but sometimes, it takes even me a while to figure out what he is trying to say.
His first week into first grade at a new school, Jake got off the bus holding his nose. He had a bloody nose. The bus driver only noticed it as Jake was getting off the bus. As I took Jake inside to get it cleaned up, it was apparent that his nose had been bleeding for a while, as it had run down his arms and pooled at his elbows. I asked him what happened. He said that the kid who sat with him grabbed and twisted his nose, resulting in the bleeding. This child had, apparently, hit Jake in the past (now mind you, this is only the first full week of school). When he went to sit with Jake again, Jake told the child not to hit him this time. The child responded with the nose grab. Jake did not tell the bus driver, because the rule is that you cannot get up once the bus is in motion. And Jake does not break the rules. It is this type of scenario that we fear. That he is subject to violence, bullying, or ridicule and does not know what to do.
So, trying not to let him see my panic, I began asking him who is picking on him. Turns out, there is a student in school who annoys Jake, and the child from the bus story continues to sit with Jake and bother him (although there has been no further violence). I asked him if he thought he was popular or unpopular. He responded that people call his name for a lot of things, and that the kids in the other classes (2nd grade) know him, so he is somewhat popular. "Ok," I replied, "then you are medium popular?" "Well, actually, three-quarters popular" was Jake's reply.
It turns out, other than the bus kid, no one is picking on Jake. He gets along fairly well with most kids. Upon further questioning, it has been determined that he is NOT having problems at school. He has difficulty telling the difference between someone who is annoying him and someone who is purposefully being mean to him. This is where the whole social difficulty thing comes in. We have to specifically analyze with him what one kid is doing to help him determine if the action is directed at Jake, is mean, is hurtful, or just bothersome. When we do this, more often than not, Jake is able to see that the kids that he thinks are mean are more annoying to him. I think, with all the education about bullying, etc, Jake maybe thought that this was the answer I was looking for. I am elated that he is not yet having problems. I know that he will. Elementary school can be brutal. Kids are mean and everyone gets picked on for something. I am still scarred by the meanness of my peers in grade school (and high school as well). I am sure there is someone out there scarred by my meanness.
I know that things could be a lot worse. I have many friends with children with serious health problems, or who have lost children. I am so immersed in that life on a daily basis through work that I try not to think about it in terms of my own children. But I do worry that the cruelness of other children will snuff out the bright light that is glowing within my beautiful son. I worry that it will lead to self-doubt, depression and anxiety.
But for tonight at least, his light still glows strong.