Thursday, May 7, 2009
Pressure is to conform, but God has own plans
“Where is John?” I asked Ginny. My 12-year-old’s weekend movements had been predictable for most of his life, but lately he was prone to wandering, especially the woods off our backyard.
My brief search found him sitting on the slight incline of our front yard upon a carpet of bright green grass, legs crossed, eyes closed with his elbows resting on his thighs, palms turned open and upward. The classic Zen yoga pose.
It was a gorgeous April Sunday afternoon with wondrously shaped clouds high in the sky, pushed along by a gentle 70-degree breeze. The sun was just beginning to set. Its golden rays bathed all in its path in a manner somehow unique to the month of April.
John opened his eyes only so slightly to confirm my existence, then closed them again and continued his deep meditation. For a moment, it seemed as though all the world was at his command and I fell into the trance, sitting there quietly, soaking it in. Time seemed to stand still. After a long while, John opened his eyes. “That’s enough,” he stated.
We marched back to the house without a word. John retired to his bedroom and continued reading his book on physics.
“They’re all different.” You’ll hear that bromide from parents high and low. Is it ever true in my family. My two sons are like night and day. Ten-year-old Lawrence, my freckled redhead, never met a stranger. John is a shy enigma wrapped up in a mystery.
We live in a world that puts so much pressure on us to conform, but God has his own plan. He brings very different spirits into this world.
This can be tough on a parent. Ginny and I prayed a lot during those early years as we grappled with this brilliant, stubborn child of ours.
John was my first child. At first I thought I’d beat the stubbornness out of him. God stayed my hand, one of the greatest blessings of my life. You hear people quote the Bible a lot about sparing the rod. I now think the more relevant passage is Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”
As a young child, John taught himself to read at age three. By five, he was devouring every non-fiction book he could acquire. His mind was a sponge for statistics, facts and figures. He could tell you every fact about every U.S. president or tell you what 10 languages were spoken in any province of, say, India. It was amazing. And scary.
Throughout early childhood, John required a very structured routine or he would get stressed out. Sometimes, he would hide under the table when it was time to go somewhere. He had little interest in having friends.
We took John to several psychologists. One told us John was the most fascinating child he had ever studied. Another told us John’s mind was like a Ferrari. If he can learn to drive it, it’s a great car, but if he doesn’t learn to control it, he’ll wind up driving it into a ditch. “Drive the Ferrari,” has become one of my main mantras for John.
We tested John’s hearing. He was literally off the charts. He can hear things that I can’t - low rumbles, high-pitched sounds that most people are oblivious to. All his other senses are super-tuned. It makes the world overwhelming.
John was a loner, but a very loving child with a heart of gold. We called him Honest John because he could not tell a lie. His speech was very formal, almost like a little professor. Sometimes his behavior was bizarre.
Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, John started to engage those around him. He became fascinated with a book on holidays of the world. Soon he was planning holiday feasts every week for the family. Cooking became his hobby. He could take one bite of a dish and tell you with pinpoint accuracy what eight spices were in the ingredients.
When my mother, Celia, moved down the street, John really began to blossom. She took him on a trip to Washington, D.C. When he returned, John was eager to tell anyone at great length about his trip.
Team sports are not John‚s cup of tea, but I got John interested in weightlifting. He was fascinated by the machines and how they worked. Before long, John, a handsome boy to begin with, was buffed! John and I started bike riding, starting with very short outings. Now we ride for miles before he beats me in chess.
New Summit School has been a godsend. New Summit embraces small class size and individualized course work. This has allowed John to work at a more advanced pace. New Summit looks upon unique children as an opportunity instead of an inconvenience. God bless them for that.
I'll never forget going to my 25th Harvard reunion. It was a time when Ginny was fretting about John. During the week, she realized that just about every couple there had a John, maybe two, in their family.
Here in Mississippi, many parents have shared similar stories with us. “Where is your child now?” we would ask. “Oh, he‚s at MIT getting his doctorate in math,” would be a typical answer.
The other day I found John watching an on-demand cable program on autism. The show featured severely autistic children. John was mesmerized. You could tell he understood them in a way you or I never will. One foot in our world. Another foot in a world we can’t comprehend.
We are advancing so much as a society. We understand these things much better than before. The mind is exceedingly complex and there is tremendous variation. The spectrum is huge, from normal worker bees to the slightly quirky to speechless autism.
The world advances through ingenuity. Ingenuity comes from attacking problems from new angles. Fresh insight can only arise from cognitive variation of the human brain. We should not hold conformity as an all-consuming goal.
Despite great progress, John’s social skills are still his big challenge. If you meet him, bear this in mind. Rest assured that beneath this superficial awkwardness is a kind, loving, brilliant child who is turning into a unique, fascinating, engaging adult.
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