He sat quietly in the backseat of the Subaru this morning, as he always does on the way to school. He’s usually staring out the window, eyes fixed on the distant Olympic mountains as we cross the Aurora bridge, imagination at level extra-ordinary. If I attempt to engage him in conversation, he’s usually startled, caught off guard. Today we were driving along and he interrupted the silence with, “Mommy, why are so many people reliant upon technology?” As is often the case with Malcolm, I didn’t quite understand the direction of his question, so he clarified at my urging. “I mean, I keep a bunch of stuff in my head, and my teacher has to look stuff up on the internet. All my classmates do that, too, but I just have so much in my head that I don’t feel like I need to do that.”
He’s not talking about what one might assume. He doesn’t have all his math facts perfectly memorized. He doesn’t know who the first twenty presidents were, and in fact, depending on the day, he might not even remember the name of our current president. He struggles to learn phone numbers and has an incredibly poor concept of time. In fact, last week he shared with Oliver that he would be starting college when he turned ten. True story.
The depths to which Malcolm’s brain dives aren’t ordinary, though. They aren’t predictable, and for the most part, they’re challenging for my linearly-aligned brain to understand. I believe he has an imagination the average human can’t fathom, one that he struggles to express because, as he says so often, “You just won’t get it.” This big imagination, all-consuming that it is, might leave little room for the mundane of 9×8=72. But this imagination, unfortunately, doesn’t serve him in traditional schools. After years of watching him struggle in school, I would venture to guess that the majority of his former teachers, while they may not have admitted it, felt the same way.
You see, Malcolm learns differently. He is dysgraphic, dreamy (aka inattentive), and introverted. He’s also a voracious reader. These are labels, but they do not define this boy. What I have learned, and this journey has been arduous, is that Malcolm’s brain is like an ancient lock, one for which the key was long ago misplaced. We’re still combing the fields with our metal detector, looking for the perfect key. It has been trial and error, hit and miss, failure and success.
I suppose the one lesson we have learned is that Malcolm is the cardinal opposite of one-size-fits-all in terms of learning. Group skiing lessons: total bust. One on one lessons: he was skiing down intermediate hills within his first season. Writing assignments in his first two schools: puddles of tears, anxiety, depression. Writing with tools that support his differences: five paragraph essays. (Just kidding! But we will take a five sentence essay any day with Malcolm.)
For as long as he has been a human, he has drawn stick figures and little else. Stick figures holding swords, stick figures with a leash, stick figure families. He broke down last week, perplexed by his inability to draw. I knew the key to his success: one-on-one art lessons. Yesterday, after one hour with a teacher, he skipped out of the studio and said he really actually loved art. Malcolm made this charcoal drawing yesterday. I’m beside myself. From stick figure to three dimensionality, in a matter of hours.
Much of this journey is owed to privilege, and I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that fact. My heart is heavy for children like Malcolm who are left behind, with either parents who can’t help the child find his way, or who don’t have the resources to do so. I wish there was an easier solution.
T.E. Lawrence said, “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” We are truly just perched on the middle rungs of life’s ladder with Malcolm, anxiously awaiting our climb to the top. I can’t wait to see what the world looks like from that second story, but I will also do my best to immerse myself wholly in the journey along the way.