Our house is currently being painted. Before school, Cayde slips out the door, then reappears.
“They’re Argentinian!” he says in a high whisper, almost conspiratorially. He disappears again and soon I hear Cayde’s excited jabbering, and the painters’ bemused response. There are a few deep chuckles; when I go to check in on Cayde, he’s standing with feet planted on the lawn, clutching his backpack straps, recounting yesterday’s conferencia de sciencia, and how there’s a scourge of pez leones—lionfish—in the ocean. Only tiburones can eat them, he explains, and there are fewer sharks in the waters these days.
The painters have their brushes holstered in plastic buckets, smiling.
“He speaks good Spanish,” they say. I don’t want to give Cayde a big head, so I smile, nod, and meet their eyes in response.
Cayde disappears at the Mexican grocer often, then reappears with tortillas in hand. He’s learned that his blonde crown coupled with his adept tongue results in bounty: a free bolillo, pats on the head.
Parent/Teacher conference is delayed a day, the meeting before Cayde’s having gone long and with us having to reschedule. Cayde’s English teacher offers a hug of apology when we do meet, though I warn against it: I reek of penguins. She hugs me anyway—a good and earnest embrace—and remarks that penguin hugs may well be the best. The hug and the fact of her nose ring has her ahead in my book.
During any and all Parent/Teacher conferences, I physically ball up: I lace my ankles tight, I cross my hands in my lap. Much of my upbringing has me wanting to succeed, needing the pat on the head, which is why these meetings necessarily stop me. I want the automatic success for my kid; at the same time, I furiously don’t. Cayde, meanwhile, randoms praise from the fabricante de tortillas, else this morning’s Argentinian painter, and so easily. I know the news from his teacher will most likely be good, but I dislike forums where judgment is du jour and where often I’m suspicious of the judges.
Meaning: all discomfort is mine. Cayde’s coast is clear.
Cayde’s English teacher has two rings on her right hand ring finger: one of copper leaf, and one that looks like white gold. She has on silver nail polish, which bridges the difference, and she smooths out Cayde’s papers and projects purposefully, pointing out the academic things she’s supposed to point out. There’s red ink on the evaluative papers, but she says: ‘That’s just my advice. I tell the kids I’m only giving them advice. Teaching is not correcting.”
Words come up: ‘Seminar’. ‘Smart’. ‘Hasty’. ‘Distracted’. The phrase: ‘I-know-this-already’.
Cayde is very cued in to the fact that I skipped a grade in elementary school; he wants to as well, but his English teacher forces a full stop. “He’s doing everything kids do at the end of the third grade already, but I’m not going to give him an advanced score on his report card—maybe later. I want him to keep performing well at a third grade level. I want him at three, not looking toward four.”
In which case, I want to hug this teacher again.
Cayde talked to the Argentinian painters this morning, then remarked he forgot to ask them their names, something he’s forgotten to do for two weeks. A sign, I worry, that he’s encroaching on over-confidence and missing the point that having smarts is necessary avenue to having heart.
“Hello. How are you?” is the most important sequence of sentences one can utter. Waiting for the response, and patiently, is even more important.
It’s the one most essential lesson I seek to instill in Cayde: make your brain and heart one organ, Kid.
(Yeah—I like that he’s smart. I enjoy that he kicked the first goal of the soccer season, and that he has the best punting ability on the team. I like that he can now stump me at twenty questions; I love that he’s a good big brother…)
Cayde’s Spanish teacher pipes up and shows me his essays. “He does this, he has a voice.” Cayde gets high points for conceptual thinking, low scores for grammar, and I welcome the mixed-bag humility. I love that he misspells things and gets the tenses all wrong. I really want the mistakes.
Spanish teacher: “He’s bilingual, though. He wasn’t deterred by my accent (she’s Puertoriqueno); he gets my jokes.”
Understanding a joke is the highest mark of language apprehension. Taking a joke is not on the same ladder, but still equally—differently—difficult.
Spanish teacher presses her palms to the table, chipped manicure. “I give him a four here.” She points to the report card, and I have to adjust my scratched bifocals, because all my glasses are scratched, and I can only see out of the bottom of my lenses.
She pauses. “He really knows science. And in Spanish! He knows the concept, he explains it to the rest of the class. I’ve worked eight years here. I’ve never given a four.” She brings her voice down: ‘He is such a joy’ she whispers. She taps again on the report card. ‘A four.’
I don’t like numbers. But what the English teacher said erased the arithmetic: “He had problems with his homework, but given guidance, he took advice well.” This is the best thing a parent can hear.
“He knows he can learn by taking advice, and he does.”
I’m relieved. I explain that Cayden is very much me, just blonder and with those better parts of Jenn that lend him temperance.
I confess: ‘knowing it all tempts…’ and my ankles are still crossed in perhaps embarrassment: knowing it all, all these years of knowing it all have proved the exact opposite, the exact opposite of how I’d like to be perceived or accepted.
“It tempts arrogance,” I suggest.
The English teacher says ‘no.’
‘He’s just very excited to be learning, and to know things.’
The Argentinian painter greets me at the door because I have no choice: he’s painting the door. He has a moustache and meaty hands. He sees my guitar in the front room, says: “You play?” I confess: not much anymore. But it’s a great guitar, with a solid mahogany top.
“You like Pink Floyd?”
“What do you like?”
I’m at a loss and reel off some names; I don’t know what I like anymore. At a certain age, and as I tell Cayde, asking about favorites is a useless exercise: life is too big for favorites.
Finn wanders to the door with a fistful of cereal and says, earnestly: “Ah-po-te-ba.”
The painter smiles, his moustache dividing.
“This guy: he is my friend.” And he gives Finn both a hug and a high-five.
“You–you are my friend, Little Man,” and Finn says his syllables; I have my coffee and the painter-man his brush.
“Your son—he speaks perfect Spanish. And this guy. In my family, a kid—especial. You know? Especial, muy. This guy—he my friend. “
I tell the painter that Finn used to be a secret. I tell him I told my friend Leah about him, and that she looked at me stonily, and said from behind sunglasses: “my nephew has Down Syndrome and he is the light of our family.”
At the Parent/Teacher conference, the Spanish teacher showed me an illustration Cayden had done, and it was a red and orange picture of the sun; the moon was in pencil and very small.
“You see? This. He knows perspective. This is why the four.”