Jack’s little body is heaving with sobs. He wails again and again, “How do I grow into a grown-up? How do I get bigger?” and he is breaking my heart.
I am changing his diaper. Potty-training Jack has been a monumental challenge, and he is resistant to even the slightest suggestion that he start relieving himself in the potty.
I am exhausted by the effort it takes to stick to my pro-potty talking points and disgusted by the foul mess that I must clean up day after day. In addition, I feel brutalized by Jack’s intense emotional response to the process. He wants the growing and maturing to be over, to just be “big” (and potty-trained), without having to experience the torment of growing.
Grief pours from him as he moans oddly,
“I want my eyes to be bigger. “
And that is when I pause, thinking all of a sudden of the oft-cited fact that children’s eyes reach their adult size from a very young age, some say as young as two, and that these “wide” eyes are what give children their irresistible look of innocence. But what does it mean that their adult eyes– shifting, watchful, careful not to betray intentions or vulnerability– are already there?
There’s a deli next to Zeke’s school– coffee, sandwiches, drinks– nothing to distinguish it from any other random bodega in our neighborhood, except possibly for one thing: this deli houses a scrawny gray and white cat. The cat skulks around, presumably to keep rodents from eating up the profits. And truthfully, even this doesn’t really differentiate it from other delis, except that for some reason, this scraggy, bony feline has completely captured Jack’s heart and imagination.
After we drop Zeke off at school, Jack invariably begs to go inside and look around for the cat. One day Jack asked the silent and watchful man behind the deli counter what the cat’s name was. The man stifled a snort and said in a lazy voice, “You give a name, and that will be cat’s name.”
Jack thought for a moment, then beamingly declared,
“His name is Catty-Cat.”
And from that day forward, so it was. We went to visit Catty-Cat several mornings a week and as Jack happily wandered around among the racks of chips and peeked beneath the coffee machine, I felt creepily aware of the alert gaze of the deli’s proprietors, tracking our every move.
In addition to the silent man behind the counter, there is a much chattier fellow, just a little taller than I am, the whites around his darting eyes huge and strangely bright. He dresses in an overly enthusiastic and dated “hip-hop” fashion, that calls to mind Ali-G.
He would always greet Jack with a vehement friendliness, often grabbing Catty-Cat out of whatever corner she was hiding in and roughly presenting her to Jack. His tensed hand would be positioned in front of her paws as he spoke firmly in her ear , and loudly encouraged Jack to pet her. He always insisted that she was terrified of everyone but Jack, whom she loved (attempts to spring from his firm grasp and escape from Jack’s clumsy little hands, notwithstanding).
Once he glanced pointedly at my wedding ring and asked me why I never came in with my husband, asked if he was “away in the army”.
Another time he insisted on giving Jack a free snack from the shop, and as Jack happily selected a bag of “butter-flavored” popcorn, that I knew I would never actually allow him to eat, he told me about his two children, pounding forcefully on his chest as he insisted that his son was “his heart” and that he loved him much more than his daughter.
He and his friend made me insanely nervous. I found myself trying to cross the street before we reached Catty-Cat’s deli. There was nothing I could put my finger on exactly that made me want to avoid it, but when we were there I always had a knot in the pit of my stomach, and I always kept a wary hand firmly on Jack’s shoulder as I hurried him through our visit and out to the safe anonymity of the street.
But Jack took such pleasure in visiting Catty-Cat and it was hard to resist the joy shining from his child’s eyes, as he placed his hand on her protruding ribs and felt her vibrating purr. So from time to time, we did stop in, though I did my best to be brusque and never to meet anyone’s gaze.
Then one rainy day, we stopped in and as Jack’s little voice called , “Catty-Cat? Catty-Cat where are you?” our colorful friend sauntered over to us and told us that we couldn’t see her because she was in the back room. I saw consideration wash over his face and saw the slight shift in his expression that indicated that he had actually changed his mind. “Wait,” he said. “I show you where she is.”
And as he ushered us toward the back room of the deli, I gripped Jack tightly and felt panic rising in me slightly. All of my adult instincts were telling me to be on alert, but a needling part of my mind told me that I might be being ridiculous, that this man had never been anything but friendly, and that there was no reason to deny a child an experience that made him so happy, or to make him feel nervous about people that had been kind to him and a cat that he had discovered and named. I wished that I could see it all with his innocent joy and wonder and turn off my full-grown anxiety.
In the back room we saw Catty-Cat. She was grooming herself, perched on a dingy, once-white vinyl dining room chair. Jack’s eyes locked on her with delight and I found myself nervously glancing around the room.
Next to the chair was a filthy over-flowing litter-box, and a giant hookah, as tall as Jack.
The room was surprisingly empty for a store room. There were a few cases of A & W Cream soda, a variety of mops and buckets and a metal drain in the center of the concrete floor. My eyes kept being drawn to a strange lofted platform that dominated the room. There were 3 or 4 crudely built stairs that led up to it and a neon-printed shower curtain separating it from the rest of the space. Through a gap in the curtain I could see a large duffel bag and a precisely made pallet, where someone clearly slept.
My heart and mind began to race as it dawned on me that SOMEONE LIVED BACK HERE– and I wasn’t sure if that was legitimately scary or not and I didn’t want the man to perceive that I was afraid and I didn’t want to frighten Jack, but I just wanted to get out of that room and back outside as fast as humanly possible.
As I led Jack back to our apartment I was struck by how profoundly differently we experienced that morning in the deli. Jack chattered about Catty-Cat and was aware only of the magic of this living being, that ate and breathed, and felt things, and allowed him to interact with it. My mind was possessed by paranoia and the potential for danger. Whose mind did it make sense to dwell in? The world is certainly more lovely in Jack’s eyes. And it saddens me to imagine his child’s vision being clouded by fear and mistrust.
My father studies Perception, and I remember him teaching me about the eye from a young age, quizzing me on of its various parts: the lens, the iris, the cornea, the rods and the cones. He excitedly explained that the brain fills in blanks so that we would perceive a clear and complete picture of what was before us.
It seems to me that this is very similar to what my adult view of the world does to Catty-Cat’s deli. I don’t understand what is going on in there. There are huge and petrifying gaps in my knowledge about the deli’s staff and why someone might live in the backroom and why someone might tell a stranger that they don’t really love their daughter, and without the benefit of a complete picture, all of my mental alarms go off and fill in the fuzzy areas with a strident vigilance.
Children are free to experience the unexplained, without that terror. We absorb all of the fear for them, tightly grip their little hands, and quietly scan the horizon for threats. In their yearning to grow up so quickly and to be independent, they have no idea that potty-training is merely the barest beginning of independence or of how incredibly sinister life for an adult can be.
We teach them to use the toilet, and to tie their shoes, and to navigate the world on their own.
And from us, they also learn to put their guard up. They have to. In order to survive, we all need to assess risks and think about the dangers that could be lurking in the places that we can’t see clearly.
But, in the moment, in Catty-Cat’s deli, as I gaze at the contented glow on my young son’s face while he caresses that skittish bag-of-bones, I don’t mind that soon I will go home and change another dirty diaper.
And I am acutely aware of a raw longing for the time when
I could wallow without fear in the simple rapture of an unfamiliar cat’s purr,
rather than being so keenly aware,
one hand on my son’s shoulder, one eye on the door.
“Why not?” I asked him wearily.
“Because it will interrupt my dreams!” he shot back. “And then I won’t dream of Florin!”
“And I love to dream of Florin,” he added in a soft, sad voice.
Florin, according to Zeke, is the boy who lives in his dreams. Florin is an alien and he has a cat named Miracle who is also his best friend. Where Florin lives, the rays of the sun are fuzzy and they tickle you when they shine on your skin. Florin eats bugs and candy and he gets to play as many video games as he wants.
Florin, it appears, lives Zeke’s most awesomely, amazing dream life. He is for Zeke the embodiment of everything incredibly, marvelously spectacular and he has a “big boy” bravery and confidence that Zeke clearly admires.
I have asked Zeke to describe Florin numerous times and joy bubbles from him as he searches his mind for awe-inspiring details. His eyes turn upward and dart quickly back and forth as he talks about Florin’s amazing attributes. His voice speeds up and takes on an exhilarated tone, that makes me wish I was a child again so I could feel the awed delight that his mind gives him.
“He’s shaped like an alien. First you put a few parts on him. And then you put a lot of parts on him. He has hair that is different colors, like a rainbow. And his skin is like a rainbow too. And his boots are white. And his hat is yellow. And he has prickles all over his rainbow back that are rainbow prickles. He has a new haircut so his hair is just on his head, but before it was all the way down to his back. His eyes are yellow. His nose is shaped like a triangle. His mouth, his teeth, and his tongue are rainbow colored. He wears pirate clothes. He has the same skull shirt as me and he wears it all day and all night.”
For the past two and a half years, Zeke has been attending cozy little neighborhood home-based schools, in which a group of like-minded parents hired a teacher to run small classes in one family’s home. The schools were run co-operatively by the parents, in partnership with the teacher, and parents were instrumental in shaping the daily classroom practices as well as the tone of the classroom. The school has always felt relaxed, informal, and friendly and our families and our children have all gotten to know each other in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional school setting. We have had a variety of teachers and educational approaches, and I truly couldn’t have been happier with the way Zeke has adapted and grown as a little person. But this does mean that I have managed to put off letting go of the reins and sending Zeke off into the “real world”.
Quite recently, our homeschool situation dissolved and though I was really disappointed, I was sure that Zeke was completely ready for a more formal school and I knew that it would be great for him to advance intellectually and socially in a traditional structured environment.
Enter the Lefferts Gardens Montessori School.
When plans were uncertain over the summer, I placed Zeke on the waiting list for the school, never heard back and promptly forgot about it. When I found myself needing a new schooling situation for him, I left a message there and the next day received a call from the director saying that Zeke could start immediately. This is MUCH easier than getting your children into school is supposed to be in Brooklyn–schools are an endless topic of charged, stressful conversation among Brooklyn parents–and I felt really fortunate to be avoiding all the applications and the waiting and the nail-biting.
As the day drew nearer, I felt somewhat tense, but completely prepared. I had filled out all of the paperwork, made a comprehensive list of emergency contacts, located and photocopied Zeke’s birth certificate, taken a photo of him as he currently appears sans idiosyncratic accessories, packed him a healthy lunch and an emergency change of clothes. I arranged for my sister-in-law to spend the morning with Jack so that I could be there all morning with Zeke, to emotionally support him through this very emotional transition. I explained to Zeke that he would stay at his new big boy school until 4:30, and that all day long he was going to be playing with new friends and learning exciting new things. A distinct lump formed in my throat, but Zeke appeared unfazed.
On the appointed day, Aaron and I brought Zeke to class a few minutes early and he immediately made himself at home, examining all of the manipulatives, sorting through beads, and exploring the classroom library. One of the teachers sat him down at a table and quickly absorbed him in sorting numbered tiles on a numbered grid. Aaron and I felt like we were hovering as the other children started to arrive, so we sat quietly at a table behind Zeke. As 8:30 rolled around, Aaron needed to get back to work and he said a quick goodbye to Zeke.
I stood behind him mired in indecision. Would it be better for both of us to just go and to make a clean break? I decided that I would stay behind and watch the beginning of class. Zeke could get a little nervous when he was left alone for the first time in a new place, right? I looked at his little shoulders in his red and brown thermal and his mop of golden hair, seated at the little pre-school table and he looked so small. I couldn’t leave my special little guy.
I came up behind him and comfortingly gripped his shoulders and said quietly in his ear, “Zekey. Daddy has to go back to work right now, but I can stay here with you for a little while.” (Don’t Worry! Mommy is here!)
Zeke didn’t even turn around. Just continued at his number-sorting task and said indifferently,
“Oh,” I said backing away. “I guess maybe I don’t need to.”
I left the classroom without ever seeing his face. The image of his floppy wheat-colored hair, his small head bent over his work throbbed in my head. “This is how it starts I guess”, I thought and I walked slowly home.