Last week I volunteered in my son’s classroom. They are working towards publication and his book replicates the structure of Alison McGhee’s book Someday. My son writes a page about what he imagines his life will be someday, and explains how he’s working towards that goal today. He has only written a couple pages so far, but his pages include: Someday I want to be a professor and Someday I want to be a published author. As I flipped through the pages of his book, tears filled my eyes. I looked over at his teacher and she whispered, “He wants to be just like his daddy.”
When I read his beautiful pages, the tears that formed in my eyes were tears of fear more than anything else. They were tears of trepidation. My son struggles in school. Born seven weeks prematurely, he has struggled since the moment he breathed his first breath. His twin brother, always impatient, forced him out of the womb before he was ready. I didn’t realize how hard it is for little boys to catch up to their peers when they are born prematurely, but our nine years with my son tell us that prematurity has a profound effect. He has struggled to keep up with peers since day one.
He’s in second grade now, and even though he repeated kindergarten, he still lags behind his peers in reading and writing. He didn’t start speaking until he was four, and three times a week he spends time with a speech teacher. When he’s confronted with new information he needs to hear it a few times before he understands. His spelling attempts reveal how he hears the words in his head. I’m a literacy professor so I know about levels and benchmarks and where children should typically be at various ages. I know he’s not typical. He has an IEP, and receives a variety of school services. Each year I sign forms that remind me he’s exceptional rather than typical.
The word exceptional is a difficult descriptive word to take when I think of it ascribed to my child in a school context. It fills me with worry for his future. No parent wants a child to struggle through life and I fear his exceptionalities might hold him back from being a professor, or author, or surgeon, or whatever dream that leads him to a passionate, fulfilling professional life. I worry that the adjective that defines him in school might define his identity. Will a lifetime of struggle in school exhaust him from reaching his dreams? Will he persevere?
Here’s the thing: My son is exceptional. Whenever someone passes by him walking a dog, he smiles and asks, “Can I pet your beautiful dog?” He holds doors open for strangers. He says “YES!” whenever I ask if he wants to try a new adventure. He can shoot out of a starting block in swimming and launch his lanky, skinny body across the pool faster than most. He can patiently put together a complicated Lego set. He says, “Thank you” generously. From his speech teacher to his reading interventionist, to his classroom teacher, to his Sunday school teacher, every single person who interacts with him tells us the same thing, “I absolutely love that sweet soul.” He is loving and warm and sympathetic and caring and funny and charming and handsome as hell. He’s….well….exceptional.
As I type this, my beautiful boy sits across from me at my wife’s childhood home. He’s playing on the ground while the ocean horizon illuminates his silhouette. He pauses for a moment and glances at me. My eyes float up above the screen to meet his. A broad smile stretches across his face. A smile stretches across mine. His heart is full and so is mine. So, instead of worrying about Someday I think I’ll stay here in the present for a while. I’ll focus on Today. Today my little boy is exceptional in so many ways. And that’s what I choose to embrace.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.