"Sammie, please grow up."
You could wish upon a star but it would always stay fixed in the night sky, forever beyond reach. Jiminy Cricket was full of hot air.
That was how Kira LeFleur felt whenever Sam, her six-year-old son, threw a screaming fit because she wouldn't buy him something like a Tootsie Roll. Weren't kids supposed to grow out of tantrums after the "terrible twos?"
Sam had started out as a lively, happy baby. He kept her hopping but she didn't mind. Sam's father had left Kira when she was six months pregnant, so she vowed her son would never feel unloved. Her days were filled with Sammie's crawling, climbing, clinging, clamoring for hugs. He didn’t talk much, but she didn’t worry. She loved the way he climbed all over her at bedtime and loved to cuddle with Harriet, their Golden Retriever. His favorite book was “Where the Wild Things Are.” Little did they know he would become one too.
When he hit the “terrible twos,” everyone held their breath. Much to their relief, he didn’t throw those dreaded tantrums, but he did have bad moods.
“Sammie, come have some fruit. Look, I’ve got strawberries, your favorite.”
He ignored her and kept pushing his Tonka truck around her feet, growling wordlessly.
Sam didn’t scream or cry much, and secretly Kira was grateful for his sullen silence. She felt less guilty going to her job as a pedriatric nurse. Talk about irony. The daycare teacher said he tended to play alone, sit alone, and eat alone. He ignored the other kids and they ignored him.
He was an easy child to watch, but Kira didn’t want him to turn into a lone wolf, shunned by society. She began to worry that he was autistic, but Betty Fine, the pediatrics resident at the hospital reassured her that Einstein hadn’t talked until he was four and look how he turned out.
“Thanks, Betty. Maybe Sam is a genius.” That thought comforted Kira for almost a year.
Then Sam turned three and started preschool. Lightning struck!
Howling, biting, kicking, fighting against leaving home—all in the first five minutes of the day. Kira tried to remember the child psychology class she’d taken in nursing school.
“Sam, let’s go get some ice cream. Then we can go to Little Hands after.”
He didn’t seem to hear her. It took all her strength to get him out the door and buckled into his car seat. He kicked and howled like a wolf.
Sam’s teacher suggested Kira ask her doctor about Ritalin, a common medication for hyperactive kids, often boys.
Kira exploded,“My Sam is NOT hyperactive! He knows his numbers and ABCs and he can sit and do real puzzles.”
“Maybe in your home, Ms. LeFleur, but not here. I can’t have him disrupting our class and endangering the other students. Perhaps you should try somewhere with a special ed program.”
For the first of many times, Kira grabbed Sam and stomped out. School after school refused to take him, or at least tried to work with him. They only lasted a day or two.
Finally Sam’s pediatrician referred her to a child psychologist. At first Kira balked. Her boy wasn’t crazy! Then she caught herself. She of all people knew that therapy could help Sam change his behavior.
One morning she took Sam to a Doctor Windom’s office in Central Square, hauling her recalcitrant boy up the dark narrow steps of an old office building built before the war. World War I, that is.
“Noooo… unnnhhh…” Sam’s protests echoed in the stairwell, and Kira cringed. Well, that was why they were here.
They came up to the second floor landing and Kira had to catch her breath. Sam’s leather lungs did not. She knocked on Dr. Windom’s door and wished upon that faraway star,
“Mamaaaa…” Sam had changed his tune. “I wanna go hoooome…..”
“Hush, Sammie. We have to talk to the nice doctor first.”
Suddenly the door opened and Kira nearly fell in. Bright sunlight hit her eyes and she had to grab the doorway.
“Easy, easy, ma’am,” a deep rumbling voice chuckled. “I can’t afford any personal injury suits.” A big bear of a man stepped back to let her in.
Sam looked up at the doctor and began to cry. Kira drew a deep breath and prayed for patience.
Dr. Windom hunkered down to Sam’s eye level and asked gently, “What’s on your mind, my man?”
Sam gave a few more sobs, but Kira could tell they were fake. His curiosity was drowning out his tears. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
“What’s your name, son?”
Kira blinked in surprise. Sam seldom gave his name to anyone when asked. Sometimes she wondered if he even knew it.
“Is this your lovely mom?”
Sam’s shrug made the adults laugh.
“Come in and let’s chat.” The doctor got up, knees cracking, making Kira wince.
He chuckled. “Bad knee from my shortstop days. Never got over it.’
They went into the office. Kira smelled fresh coffee brewing, and her stomach rumbled loudly. Her face flamed hot but Dr. Windom turned and smiled. “Care for some coffee? It’s fresh.”
“Apple juice and animal crackers for the gentleman?”
Too much sugar and the “gentleman” would be pulling down the wallpaper.
“Um…water and one cracker please.”
“Can do, can do.” The kind doctor produced water in a sippy cup with straw, and two animal crackers with a napkin, which he placed on a coffee table. Sam tackled the cookies with glee. Usually Kira only gave those as special treats.
The three of them quietly savored their refreshments. Kira idly wondered if the doctor drank coffee with every client—he must have a bladder of steel. No, that was foolish. It was still only breakfast time for non-parental humans.
Dr. Windom spent twenty minutes asking Kira about life with Sam, but then the boy started kicking the table in boredom. He had easily solved a 25-piece wooden puzzle of a barnyard scene. But when the doctor pointed to the animals and asked their names, Sam shrugged and didn’t answer.
The doctor provided paper and crayons instead, seemingly just to keep him amused. Then Kira found out how important those scribbles were.
“I’m not a fortune-teller here, but I see art as a vital way Sam is trying to communicate with us. There’s a lot going on in that head of his.”
Kira felt enormous relief anyway. “I was beginning to be afraid he’s autistic.”
“Not at all. He’s very much engaged in his surroundings and looks us in the eye when he wants to. Look how easily he told me his name when I asked.”
The doctor smiled, and Kira wanted to hug him when he added, “Sam does not need Ritalin either. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to recommend it.”
“Then what should I do, Doctor? The schools don’t want him. He’s too disruptive.”
“There’s an excellent arts therapy school run by a colleague of mine, Dr. Imani Taylor. I can contact her today if you’d like.”
“Yes, thanks. I’ll try anything.” Kira realized she sounded desperate, and hastily amended. “I mean, the school sounds terrific. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“No offense taken.” The doctor turned back to Sam. “Son, may I borrow this for a moment? Have a couple more cookies while you wait.” He held out Sam’s drawing to Kira, who frowned at the colorful squiggles.
“Is this like a Rorschach blot? Or EEG brain waves that’ll tell me what he’s thinking?”
“No, no. But you can sense feelings in his choice of colors. On the one hand, it’s a cliche to say that when someone’s feeling blue, they’ll use blue. They might use gray or green, maybe even white to show lack of emotion, or black for the same reason.”
He pointed to Sam’s intricate circles linked like a chain. “Look at the way the colors run into each other. He used several crayons for this. How does this make you feel?”
Kira thought for a minute. “It kind of runs from light to dark and it’s linked together. As if he wants things to join and make sense.”
“Hmm….could be, could be. Let’s ask Sam.” The doctor set the sketch in front of Sam again.
“Sam, this picture’s great. Are these your favorite colors?”
The boy ignored him and kept munching his cookie, scattering crumbs across the paper. Dr. Windom said, “I like this picture. Can I borrow it?”
Sam snatched the picture away and crumpled it up. He stared back at the doctor as if bracing for punishment. Kira wished she could melt away under the floor. “Sammie, that was wrong. Apologize to the doctor.”
The doctor said gently, “Don’t worry, Ms. LeFleur. If he doesn’t want to share his work, he doesn’t have to. But I would like to see him and get to know him more.” He got up and went to his desk. “Can you manage every other week to start?”
It would be expensive but her insurance covered part of Sam’s visits. The rest she had to pay for.
As the weeks passed, it seemed that the therapy was helping. She trusted Dr. Windom. Sam had his bad moods and still didn’t talk much, but he liked the doctor too and basked in his attention. He often gave Dr. Windom his drawings at the end of the visits, a high honor indeed.
Full of hope, Kira enrolled her son in Dr. Taylor’s special art school. Unfortunately, the year started out bumpy and went down from there. The teachers had a roomful of Sams and it took all their training to keep them from running out in all directions, like a herd of cats.
Kira’s attitude changed from humble, desperate parent to weary worker who wanted to be left alone during her shift. “I keep Sam clean and well-fed,” she would say. “It’s your job to teach him to draw.” No wonder they treated her with such scorn at parent-teacher meetings.
Everyone except for Joseph Beck, Sam’s new teacher. When Kira met him at Sam’s first parent-teacher conference, she thought she was looking at a cartoon caveman. The man’s deep-set brown eyes peered at her from beneath heavy brows and his thick-muscled arms seemed better equipped for wielding a club than a paint brush. But he had a sweet smile and a gentle manner.
“Ms. LeFleur? I’m Joseph Beck but you can call me Joseph." He shook her hand warmly.
Kira said with a weary smile, “Please call me Kira.” She noticed that his speech was thick and a bit halting, and he had silver buttons in his ears, just visible beneath his tousled black hair.
He saw her gaze and tapped his head. “I’m hard of hearing, so I wear these high-tech hearing aids.” He chuckled. “So watch what you say!”
“The teachers tell me how wonderful you are.” She gazed around the classroom with its colorful paintings on sheets of brown butcher paper, and lumpy clay models that were supposed to be animals but looked more like fertility goddesses.
Joseph saw the worry lines in Kira’s forehead and exhaustion in her dark eyes. He could only guess at what her life was like. Her blue scrub top was wrinkled and she wore her nappy hair in a single braid as if she barely had a moment to spend on herself.
His other students loved painting and drawing. They came to class brimming with enthusiasm. But Sam couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes. The only thing that he seemed to like was hanging out by the turtle tank in the corner, where their class pet, Donatello lived. The bubbler in the tank seemed to calm the boy down. Some days Sam had to have a lot of turtle time.
As he and Sam’s mother tried to talk, the boy began to scream and climb over the chairs, knocking them over.
“Please stop it, Sammie,” Kira pleaded, mortified. “Mr. Beck and I are trying to –“
“F- you!” Sam shouted, sending a box of paintbrushes flying into a multi-colored heap on the floor.
“Sam!” Kira jumped up, but the teacher said, “Wait a minute, please.”
He went over to Sam at the window just as the boy knocked over a cactus plant, sending dirt all over Joseph’s new shoes. He ignored it and hunkered down to Sam’s eye level. “Let’s show your mom what you did with clay, okay?”
“NO!” Sam screamed, sending Joseph's hearing aids into overdrive. He yanked out the left one and turned it down. The boy inched close and suddenly grabbed it from Joseph's hand.
“Hey buddy, c’mon back. I need that.”
Sam backed away and stuffed the hearing aid into his own ear. Joseph approached with one hand out as if soothing a wild thing. Then he stopped short.
The boy’s eyes were wide with wonder. “Mr. Beck? I can hear you.” He banged on the desk in front of him. “Wow! That’s loud!” He whirled over to Donatello’s tank and exclaimed, “Look at all those bubbles! They’re going hmmmm…”
Joseph's heart swelled in his chest and he felt like Annie Sullivan watching Helen Keller discover the world around her. Suddenly Sam could hear –better, anyway! No wonder he’d thrown fits of frustration at being unable to communicate. Joseph held out his hand and Sam took it shyly. Together they made their way back to Kira, who sat with tears pouring down her cheeks.
Later, Joseph explained to Kira that he saw himself in Sam—angry, confused, and in pain. He had been bullied in childhood and called “dummy” until he had a hearing test in fifth grade and was fitted with hearing aids. Even that didn't help much. He couldn't keep up with the kids' fast talk and running around him. One of their favorite sports was tripping him and tossing him in the basketball bin. Desperate to escape the torment, he discovered the world of art and learned it could take him wherever he wanted to go.
Joseph's fellow teachers at the Taylor School praised him to the skies for his breakthrough work with Sam, though he modestly refused credit. “Sam’s mom has done an incredible job with him. The real Sam was in there all along.”
Sam grew into a fairly happy boy. Like most kids, he had occasional bad moods and bouts of frustration, but the tantrums and swearing disappeared. He loved his new hearing aids, the kind that went over the ears instead of in them. He chose hot-rod red and never wanted to take them off, even at bedtime. In fact, the other kids begged for them too, but Joseph had to explain, “Sam needs them so he can hear you better.”
To Kira's delight, Sam loved to bring her little presents he found. A pretty blue stone and a soft sparrow’s feather. A prickly pine cone and a red summer rose. All from the park where he used to scream and hit the other kids.
And now she had the sweetest gift of all—hugs at bedtime. He would grow out of them, of course, but for now, she would treasure every moment. Kira began to believe Jiminy Cricket was right after all.