The Winter of Our Content?

Brookline TAB, January 2, 2008

The morning of the recent whopper snowstorm, I kept thinking about a phrase I’d read in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book: “The rich get their ice in the summer, the poor get their ice in the winter.”

Maybe this was because, rich or poor, we were all being hammered by snow and freezing rain here in the Northeast. But maybe it’s also because this phrase, which once had the power to charm me, just seems too simplistic for my life now. Things are not what they seem, most of the time. A rich family — or in our case, upper-middle-class suburban Bostonians — can get their ice at any time.

That frozen morning, my 18-year-old autistic son, Nat, extremely sensitive to weather and light, woke up sensing and dreading the imminent cold, snowy, gray day that lay ahead. Shifting climate conditions make Nat miserable, but I am at a loss as to how to explain nature’s inconsistencies in a way that will help him. Gray light — and for that matter, gray areas — are a real challenge for Nat.

That morning we were all hurrying more than usual, because Ben, my 9-year-old, had to get to his breakfast share at Lincoln, and his class was performing a skit, “Native American Cinderella.” Our harried state made us all less inclined to stop and soothe Nat, and explain, once again, about the seasons and why the days get shorter and colder. Eventually, he erupted into a terrible rage, where he was screaming, biting his own arm and clawing at us. My husband, Ned, and I struggled to calm Nat, while simultaneously trying to keep Ben safe, as well as excited about his role in the skit as Chief Shadow Gamer. I asked him questions about the Native Americans, all with a shaky smile and knots in my stomach.

Somehow, Nat got on the bus on time and we made it to Ben’s school. I took deep breaths to calm down and put the ugliness of the morning behind me, to shift gears, but I felt a little odd and out of place at first. The classroom was humming with happy activity, jammed with 22-plus costumed, chatty fourth-graders and their wide-eyed, enthusiastic parents. I took off my coat, sat on a desk and watched as the play began, and focused on the story, which was “Cinderella” told with an Abenaki cultural twist.

Watching Ben, who really chewed up the scenery as the Chief, I found I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Here was this child of mine, who just minutes before had been in a terrifying situation with his brother out of control. And yet he managed to walk in there and perform with his classmates as if everything was perfect in his life. To look at him, you would never guess where he’d just been, the turmoil he has had to live with.

As I looked around, I understood why he could bounce back like that. I noticed how the kids all watched for each other, and checked that they were performing correctly, saying the right lines. I saw the delighted student teacher standing off in the wings, giving direction confidently. And there in the back, and then the side, and now the front of the room, the breathless, smiling head teacher was skillfully overseeing all. The joy, the encouragement and the support there was palpable.

There, among the beaming parents and frenetic teachers, I felt the chilly lump in my gut start to dissolve. Like Ben, I felt that while in that classroom, I was among friends and that it was going to be all right. This warm place of acceptance and community, I realized, was as real a part of my life as the difficulties with Nat. There at home, I might feel at times like I’m living under siege, but here at the school, I am the proud mother of Ben, budding comic actor. I looked around me and I wondered who else might be feeling the way I was, what other hidden struggles were a part of these kids’ or adults’ lives.

The truth is, you never know what is going on beneath the surface — whether the ice is solid or paper thin. And yet, we could all sit together in Paula Reilly’s fourth-grade class on that wintry morning and feel like just then, we were having our ice in the summer.