Our children test our faith regularly--in them, in ourselves, in God. And every parent has at least one child who tests them more than the others.
In my case, this child is Daniel.
At seventeen, Daniel is better than six feet tall, slender, and lanky, with a wild mop of blonde hair, peach fuzz on his face, and an infectious smile accentuated by deep dimples. His eyes are blue with flecks of green in them, and he is finally winning the battle with a bad case of acne. Daniel often seems like he doesn't quite know what to do with all his limbs, but he runs like a gazelle and rarely misses when he swings a baseball bat. He has a slight speech impediment, but I've noticed him self-correcting a lot lately and suspect, like the acne, it will soon be history.
Daniel also has Asperger's Syndrome. He is at the high functioning end of the scale, meaning that most people will notice that he is a little "different" (strangely obsessive, somewhat other worldly, out of touch with what's going on around him) but won't give it much thought beyond that. That hasn't always been so. Childhood was rough. We lived through melt downs (there were days when I could tell when he got out of bed that it was just a matter what the trigger was going to be), obsessive behaviors and mannerisms, poor social skills, and a strange difficulty with grasping and retaining simple rules (like stealing is wrong). Unexpected changes in schedules, an inability to make what he saw in his head happen (most often it was art work), difficulty explaining how he felt and why, produced heartbroken tears. He was the kid that Sunday School teachers dreaded--not because he was badly behaved (he wasn't)--but because he was so unpredictable. I went to bed feeling like a failure on a regular basis and I'm sure he spent a lot of time wondering why he couldn't please us.
As he's matured, he's learned to roll with schedule changes and how to manage himself when he feels over stimulated or upset. At home he plays with his younger brothers and his dog and his cat(Ruby and Isaac are better therapy tools than I could have hoped for), demonstrates a quiet, understated sense of humor--though he sometimes misses word plays. But when he leaves home he dons what I affectionately call the "Daniel-shaped bubble" in order to manage the world. He doesn't quite know how to respond to greetings from strangers, has difficulty initiating conversations with kids his own age, and is sometimes unintentionally rude. We're working on that. For once his often merciless older brother's approach seems to be coming in useful. "Daniel, you big jerk! That guy who just said hi to you is a friend of mine! He probably thinks you're snotty. Next time someone says hi to you, say hi back!" worked far better than my offering him money if he'd come home with the address or email of just one person from camp.
Like many Aspies, he's highly intelligent, with a college level reading comprehension. He's an outside the box thinker, loves to problem solve, and is good with his hands, more comfortable with numbers than words. The only work of fiction he's read willingly on his own is the "Chronicles of Narnia". He's fascinated by space and specifically black holes and is something of a household authority. Daniel knows his Bible intimately, has read it from cover to cover, then started over again.
Last year I began preparing him to take his GED and talked to him about technical school, or taking a couple of college classes. We expected him to hang home longer than the others and stay close to us at least for a while once he decides to move out. In truth, I was relieved that he wanted to skip public high school. It meant we could move ahead to the adult world where he's more comfortable and people are less inclined to be openly cruel. Daniel doesn't quite seem to know how to combat aggression and meanness.
When Jeremiah graduated last spring, I sighed in relief. It meant a year off from the headaches of running back and forth, of having to keep track of someone's grades and teachers. Joseph (who is fourteen)will begin his high school career next fall so I was looking forward to focusing on him and the other two with fewer distractions. I didn't count on Daniel announcing that he wanted to go too.
After an extensive discussion, we visited with the high school counselor, the same one who gave Jeremiah his entry exam four years ago. We like and trust her and she realizes that we're committed, focused educators in our own right and treats us as such. Missouri recently entered the present century and recognizes that a one size fits all approach to educating the less than traditional student doesn't work (That, and I'm sure they've concluded that some tax money is better than none). They are now offering a compromise and Daniel will benefit. He can go to normal classes this year and part of next. Then he'll begin attending GED classes for half the day and either Vo-tech or normal classes the other half. When he graduates his name will be called alongside everyone else's in the high school class.
So we enrolled him, bought him school clothes and school supplies. Yesterday we walked him through the building, showing him how to find his classes, got his locker assignment and made sure he could manage the combination lock (which he spun back and forth like a master, popping it open with barely a glance--I forgot which kid I was dealing with). He started today. Gary and I were up at five AM and practically followed him to the bus stop (which he indicated was overkill).
If I sound more like the mother of a kindergartener than that of a high schooler it's because that's how it always feels with Daniel. I think I pray for him twice as much as I do the other boys--and that's a lot. Some of my prayers were small. Some where huge. When he was younger I prayed that we'd just get through the day without tears, that he'd smile more often, that we could decode him enough to meet his emotional needs. As he grew older I prayed for the strength to arm him with knowledge and understanding, that God would grant me the wisdom to arm him for life.
Last week, he helped me somewhat reluctantly with Vacation Bible School (We put him in charge of constructing an ice cave out of cardboard boxes and odds and ends scraps). He was typical Daniel-- silent for the most part, staying to himself, doing what was asked of him, rarely smiling. He did a great job on the cave, but barely spoke to the kids he was shepherding through it. While his brothers were quick to find groups to identify with (Joe has a circle of female admirers. Sam is popular where ever he goes), Daniel stood silently by himself, sat in the back, ate by himself. I had visions of his days in high school looking the same. By the middle of the second day, I found myself praying that someone would reach out to him and that he would reach back--just once. Someone who would understand him without me needing to explain him. Not because they felt sorry for him, but because they liked him.
This is not a new prayer for me. I used to pray it all the time. I don't know when I quit asking, it didn't seem like a huge request, but at some point I gave up. Now that he was facing a whole new set of experiences, I wanted more than ever before, for him to have an ally.
On the third day, I passed him in the hall and noticed that a girl about his own age had stopped to speak with him. I forced myself not to linger for more than a second, but I could not help but notice how she stood near him, smiling into his eyes, teasing him, and how he began to smile back. Later I saw this beautiful girl drag him toward the assembly by his hand. He was beaming. (So remarkable was this that I overheard a group of VBS volunteers commenting on it). She jostled him gently, getting him to do the movements to the songs along with the other kids. She actually made him laugh. Amazing. He passed her in the hall ahead of me at one point and gently tapped her on the head with his Bible. She poked him with an elbow. Who was this girl? I wondered.
Later, when I was on break, I ran across her in the church's kitchen and we began talking. She gave me a hard time about not recognizing her. I finally read her name tag and realized she was a girl I had in Sunday school several years ago. She was the only person in class Daniel would have anything to do with and I was sorry when she and her family moved away. Daniel actually asked about her from time to time.
I mightily resisted the urge to hug her when she volunteered that she'd heard that he would be attending high school and she'd look for him in the halls. I thanked her and she grinned and waved it off. "It's not like it's hard," she said. "I like Daniel. I always have. He never made fun of me."
Made fun of her? No, Daniel wouldn't dream of doing anything like that (Even if he was inclined to, his father and I would have had his hide). Who on earth would make fun of that sweet little girl? I didn't understand until I mentioned it to Jeremiah later.
He nodded. "She has a learning disability. Don't you remember how she had trouble reading in Sunday School?"
I did remember her wrestling with words, but I didn't realize it was because of a learning disability.
Jeremiah went on. "She's pretty popular now, but she used to get picked on a lot. That's why her parents moved her to a different school. She still takes some special Ed classes."
See? God said. I was so paying attention.
Daniel came home all smiles today. He nearly missed the bus home because he didn't know which one to get on (too many and too confusing he said), but the principal radioed the driver and drove him across town to meet it. Properly embarrassed, he's assured us that this won't happen again. Otherwise he had a good first day. Stacy looked him up at lunch, he said. She made sure he was okay and introduced him to a couple of her friends.
I know there will be good days and bad, but it's nice to know we're not the only ones pulling for him. Daniel has a friend in a high place who is too.