I turned to watch Christopher sitting in his car seat dragging the scrawny legs of his red Elmo doll over his cheeks. He was staring at a mysterious place in the air, his eyes glassy. “Here we go, buddy,” I said, as we descended the stone steps into the lower level of the building. We found ourselves in a classroom arranged as an art studio with four large, square tables set at each corner of the room. Surrounded with children’s chairs, the tables were covered with paint splatters, charcoal stains and pencil marks. The teacher was waiting inside the door. She was about my age and her tall, slender body was hidden in a too-large sundress. “Welcome Christopher!” she said, bending down to him. “Do you like art?” Christopher looked at the ground and rubbed Elmo’s arm against his right cheek, moving it slowly up and down. “You’re going to love this class, Chris.” The teacher smiled at me. “Why don’t you pick out a place to sit? Today we’re going to do some exploring.”
I led Christopher to a table near the front of the room. Chunks of colored clay and buckets of glitter, pens, and stickers lay neatly in the center. He sat next to me and stared at the paint-splattered table as if it were a great work of art. Other people trickled in and eventually all the seats were filled with chattering children and their mothers. I wondered what the other mothers were doing that I was not. Their children not only spoke, they spoke in sentences.
“I want to make a glitter cat! With a sparkling tail!” squealed a small girl with ringed ponytails. “Shush,” her mother answered, embarrassed. The mother raised her penciled eyebrows at me as if I knew how hard it was to listen to her daughter’s constant prattling. I smiled back but really, I didn’t understand at all. I’d never had the chance to ask Christopher to quiet down.
The teacher explained the lesson of the week. We were to create a clay animal and decorate it together. Pails of white glue were handed out to each mother/child pair.
“Christopher, what kind of animal should we make?” I asked, as the room filled with the bustle of voices and movement. Christopher looked down at the table and continued to move the tip of Elmo’s arm slowly across his cheek. I watched him for a moment and could almost feel the soft fur on my own face. I understood the comfort he gained from that sensation. As a young child, I would wind my blond hair around the base of my thumb, leaving a few inches sticking out, like the end of a paintbrush. I’d suck my thumb, feel the hair brushing against my cheek and close my eyes. In some magical way this act transported me into my very own private place — a place where I could feel safe, impervious to the outside world. Christopher is a lot like me, I reasoned. As his mother, it was my job to help him come out of his private place. To enter into the world of others. I just wasn’t sure how. I didn’t realize then that this would become my singular focus, and not for hours or days — but for years.
Gently, I pulled the Elmo doll from Christopher’s hand and laid it on the table. “How about we make a puppy dog?” I suggested, and pulled a large chunk of brown clay from the center of the table. “You ready?” Christopher’s hand hovered near his face, although he must have known the Elmo doll was no longer in it. I pushed his fingers down and placed it on the clay. As if it were blazing hot, he jerked his hand away and glared angrily at the floor.
“It’s okay, buddy. It’s just clay,” I said. I pulled the clay into halves and laid a piece in front of Christopher. He didn’t move but I could see red blotches forming on his cheeks and neck, as always happened when he was about to cry. Normally, I’d stop at this point. But this time, I didn’t. Instead I took a deep breath and kept on.
“Look at me. I’m making an ear for the puppy.” I pressed the clay into a patty and separated a small amount, rolling it into a ball. I made an ear, another ear, a nose and mouth. Christopher didn’t seem to notice my efforts with the clay. He stared at the table, his face a stone wall. Other children rolled clay, dipped their hands into glue buckets and spilled glitter on the floor. The girl with the ringlets attached thick whiskers to a tube-shaped cat. “I love the pink glitter, Mommy!” she yelled. Her mother rolled her eyes at me. I avoided her glance.
“Christopher, look at me.” I said sternly. I cupped my hands around his cheeks and gently pulled his face towards me. Holding up the clay body I’d made, I pushed an oblong ball onto it. “This is the puppy’s head. Why don’t you make the legs?” I held Christopher’s hand and turned it so that his palm was facing up. Placing a ball of clay on it, I pressed his other hand over the top, like a sandwich.
“Good job. See how easy this is!”
Within seconds, Christopher was moaning and his eyes brimming with tears. He dropped the clay and raised his hands in the air, as if he was about to catch a ball. He opened his mouth and began to yelp. The sound was like nothing I’d heard from him before. It was the same one my dog made after she was hit by a car, when I was eight years old. I found her lying on the street in front of our house. Holding her shaking body in my arms, I listened to her yelp into my ear until she finally died. This noise coming from my son was the very same. Shock. Fear. And most certainly, a cry for help.
I pulled Christopher onto my lap, turned him toward me and hugged him. “I’m sorry. It’s okay. Sweet boy.” I whispered into his ear as his yelping slowed and eventually stopped, and he relaxed into me. I stroked his arms and silky hair until I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Is everything okay?” asked the teacher.
“I’m sorry, but he doesn’t seem to like the clay.” The classroom was still and the other mothers were trying hard not to look in our direction. For the first time, I felt self-conscious about my son. It wasn’t embarrassment, but something else I couldn’t quite pin down. A skirmish of anger and insecurity. How dare these mothers look down upon Christopher as if their own children were perfect? But then: Is something wrong with my son? Am I doing this right?
There were no answers, only a clay dog without any legs.