by Elizabeth Vondrak
When his little brother destroys his Lego tower, my son declares, “I’m gonna defenestrate you, you ignoramus!” My son is nine, technically in the fourth grade. He reads at a kindergarten level, on a good day. His teacher tells him not to do math on his fingers, because he’s no longer a little kid. She can’t be bothered to read the twenty-six page report which explains his finger-counting is a victory. She is a Special Education teacher. “An especially bad teacher,” my son corrects.
My son loves language—shaping and playing with it like Play-Doh. “What do you call a baby cow that goes to church?” he asks. “A calflic.” We laugh, fist-bump. “What do you call a cow that goes to a mosque?” I shrug. “A mooslim.” It’ll be a long time before he’s finished with religious bovines. I’m finally finished with my novel, so he asks why I still wake up early to sit at my computer. I tell him I’m looking for an agent. “I’d like an agent to find me a girlfriend,” he says.
On good days, at bedtime, my son asks his dad and me to name famous people with dyslexia or dyscalculia or ADHD. On bad days, he asks, “Why did God make me this way?” Most parents I know are fending off monsters, high-fructose corn syrup, screen time. My husband and I must fend off an existential crisis.
My son springs from the school bus, spitting tangles of words. I unravel bits and pieces: “Donald Trump!” he stutters. “He’s going to deport all the Muslims and Spanish people!” My son is afraid for Yasin, Mr. Ali, Manny. Later, when I’m packing the next day’s lunchbox, he asks if he can bring a bag of Goldfish for Barbara. The same Barbara who told him the month before that no one in the class liked him. She’d taken a survey. The same Barbara whose ponytail I’d imagined pulling until she begged for mercy. I fish for information. Barbara always “forgets” to bring a snack. She eats (free) school breakfast and lunch. I sigh. I pack the extra bag.
During school lunch my son sits alone at the Allergy Table, the sole resident of the cafeteria’s Island of Dietary Misfit Toys. Unlike the other children with food allergies and who forego the special table, he’s too afraid to sit next to someone with a peanut butter sandwich, someone who might think it funny to taunt him with it. He has learned from experience. At recess, the other children “disqualify” him from their playground games. He cannot keep the rules straight. Are they using swords or light sabers? Do you tag before or after getting the treasure? “But I secretly play along,” he tells me. That will show them.
My son begs me to put Pearl Jam on his iPod. Ignoring the audio Harry Potter and Ramona the Pest, he listens to The Who, The Beatles, Jack White. He painstakingly writes Bono a letter. He says he will be a rock star. At Boy Scouts he (unofficially) names his Pinewood Derby car “Highway to Hell.” I’m afraid one day he will wear only black. (Sometimes) I’m afraid of a lot of things.
At his guitar lesson, my son sits with his Mini Stratocaster as if cradling a teddy bear. He solos while his teacher plays the chords for “All Along the Watchtower.” For once his body isn’t an enemy, his brain’s electricity not sputtering through the wires. His fingers, long and slim, glide, skip, dance along the strings. He’s no Hendrix, but he’s at ease, a state of being that rarely visits him—he is swaddled in sound. I want him to stay here, like this, forever.
I allow my own body to sink into the cushioned chair. I consider Dylan’s lyrics—simple, enigmatic, foreboding. Yet when I close my eyes, I see no wildcat, no approaching horsemen. I see only my son, his notes—singing, dancing, soaring. They soar like angels. Like angels leading my son to places he has still to find.
Elizabeth Vondrak holds an MA in English Literature from Boston College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in The Antietam Review, Transitions Abroad, Tigertail: A South Florida Annual, and The Sandy River Review and is forthcoming in untethered magazine. In her past life, she was a teacher to English-language learners, high school literature students, and university writing students. Originally from Iowa, she resides in Boston with her husband and three children.