Fifth grade is a time, books like Raising Cain tell me, that boys are figuring out what it means to be boys and eventually men. They are figuring this out in a seething cesspool of social jockeying, confusion, cruelty, and thoughtlessness.
And my small-for-his-age, glasses-wearing, underweight, anxious autistic kid is swimming in it.
I remember fifth grade well. I was a smart, filthy, angry child with a mouth on her. I fought dirty and wild and only when I really meant it; one or two tiny skirmishes and a lot of big talk at least taught most of the kids to give me a wide berth, if not embrace me as a friend. I also knew very basic elementary emotional manipulation: if a kid made fun of me for clothes that smelled like AmVets, I could snap back: ‘How do you know what AmVets smells like?’ Because I knew they were ashamed of being poor. If someone told me I was ugly, I knew to make fun of his oddly protruding ears.
AJ has none of these, er, talents.
And he is different. His movements are different; his vocabulary is different; the cadence of his words is different. His reactions. All different. And proving you are part of the mass group The Same means pointing out difference. Distancing yourself from it. Joining the huddle of Same by shoving Different aside.
And on top of everything else, he’s the smallest kid in the fifth grade.
“Everything with boys is about strength,” he tells me mournfully when I pick him up from school to hear, again, that some boy has hit him with a basketball in the head, torn up his origami masterpiece, thrown him against the lockers, told him to get away and told everyone not to touch him because he has the ‘AJ touch.’ “And I’m a wimp.”
“You aren’t a wimp,” I say automatically, uselessly.
“Oh yes, I am,” he says grimly, staring out of the window as I drive him home.
He has a kind, smart, compassionate, dedicated teacher who is working hard to put a stop to it — but no one can control every single moment in the hallways, on the playground, in gym class. We are doing our best to deal with the kids, to help AJ with his social skills (because he can really be a bastard himself, sometimes), and to help him to maintain his out-of-school friendships, but there is only so much we can do.
Some parts of parenting involve taking this tiny, delicate piece of your heart, tossing it in the shark tank, and anxiously waiting to see what happens.
I really hate those parts.