One of Davis, California’s claim to fame is that there are more PhD’s living here than in any other small town in the U.S. I have no idea if that’s true. But there are certainly a lot of smart people living in this university town. In 2006, CNN Money Magazine ranked Davis as the second most educated city (in terms of the percentage of residents with graduate degrees) in the United States.
And when I look around at the Farmers’ Market each Saturday morning, the population seems to be divided equally between parents and children (oh, and about 25,000 college students). Davis boasts one of the strongest school districts in the state, so it’s no surprise that one finds a tremendous local focus on our smart kids. We’re like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average.
For the most part, living in a town with so many engaged and involved parents is wonderful. (I’m married to one of those UC Davis PhD’s.) But, there’s another side to all of that near-obsessive focus on our children’s academic lives: it’s intense. Kids certainly feel this pressure to perform to their parents’ high expectations. And parents feel the competition between each other. I have overheard many typical Davis conversations over the years featuring parents of preschoolers who wonder which path might take their child to an Ivy League school, or who agonize over whether or not to place their child in a self-contained GATE classroom (gifted and talented education). Truthfully, I have been involved with some of these discussions. I also struggle with finding the right balance between obsessing over a child’s academic performance versus providing support while following a child’s lead.
Perhaps I have an edge that others don’t. For, when I find myself wondering if my twelve-year-old daughter will get into Stanford, her nine-year-old brother, Jukie, quickly slaps me squarely into reality. Jukie won’t be going to Stanford, or to UCD, or to any university. And, truly, none of that matters, as I’m often struck by this simple truth: Jukie is the wisest person I know. He has many Life Lessons to teach the rest of us. His lessons aren’t taught at any school. Those who are privileged to know Jukie will learn just by spending time with my boy.
Start each day anew, with a clean slate. Jukie doesn’t know from grudges. He doesn’t hold onto anger. Of course, like the rest of us, he sometimes feels anger. And he has no problem communicating his anger. Occasionally, Jukie bites or pinches to show us his displeasure, usually over complying with a request from Mom or Dad. However, his anger subsides within seconds. He apologizes to us by grabbing our hands and giving us about ten kisses.
Judge not. Imagine a world where none of the “ism’s” existed. As far as I can tell, the only criterion that Jukie uses to judge a person is kindness.
If you’re happy and you know it, let everyone know. Jukie is pure joy. He couldn’t care less whether or not expressing his joy (loudly) is appropriate. When the boy is moved to laugh, he laughs uproariously. Soon, everyone around him joins in laughing; his bliss is infectious. And just try worrying about anything while you’re engaged in raucous laughter. Often when Jukie starts to laugh like that, I forget even what I had been doing.
It’s the little things. Jukie can spend hours examining the plants in our backyard. Through Jukie’s eyes, I see the beauty in each jasmine flower. Lying on our backs on Jukie’s trampoline, Jukie and I notice the pattern of clouds above. Through Jukie’s delight, I remember the thrill of spinning on a tire swing. As he plays with my wedding rings, I take a moment to recall the day I got married, and kiss the top of Jukie’s sweet head. (I had no idea what life held all those years ago.)
Slow down. Everyone who knows Jukie knows how fast he is – the boy can RUN. But he has another speed. When he’s focused on the minute details of his world, his movement comes to a near halt. As I’m frantically doing dishes and laundry and cooking dinner, I often look out to the backyard to find Jukie sitting quietly, thinking. When I’m able, I follow Jukie’s lead and slow down. When his sister was a toddler, she used to say, “Mommy, let’s be. Let’s just BE.” Jukie reminds me to just be.
Words are overrated. Although Jukie has made great strides using his Picture Exchange Communication System, most of our communication takes place intuitively. Expert at sensing the feelings of others around him, Jukie usually knows exactly what’s going on. If the mood in the room is tense, Jukie will start to cry. If those around him are content, Jukie feels content. He is like a human barometer. Other than asking him to stop doing half the stuff he’s doing, and trying to get him to do what we want him to do, we mostly communicate our love and affection to and for Jukie. Certainly no child has ever received more hugs and kisses than he.
Expose yourself. Those who know Jukie know that he routinely exposes himself in a multitude of ways. Although he knows the rules dictate otherwise, Jukie enjoys taking off all of his clothes. He removes his pants any time he feels like it. Fortunately, his brother and sister police this behavior. “Jukie, put your pants back on” is overheard frequently in our backyard. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the way in which Jukie has exposed himself to us on a deeper level. Because Jukie wears no social mask, neither do the rest of us. When we are with our boy, all eyes look our way. I have learned the liberation that comes from dispensing with one’s public face. Once that façade is removed, we’re left without pretense. I no longer try to appear to be ANYthing. Why bother? I sometimes feel like Jukie and I are saying, “here I am, world!”
Never pass an opportunity to dance. Like the rest of us, Jukie hears music in his head. The difference is that he acts on it. There’s no stopping Jukie when he is moved to dance or to spin or to jump. Seeing the joy in his face, no one would want to stop him. Anyone traveling through Davis may encounter a cute little redhead and his mom dancing around the parks.
The White House belongs to everyone. For the most part, Jukie is met with kindness and interest by strangers he encounters. However, sometimes, I get the feeling that people wish a kid like Jukie weren’t taken everywhere. We’ve gotten the “look” at the movie theater, art galleries and restaurants. And this is where the mama bear in me rises up. Jukie has the right to go anywhere the rest of us go. Surprisingly, he often behaves better than other kids. A while back, while visiting Washington DC, my own daughter suggested that Jukie might not be allowed to enter The White House, asking, “Mom is Jukie allowed in The White House??” Pretending that I didn’t know why she was concerned, I responded, “why not – they have his social security number, just like the rest of us.” If I were to keep Jukie out of any potentially challenging situation, he’d never go anywhere. How will he learn to behave appropriately if not given the chance? And how will those who are not fortunate enough to know a kid like Jukie learn to appreciate him and others like him? (For the record, Jukie did pull a few Jukie-stunts in George Bush’s White House. I’m sure he’d have been much better behaved had we visited during Obama’s tenure.)
Take care of each other. Because Jukie needs more care than most, Jukie’s brother and sister are learning an invaluable lesson – that we all take care of and look out for one another. They learn kindness and empathy way beyond their years. Such a gift.
Other obligations can wait when there’s fun to be had. Just when I think I know how I am going to spend my morning, Jukie will grab my hand and drag me in the other direction. Jukie is always in the moment. And, I never, ever regret following him.
Life is about love. A great misconception about people with autism is that they don’t connect with others. In truth, they do connect; it just looks different. And, if fact, Jukie’s single greatest goal each day is to be with the people he loves. He kisses our arms and stomachs constantly. He wants to be held and tickled. As I tuck him in bed each night, the sweetest part of my day, he pulls me close, grabs my arms, wrapping them around him. Kissing his sweet, soft cheek, I silently thank him for everything he gave me that day.