The other afternoon, my young son asked to stop at the local elementary school playground. We were on our drive home from our respective days—me at work, Elliot at daycare—and as the skies were an eager blue, the air light, I willingly turned into the parking lot, helped him out of his car seat, and let him pull me past the swings. For the first few minutes, I followed him protectively as he circled through slides and ladders and bridges, dodging the older and sharper movements of the kids also there playing as a part of the after-school program. Eventually, though, I told my son I was going to rest on a bench nearby. Not thirty seconds later, I observed him introducing himself to an older boy playing with an assortment of small objects while sitting in the shade underneath the slide.
“Hi,” I heard Elliot say. “Can I play with you?”
I couldn’t overhear how the other one replied, and because of the age difference—I would learn later he was in second grade, easily four or five years older than my son—I felt myself again on guard, wondering how well El would be able to read an irritated social cue, not wanting to have to intervene, but ready to.
Instead, the two of them sat across from each other pleasantly, companionably even.
I watched the other boy ask Elliot’s name. I heard my son immediately return the question: Tyler.
“I’m making a motorcycle with these wood pieces,” Tyler said, and Elliot leaned in, interested.
Not long later, two other boys Tyler’s size began a game of hide-and-seek, or hide-and-boo, or spy—some kind of game that instantly makes sense to school aged kids, which, I understood—amazed—included my son.
“Do like this,” Tyler demonstrated, lining up his body behind a pole, and Elliot complied. In fact, he more than complied. He invented. He protected. Tyler was already the boy on his team.
Each time his face shifted my direction, I looked for signs of distress—those boys were bigger, maybe he was feeling intimidated or overwhelmed or—I didn’t know. He was the child who just this last Christmas at a holiday concert cried half way through because the singing had become too loud for him. He was the infant who didn’t smile at strangers, went serious the moment he entered a new situation, the one everybody called “observant,” which I took to mean sensitive, a likely introvert.
I assumed, I suppose, among the new boys and the new games, that I’d hear him call for his mama.
But I perceived with growing clarity that he was closer now to that pack of boys than he was to the baby who had once filled my arms.
And he was smiling—the easy, amused smile of a boy unfazed by the unexpected.
Eventually, Tyler’s mom arrived, calling him to the car. Before he left, he found a multi-colored piece of paper from his backpack that he had folded into a fan.
“Here, Elliot,” he said, holding it out, and then with his other hand, he gently patted El’s arm. “It was fun playing with you.”
As he walked away, my son called, “Where are you going?”
“Home,” Tyler said, “but I’ll be back tomorrow!”
I watched Elliot watch him leave, already the friendship something to be lost.
Lucky for him, the two other hide-and-seek boys were waiting—”I’m Kai and this is Finn”—and soon they were off exploring a big branch that had fallen and talking about quicksand. Later, after I’d joined them, I timed all three as they ran loosely around the school’s track, Elliot’s laughter ringing out over the field as he moved farther and father away.
I kept thinking about my earlier precaution, how grateful I was to discover the kindness of second grade boys, how innocent and sweet they were: one’s long hair hanging in his eyes, the other’s rosy cheeks, the other’s light hand on my son’s wrist. How they welcomed my boy into their world.
And I realized, of course, that Elliot had been a part of this world for a while.
That the one who needed to be welcomed was me.
About the Author
Emily Brisse has her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, and is forthcoming from Hippocampus, Armchair/Shotgun, The Fourth River, and River Teeth. Emily teaches high school English in Minneapolis, where she live with her husband and young son. Connect with Emily on her blog and Twitter.