Philip and I arrived at the library this morning for our customary Saturday visit. After returning our books and stopping by the fish tank, we headed to the children’s play area. A woman and boy were already reading books in the two armchairs. Philip immediately moved to the Duplo blocks, pulling out the cars with wheels. He vocalized as he pushed the cars across the carpet.
“Use your words,” I heard the other mother say to her son.
I glanced over at the pair. The boy was smaller than Philip, but I was guessing they must be relatively close in age. The boy had a picture book open and the mom was pointing out the picture of a frog and its corresponding word.
I suddenly felt . . . anxious? Annoyed? Jealous? Judged? The phrase “use your words” sparked a negative response in me.
Does she think I should be instructing Philip the same way? I wondered. Is she irritated because my son isn’t modeling that which she is requesting of her son? Does she think I’m a bad mom? Are the noises that Philip is making bothering her?
Philip’s play attracted the attention of the other boy. I could see him lean forward, eager to join Philip. He sat back as his mom read with him. Soon, however, he couldn’t resist the urge to play. He came over and picked out a car, trying to play with Philip. Philip was more focused on the toys.
The boy returned to his seat and his book. A few moments later, I heard the mother repeat the phrase, “Use your words.” I noticed that she paired her words with a gesture of her fingers closing on her thumb, imitating the movement of a mouth with her hand.
Meanwhile, Philip’s vocalizing was becoming louder as he happily found a round toy to roll across the floor. At this point, the little boy gets out of his seat, comes over to Philip, makes the closing gesture with fingers and thumb and says, “Oose or ords.”
Use your words.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at this point. Bless his heart, that little boy understood what his mom wanted him to do. He also recognized that Philip wasn’t “using his words.” The mother looked at me, then smiled at her son and said, “Yes, use your words.”
I might have left the library indignant, in tears or both had it ended there. Instead, as the boy turned back to his chair he spotted a Curious George hand puppet on the floor. He picked this up and took it to his mom. She decided to find a Curious George book to go with the puppet.
That’s what started the conversation with the other mother. I helped her find a book. She explained that this was her first time at the library in many years. I mentioned that Philip and I come almost every Saturday.
“Does he go to school?” she asked.
When I told her yes and identified the preschool, we discovered that her son is in a class at the same preschool just across the hall. In keeping with my earlier tendency to jump to conclusions, I found out that her son attends full day, five days a week.
Why didn’t I ask for full day? I admonished myself. Maybe he would be farther ahead. Maybe he has missed a valuable opportunity. I haven’t been doing everything I could for him.
I stopped berating and second-guessing myself when I thought of all the progress that Philip has made. I reminded myself to focus on the positive.
Next Saturday night, there will be a PTO event at the school. I asked the other mom if she and her son were going.
“I saw the signs, but I don’t know what it is,” she admitted.
I told her what I knew of it, including the time. I could see her hesitating.
“Well . . ” she began.
That’s when she told me her story. She and her son are homeless. They are currently being sheltered in a network of local churches. I deduced that the timing of the PTO event conflicts with meal times.
She shared more details. I had explained that Philip is autistic and non-verbal. She confessed that her son is not developmentally delayed, but that she just hadn’t provided him with the environment he needed. In addition to being homeless, she herself is disabled. Suddenly, I realized that “Use your words” wasn’t a dig at me. It wasn’t about me at all.
I was no longer indignant or jealous or depressed. I realized that here was a child that really did need to be in preschool all day, every day. I realized that here was a mother, having been told the importance of reading to her child, had brought her son to the library. Here was a mother taking advantage of the resources available to help her son in any way she can. Here was a mother trying to implement the suggestions of teachers. Here was a mother doing the best she can for her child under very trying circumstances.
Suddenly, I respected this mom and mentally applauded her phrase “Use your words.”