After completing our ritual of returning books and examining the library’s fish tank, my son and I headed to the children’s nook. A woman and a boy sat reading in the comfy armchairs. Philip pulled out a car from one of the toy bins. He pushed the car across the cityscape carpet. He didn’t follow the streets nor did he say “beep” or “vroom.” He hummed and vocalized using his own unique repertoire of sounds. Hearing him engrossed in play, I turned to browse the board books.
“Use your words,” said the other mom. I flinched and glanced over. The woman was pointing to a frog in the picture book her son was holding. She touched the corresponding word. The boy was smaller than my four-year-old, but appeared close in age. I suddenly felt . . . anxious? Annoyed? Jealous? Judged?
She probably thinks I should be doing the same with my son.
My son’s noisy play attracted the other boy’s attention. He leaned forward to watch Philip as his mother read until, no longer able to resist, he hopped out of the chair, picked out a car, and tried to play with Philip. Philip remained focused on the car.
The mom patted the chair, and the boy returned to his seat and book. A few moments later, the mother repeated the phrase, “Use your words.” I noticed that she paired a signal with the phrase: her index and middle fingers closed on her thumb, imitating a mouth.
Meanwhile, Philip’s vocalizing was becoming louder as he happily found a different toy to roll across the floor. The little boy got out of his seat once more, came over to Philip, and gestured in has face just as his mom had. “Oose or ords,” he ordered Philip.
Use your words.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Bless his heart, that little boy understood what his mom wanted and recognized that Philip wasn’t doing it. The mother looked at me, then smiled at her son and said, “Yes, use your words.”
I was tempted to bolt before I burst into tears, but I worried that yanking Philip away would cause a meltdown. Just then the other boy spotted a Curious George hand puppet on the floor. He picked it up and took it to his mom.
“Let’s find a book to go with the puppet,” she said.
As the mother of that monkey’s number one fan and an incurable busybody, I knew exactly where to look.
“Here you go.” I handed her one of Philip’s favorites.
“Thanks. I haven’t been to the library in years,” she said.
“We’re here almost every Saturday,” I explained.
“Does he go to school?” she asked, nodding to Philip.
I named the preschool, an integrated program for both typically developing children and children with disabilities like my non-verbal autistic son.
We discovered that her son is in a class just across the hall. I felt a pang of jealousy. Her son was in a full day classroom. Why didn’t I insist on full-day? I admonished myself. Maybe Philip would be “using his words” by now.
I stifled my envy and guilt to ask, “Are you going to the PTO event next Saturday night?”
“I saw the signs, but I don’t know what it is,” she said.
I told her what I knew, including the time. I could see her hesitating.
“Well . . ” she began and then explained: she and her son were homeless. They were being sheltered in a network of local churches. The timing of the PTO event conflicted with the scheduled meal time.
“My son’s not developmentally delayed, I just didn’t provide him with the environment he needed,” she confessed. She also confided that, in addition to being homeless, she 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. Here was a child that really needed to be in preschool all day, every day, not just for instruction, but for breakfast and lunch. 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 doing the best she could for her child under very trying circumstances. Here was a mother who opened up to another mom she thought would understand her and who, it turned out, needed to be understood, too.
Without using his words, Philip let me know he was ready to go.
“Maybe we’ll see you next Saturday,” I said before we left.
“Maybe. Thanks for your help,” she said.
No, thank you, I thought, but I didn’t use my words.