“He’s not cooperative,” his teacher warned me when I called to find out more about the boy who’d been referred to me for speech-language therapy. “He’ll find a hundred excuses to not do the work.”
“Sounds creative,” I interjected.
“He is,” the teacher conceded, “but it is exhausting.”
For him, too, I was sure.
“You’d think he’d settle down,” the teacher sighed, “but it’s like he’s gotten worse.”
Al had language-learning issues. He struggled to express himself, to understand what he read and what was read to him. He mixed up letters. He mixed up messages. Exposed to alcohol (and quite likely to other substances) in utero, his early childhood was marked by constant shuffling between foster-care and reunifications with his biological mother, until parental rights were terminated, and he became eligible for adoption. He’d never known his dad. Al suffered from asthma. He had difficulty attending but reportedly “no difficulty misbehaving.” He scuffled. He cursed. He broke things. He kept getting in trouble. He spoke little, read less, and his writing was filled with errors. He was in fifth grade.
The “settle down” was a reference to his recent adoption by relatives of his biological mother. Now that he was in a “forever home with family besides” he was expected to move on. He was expected to “make gains,” close gaps, and be happy. He was undoubtedly happy for stability. He was also grieving, furious, frustrated, and failing at school. He acted out. He shut down. He “did not cooperate.”
He’d had at least four previous speech therapists. The teacher informed me that “he hates ‘Speech.’”
“You don’t look thrilled to have another speech therapist,” I noted on our first session together.
He raised a single eyebrow so perfectly that I wondered if he had practiced the move in front of a mirror.
I smiled. “Speech can be fun …”
“It sucks.” He stated.
I nodded. “I hear ya.”
“So, I can go?”
“Good try,” I chuckled. “We’re stuck together for now.”
He shrugged but didn’t flee.
“I don’t do work.” He warned, testing.
“So let’s not call it work,” I agreed. “Let’s just figure out ways to make the other work you have to do, a little easier. Because I think you’ve had to work way too hard.”
He narrowed his eyes, suspicious.
“I mean it. And … I can understand wanting things to be easier.”
He shrugged. Crossed his arms. Leaned into the backrest of the chair.
I saw it as truce.
The next few sessions were like pulling teeth. His attention flickered. He vetoed some tasks. He tried to sulk. But he listened. And he didn’t disappear into the boys’ bathroom when it was time for sessions. He tolerated me, which was better than what the teacher (and Al?) had predicted.
We took it slow.
Then I brought Shel Silverstein’s poems to a session.
“I’m not a baby,” he bristled.
“It’s not for babies,” I retorted. “It’s also for grownups. The illustrations may look silly, but lots of this is about serious stuff.”
He folded his arms and closed his eyes. On strike.
His eyebrows were knit together, but then his shoulders lowered, and he took a breath. He frowned. He chewed his lip. He listened.
When I finished, he opened his eyes. Held my gaze.
“Poetry is like that,” I said. “I love how it can find words for things, sometimes.”
He shook his head. Twisted his lips. Stared at the book. Flipped through the pages.
“Want me to read another one?”
I read three more.
He scribbled arrows piercing clouds.
The next time I saw him, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. Fiddled with it. Shy.
“You have something?” I chanced.
Shrug. He stared at the poetry book I had prepared for us again. Unfolded his paper. Refolded it. Coughed. Took a breath. Thrust the note in my direction.
“Can I look?” I asked. Consent is tricky with kids who’d had others decide everything for them. I didn’t want him to think he had to show me.
He nodded. “I write it.”
I unfolded the page. Eight wobbly lines of transposed letters in phonetic spelling. A poem.
“Can I read it?” I checked.
He looked up at me, vulnerable and holding up an olive branch of trust, “yeah, but … but not loud …”