The quiet one

I had my first conversation with my son’s new teacher today.

Actually, it couldn’t really be described as a conversation. My boy had forgotten to put his lunchbox and homework folder in his schoolbag and we had to return to the school gate to collect them. While he ran into the classroom I stood there making a stilted attempt to communicate with his teacher.

‘How’s he settling in?’ I asked, because that’s what a parent says to a teacher.

‘He’s settling really well,’ she replied automatically, giving the impression that this is the stock answer to something she gets asked a lot. And then, almost as an afterthought, she added ‘He’s very quiet.’

I felt the familiar sting of defensiveness. A lot of thoughts went through my mind, things I could say to her.

How I could tell her that he’s not in the least bit quiet or reserved, how he never stops talking and laughing, how his imagination and creativity drains my reserves of energy every day, how I’m often left dazzled and awed by the rate of his development.

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t because I have to recognise that the little boy that I see, that I spend most of my time every day with, is not the same little boy she sees. How, to her, he is just one in a room full of children. And how she can only go on what she witnesses.

So instead I just nodded my head and mumbled.

‘Aye, it takes time for him to come out of himself when he meets someone new.’

I left the encounter feeling slightly troubled that I had not expressed myself quite the way that I should have. How I should have supported him more robustly.

It is one of the running jokes among the parents on the school run about how little our children tell us of what goes on in the classroom. How on a daily basis we malign the absence of clear communication about the mysteries that occur when that bell rings.

Now a new thought occurs to me. Maybe the children are the wisest. Maybe it’s best that we are kept out of it. Perhaps there are parts of the processes of socialisation that a parent really doesn’t want to see.

Just before my chat with the teacher I had been watching my son take part in his first tennis class. I signed him up last week and then spent the time in between fretting over whether he was ready. Would he be able to mix and adapt? Rather pathetically I had even taken him into the back garden the night before and attempted to demonstrate a rudimentary forehand and backhand.

The situation today was novel. The arrangement was that the tennis teacher would pick the children up from their classroom and bring them to the all-weather pitch where small tennis nets had been erected.

I was worried about this. It was the first time ever that my little boy had not been picked up from the classroom by a family member. And no matter how many times he had assured me that he was comfortable with the arrangement, I still feared something would go wrong.

So when it came to time for tennis I found myself loitering halfway between the pitch and the classroom, as if I somehow feared that he would slip through the cracks and end up in an in-between purgatory.

I relaxed a little when I saw him among the line of children being led onto the pitch. But just a little.

The early signs were promising. He laughed during the warm-up exercises and seemed engaged by the instructions of the coaches.

It began to rain. I realised, as the drips ran down my nose, that I was the only parent who had come to watch the tennis lesson. 

When the children were split into smaller groups I noticed something unusual about my son’s appearance. Of course he had food over his jumper (like every day) and was wearing his coat inside out (as he often does) but there was something else. I noticed that he had his trousers on back to front. I was confused for a second until I remembered that today is PE and in P3 the children change themselves into their sports gear and back into uniform.

I felt a parental stab of anguish about how my boy would ever cope on his own in the big world.

The children then played a game of Stick in the Mud. As the other kids ran around manically my boy stood confused for a second. I felt the stab again. Then he seemed to grasp the point of the game and joined in. But, to my eyes, he seemed to lack the conviction and confidence of the other boys. Occasionally he would glance in my direction for reassurance.

Soon the coaches paired the children and asked them to gently throw a tennis ball towards each other and try to catch it. I winced every time the ball sailed through my son’s grasp.

Then they moved onto using little racquets to hit the ball back and forward over a low net.

I saw the boy who had been paired with my son tell him to put his racquet down. My boy, ever passive, meekly complied. Then the other boy walloped the ball to the other end of the court and sent my son scuttling after it like a ball boy.

I burned with indignation and had to fight off the urge to invade the court. Then one of the coaches saw what was happening and gently encouraged my little boy to lift up the racquet again. Soon he was happily swinging the racquet at the ball. Sometimes he made contact. On a couple of occasions he even got the ball over the net.

Each time he swung the racquet I jumped up, in the rain, on my own, and shouted encouragement, telling him that he was brilliant.

As the session drew to a close some of the other parents arrived. The children lined up and were released once more into our care. My son ran to me and I drowned him in a massive embrace. He jumped up and down.

Then he told me, with a giggle, that the zip seemed to have fallen off his trousers. Then we realised that he’d forgotten his lunchbox and homework and we had to go and see the teacher.

Soon we were driving home. I was thinking again about what the teacher said about him being quiet. He had not stopped talking to me for more than ten minutes since I picked him up.

‘Daddy,’ he blurted out excitedly. ‘I never realised tennis was so easy. I can’t wait to go back next week.’

Later in the day I thought about this. Maybe this sums up adolescence. Finding simplicity in complicated things.

It’s the other way around for the nervous parent. Everything seems arduous, every journey of development has to traverse a minefield.

He may be the quiet one, the least confident, but when, like today, I see the joy in his little face I realise that it doesn’t bother him. He’s more comfortable in his skin than I am.

I will worry about him for every second of every day for the rest of my life. That’s the role of the parent. And I’m more than happy to soak up all the trauma while he has all the fun. After all, my shoulders are bigger than his.

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