Dante performed in his first musical this week. The “specials” at Stargate (i.e. classes besides literacy, math, science, & social studies) operate on a trimester basis. The first third of the school year, he had Computers and Art. He just finished his second trimester, with Phys. Ed. and General Music, and for the rest of the year he’ll have Spanish and Instrumental Music. It turns out that at the end of the trimester in General Music, the class puts on a show, with singing and a plot and so forth.
So the first and second graders all gathered on Thursday night at 6:30 to perform a musical version of the stone soup story. Dante was a villager — really, everybody was a villager, except for 3 kids who played soldiers. So we dressed him up, as requested, in dark pants rolled to the knee, calf-length socks, and an untucked white shirt with a belt around it. Dante had two jobs to do. First, he and another girl were to act out carrying a stone and placing it in a pot. Second, at the end of the show he was to come up to the mic and say, “We’d like to thank our accompanists,” and name them. That’s what I knew going in.
We dropped him off at his classroom, and found some seats about five rows back from the stage. Stargate doesn’t have an auditorium, just a cafeteria with a platform at one end to serve as a stage, so all the seating was just folding chairs extending back from there. Actually, we were lucky to find seats at all — apparently they underestimated the turnout, so almost half the audience ended up standing.
The kids filed in, and Dante sort of drifted away from the line, scanning the audience and looking for us. We waved to him. He waved to us. Or to somebody, at least. We couldn’t quite tell if he saw us. Anyway, with a little encouragement he found his place, and then waved some more. We waved back. The show started. The way the show worked is that two kids would come up to the microphones and tell a few lines from the story, which would then be acted out by some other kids. After a few iterations of this, the whole group would sing a song. Repeat, oh, five or six times.
Here’s what Dante did during the show. He waved to us.
He waved to us throughout the entire show. Well, not the entire show. During the songs, he held his ears. He sang along… while holding his ears.
I’ve mentioned before that he’s got sensory issues, particularly with sound, and that certainly was in effect here. It was clear that he knew all the songs, and once in a great while he’d do the movements, but mostly he sang along and held his ears.
Then the song would end, and he’d wave some more. At one point, he did mime putting a rock into a pot. Then he waved to us some more. After the first few, we couldn’t decide whether to wave back or not — was it encouragement, or would it satisfy him so he’d stop? Mostly, we just laughed, and waved back kinda sheepishly.
That’s pretty much how the whole show went. At the end, he walked up to the microphone and said, “Hi, it’s me, Dante!” Then, after a nudge from the teacher, “We’d like to thank our accompanists…”
Sometimes Laura and I observe to each other that even at a school for the gifted, Dante stands out. Not that he’s some kind of wunderkind among wunderkinds — he’s just different, in lots of ways. That can be pretty scary. Our cultural moment loves to pathologize difference, to explain it to ourselves with a label that lets us hold it at arm’s length. We’ve heard our share of pathologizing interpretations of Dante. And while I’m all for getting people the help that they need by identifying their struggles, it has never felt right to me to put Dante in a category. I’ve never seen a category that fits him. “Gifted” is as close as it gets, but it does not cover the territory.
Like any parent, I want my kid to succeed and be happy. I know very well that the social world of childhood can be a snakepit, and the more different you are, the more dangerous it gets. I can see that the road ahead of him is going to require him to reconcile his inner nature with what the world wants from him, and it’s going to require us to make constant decisions about when to support his difference and when to… the word that comes to mind is “squash” it, which never sounds good, but there are certainly times when we coach him on how to better meet the world’s expectations.
There’s enough of a performer in me that I admit I cringed a bit as I saw Dante be so out of step with the production he was in, and yet I couldn’t help but love the sight of him, taking care of himself and reaching out joyfully to us. At least for that night, I was perfectly happy with my longhaired boy, my hyperacute singer, my mixed-up little ball of genius.