Animal Doctor

Animaldoctor

“GrrrhissgrrhssssgrrROARslurp!

A, my 6-year old son, lurked down the hall in a crouch, curling two fingers on each hand into twisted claws. He rounded the corner, making a series of growls and hisses before he made a small roar. He finished off the monster song with a long slurping sound of spit being sucked through teeth.

When he noticed me sitting on the couch and looking at him, he immediately straightened up to a human posture and began explaining. A can talk for several minutes without interruption, and I’ve developed the skill to patiently listen and give him all of my intention, letting him know that each word of his is important to me.

“Oh, hey, Dad, I was being a raptor. You know, like those little T-Rex creatures from Jurassic Park? They walk differently than humans so I was putting my butt back and sticking my head out and then kind of walking like with my feet forward and out like this.” He gave me a quick demonstration of his posture again. “And then I was sticking my fingers like this for claws. I was pretending that I was like hunting some prey down a hall here and then I hissed to scare it and then roared when I attacked it, and did you hear that like spit sound at the end, that was me eating the creature. I had to make a wet sound because that was the sound of the creature’s blood and wounds and stuff.”

I winced a bit at the graphic nature as he continued talking. A has been fascinated by predators his entire life. He loves all animals, but, rather like Hagrid from the Harry Potter series, he has the most fondness for the ugly, toothy, craggy creatures, and he automatically sees them as cuddly and misunderstood all at once. Tigers, sharks, hyenas, falcons, gross bottom dwellers and fierce meat-eaters. Anything with claws or rows of teeth automatically makes his favorite list. Yet at the same time, he coos and fawns over baby animals of any kind, but especially mammals. A tells stories constantly, and his epic tales generally star a baby mammal of some kind with a fierce predator of another kind who comes to protect it. He stories commonly result in bloodshed of some kind or other, but it is almost always evil humans who meet grisly ends. It’s never animals.

At the same time, A has a tremendous sensitivity about him. Violence in any form, particularly directed toward animals, leads to long piercing cries. He despises cruelty. I’ve been reading my sons the Wonderful Wizard of Oz books recently, the original ones from 1900 and on. In the original book, in one scene, the massive Kalidahs (with heads of tigers and bodies of bears) attack Dorothy and her friends, and the Tin Woodsman casually lops off the heads of the beasts; in another chapter, the Scarecrow rings the necks of 40 crows and the Tin Woodsman kills forty attacking wolves. Each of these details has caused a crying spell in my sensitive son, who now hates Dorothy’s companions for their wanton violence. “I hope the Tin Woodsman never gets his heart!” he yelled after yet another beast, a wildcat, was killed.

“They didn’t have to do that!” he exclaimed. “They could have just hided or scared the animals away! Why did the author let that happen!”

A has been telling me recently that he wants to be an animal doctor, a veterinarian when he grows up. I’ve been telling him that he’ll have to go to college and learn a lot, how he’ll have to choose an area of specialty.

“Some veterinarians work with small animals and pets, like cats, dogs, birds, and lizards. Some work on farm animals. And there are special kinds that work on zoo animals, like elephants , and they have to get special training. Some work on big cats, some work on predator birds, some work on large fish. What kind of veterinarian would you want to be?”

I assumed his answer would be all about predators. But he surprised me. “I think I’d want to work on cute little animals and kittens.”

Just yesterday, I found A, and his brother, J, playing with their collection of animal toys. My boyfriend and I have been slowly getting them a collection of rare animals: a black rhino, a cassowary, a rhinoceros hornbill, a lynx, an octopus, a water buffalo. The boys have dozens of them. From the next room, I heard them playing out a scenario.

“Doctor Otter! The wolverine has been injured! He needs a surgery!” J said.

A put an official tone in his voice to respond. “Well, luckily, I am specially trained. I can treat his wounds, open him up, fix him, and then tuck his meat all back in. He’ll be better in no time!”

Friday night, I had friends over to my home to watch an old movie, Out of Africa. In the middle of the film, A came to sit on the floor, watching as Meryl Streep led her allies on a trek across Nairobi. As the humans slept, a pair of lions attacked, scattering the oxen and killing one of them before the beasts were scared away. A stood up in the center of the room.

“Wait, did those lions actually kill that ox?”

“Not in real life, but as part of the story, yes.”

“WHY! WHY DID THEY DO THAT!”

“Well, it was part of the story. You know how lions hunt zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, and other animals, right?”

“Well, yes, but they didn’t have to show it!” He began shaking and crying as he climbed up into my lap in tears, snuggling me tight for comfort. “They didn’t have to show it!” he cried again.

“Son, they didn’t actually show anything. But really, lions should only hunt when we can’t see it!”

“Do you think the humans should hunt down the lions now?”

“No! Of course not! They were only trying to survive!”

A few minutes later, nestled into me, no longer crying, he muttered softly. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want to see it.”

This from my raptor child who mimics the sounds of meat being eaten, from my carnivore who pretends to be Dr. Otter packing the meat back in, from my sensitive child who cuddles into his father for comfort. This, from my complicated, beautiful son.

“I don’t want anyone hurt either, son.”

And soon he fell asleep.

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Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.