I arrive at Justin's school. It's his day for Aikido, the one day of the week when we have to rush from school to the start of his Aikido class across town. No loitering. No lingering. No hanging out for another shot at the playground or a second chance at snack. The minute I arrive, it's time to go!
I grab Justin's lunch, hunt for his purple sweatshirt, then poke my head in the door: "Justin, it's time."
"Is it an Aikido day?" he asks.
"Yes," I reply. He follows without resistance, eager to put on his gi and bow in for the class he loves so much.
As we cross the parking lot, I hear him muttering something under his breath, a steady focused drone. I listen closer.
"Seven hundred and fourteen. Seven hundred and fifteen. Seven hundred and sixteen..."
"What are you doing, Justin?" I ask as he buckles into his seat.
"Counting to infinity." He turns and looks at me, his eyes full of wonder. "Mama, did you know that one is in a chain to infinity? You know the food chain? Where sharks eat big fish and big fish eat little fish and little fish eat plankton? Well there's also this other chain. It's very, very long. It starts with zero and goes all the way to infinity. I think that's really neat, Mama."
"I think it really neat, too, Justin." I smile, sharing his delight. I pause, then ask as we pull out of the parking lot, "Do you want to count cars today, Justin?" For the past two weeks, we've been counting all the Volkswagens and Toyotas we pass on the road. We're up to five hundred and two and still going strong.
"No, Mama. I'm counting something else today." I watch him pull into himself and shift his attention back to his inner abacus: "Seven hundred and sixty-two. Seven hundred and sixty-three. Seven hundred and sixty-four. Seven hundred and sixty-five..."
Eight months ago, when he started kindergarten, Justin was shaky counting past twenty-five. It's amazing to hear him now, to watch his exploding interest in numbers, in telling time, in quantifying the world around him. He is ready for this. He wants it. He is absorbing concepts and ideas like a thirsty sponge. His is a passionate drive to learn that can only be witnessed, honored and enjoyed.
And I am enjoying it. Yet I'm also remembering other times when I worried about him, when I compared him to other kids, when I secretly wondered whether he really would be okay.
How do we come to lose faith in our children? Why do we feel the need to tinker with their miraculous, perfectly-tuned inner clocks? The ones that say, "Today's the day I'm going to walk. Today, I'm going to make a friend. Today, I'm going to figure out what this reading stuff is all about."
It's easy to get trapped in comparisons -- assessing how our child measures up to his cousin, his best friend or the kid down the block. If we look, there's always a measure by which our children fall short: The child who plays Monopoly -- and is the banker -- at age five. The siblings who never fight and always get along. The toddler who never bites, pushes or grabs toys away. The kindergartener who naps three hours each afternoon and sleeps thirteen hours each night. The girl across the street who beats you at chess and reads fluently at four.
We live in a competitive culture that values particular skills above all others. When our kids don't excel at those skills, it can be hard to recognize and nourish the particular gifts they do have. And that makes it hard for us to let them unfold in their own time and in their own way. Yet that is the precisely the challenge we face as parents -- how to support and encourage our kids without getting in their way.
As we drive down the freeway, Justin continues his litany. I notice all the Volkswagens and Toyotas, but keep it to myself.
Justin's concentration is absolute. Whenever he reaches a number that ends in 59, 69 or 79, he falters, unsure what comes next. He stops counting and a frozen, quizzical look comes over his face. It's as if his hard drive is spinning while he searches for the correct data base.
Then he lights up in recognition and joy. Animation returns to his face. "Eight hundred and seventy! Eight hundred and seventy-one. Eight hundred and seventy-two. Eight hundred and seventy-three..."
As we near the dojo, I try to recall the last time I was enthralled with learning, the last time I tested my limits and pushed past the edges of what I knew. And I draw a blank. I realize I spend much of my life doing things at which I already feel competent. It's been years -- if not decades -- since I took on an intellectual challenge that thrilled me and filled me with life. I look at Justin and get a glimmer of what I'm missing.
We're one minute away from Aikido and Justin builds up to a big crescendo: "Nine hundred and ninety! Nine hundred and ninety-one. NIne hundred and ninety-two. Nine hundred and ninety-three." The excitement is palpable. We both know something big is about to happen. Justin's giddy with excitement and his voice swells with pride: "Nine hundred and ninety-four! Nine hundred and ninety-five! Nine hundred and ninety-six! Nine hundred and ninety-seven! Nine hundred and ninety-eight! Nine hundred and ninety-niiiiiiiine! TEN HUNDRED!"
I pull into the parking lot and he sits back in his seat, fully sated. "I think that's a good place to stop. Don't you, Mama?"
Vicky Rose is the pseudonym of a local Santa Cruz writer whose children are 21, 5 and 21 months old. She and her family are using pseudonyms at the request of Justin, who is 5, and likes his privacy.