Last Friday when I arrived to pick up Lei at school, I was called into a small room off the office. I found my girl sitting hunched over with the hood of her turquoise sweater pulled up over her head. Big tears dripped off of her chin.
The case manager, an energetic young Dutch woman, and the boy who is in Lei’s Big Group Project group were there, too. I’ll call the boy John. He’s bright and quirky, which I hoped would bode well for the two of them. I sat down next to Lei and put my arm around her while the case manager explained to me what she had already called John’s mother about.
“First of all,” she said, “It was very hot in the classroom, and all the kids were under pressure because of the deadline for their exhibition project.”
“Lei was feeling a lot of stress because she knew she wouldn’t get to work on the project this weekend since you are going out of town. John was kind of snoozing instead of working. They had a substitute this afternoon, which no one expected, and that was adding to the stress, too.”
“John finally said he was going to go print out some pages they needed, but he took a long time, and when he got back Lei was getting very intense about asking him to get to work. His response was to go hide in the bathroom, so Lei waited for him to come out, then grabbed his arm and started pulling him up the stairs and telling him he needed to get to work.”
Their third team-mate had reported the situation to the teacher. Apologies had ensued, but parents still had to be notified.
Lei just sat there during this whole explanation, tears streaming. As we walked out together, she said, “It’s already hard for me to make friends. Now it’s going to be impossible.”
Lei has been with the same class for almost two years, and many of these kids have known her since kindergarten. But she is still working on making friends because she doesn’t have a close buddy in her class.
It’s not because she’s reclusive, either. Lei is bookish, but she loves people and loves to socialize. Say the word party and she is dressed up and ready to go in the blink of an eye. She has, at different times, tearfully begged me to: adopt older siblings for her, send her to boarding school, and share my contact information with complete strangers so that she could meet up with their children for play-dates in the future.
Once, as we boarded a train to Chicago after a trip to New York City, she spotted a girl her age sitting in our train car. Dropping her bag on an empty seat, she shot off, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back! I see a girl! I’m going to go introduce myself!”
It was fate. The girl she met that day was extremely bright, bookish and verbal. Endearingly, she had a loud, bold speaking voice that made her easy for Lei to understand. She is still one of Lei’s close friends.
Unfortunately she lives about three hours away. And Lei doesn’t have someone who clicks with her that way here in Chicago. Even her “bestie,” a sixth-grader in Lei’s school, doesn’t really want to play with Lei during recess, or have Lei hanging around her. It’s lonely.
And she’s probably right, that Friday’s incident isn’t going to help her build her relationships with her classmates. She’s an intense kid! When she wants to talk excitedly to her peers about Greek mythology or a Hogwarts-like boarding school in Scotland, most people aren’t interested in listening for as long as she likes to talk. She isn’t any good at suppressing her excitement, picking up on body language or dumbing down her conversation, and this doesn’t gain her any points with the normals.
Let’s face it. Between being deaf, creative and gifted, Lei is an odd duck. She just is. In any social context she is unlikely to find many people who “get” her. So I suppose it’s good that she is so sociable whenever she meets kids her age. At least this approach means she is diligently working her way through the haystack of her peers, and might find that rare and valuable needle: a friend.
The Big Group Project will finally be over tomorrow night when all the 5th graders get up on the stage at a nearby high school, dressed “professionally” – as if that meant anything to 5th graders – and present their research projects complete with tri-fold posters and Power Point presentations. I don’t know if Lei’s relationships with her two team mates will grow into friendships after the presentation is over, but I do know that when my girl gets up on the stage, she will be the center of attention, which she loves, and able to talk for a solid three minutes about marine mammals in captivity, something she passionately opposes. She won’t have to hold it in or dumb it down. My girl is finally going to get a chance to shine.