at the mike
7 August 2001
A delicate pixie seats herself on the blue plastic chair and grips the microphone. A mass of dark curls frames her serious face. As she sits, the murmurs and exclamations from the audience die down. The girl nervously rubs her sandals together and begins singing in a breathy voice: "ABCDEFG-HIJKLMNOP-QRSTUV-WXYandZ, now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me?"

Her father beams with pride as she rushes back into the shelter of his arms, and the next pint-sized singer takes the stage.

The scene is Dance & Jingle, set in a small classroom at Damian’s old preschool. It’s our one connection to the world of typically developing kids, a music-based Mommy and Me class. Sometimes, like today, it’s incredibly painful to sit through. I wince when I see Nancy pull out the microphone, knowing I’ll watch child after child step up to the mike and belt out "Baby Beluga" or the Barney song while my quiet little one will squirm and twist in my arms and get ever more distant and remote as he tries not to watch.

Nancy tries her best, of course: when the mike goes around the circle of children for an introductory round, she offers Damian the choice of a "hello" or a simple but reverberating tap on the mike head. But there’s really no substitute for singing, and autism is nothing if not stage fright magnified to the hundredth power. Children on the spectrum turn inward because they can’t handle the rigors of communication, of dealing with the outside world. Can you imagine how you’d feel if you couldn't rely on your brain to offer up the right words and then someone stuck an amplifying mechanism in front of your face to magnify and set large your inability?


So I sit and cuddle Damian, trying to distract him from the unfolding event and maybe I succeed, but I can’t distract myself. Not enough. I still see the look of tender pride on the tall blonde woman’s face as her flaxen haired son croons "Farmer in the Dell" into the mike. I still see the dark haired woman who reminds me a little of myself, but me in a different life as if through a mirror refracted. I see her lean forward, coaching her child to get all the words right on that Elvis song they’ve been singing in the bathtub. I see the look that passes between mom and son as he tries valiantly to get it right. I curl around my own precious child and say silently to myself, it doesn’t matter, Damian, you’re still wonderful even if you don’t sing rock and roll at the age of three.

Pretty soon, though, all the kids have volunteered who are going to. Now Nancy invites the last few to come up and serenade us. Henry shakes his head. He’s too tired. Damian? He’s too tired too, I almost say. But I should let him answer for himself. That’s part of what we’re working on, after all. So she asks Damian, "Do you want to sing?" He says, "Yes."

I swallow. Can he do it? Does he know what he’s saying? Only one way to find out. Maybe I can coach him. A lot. Get him through this with his pride intact.

Nancy and I communicate in gestures: Up here on the chair? No, here in my lap is better. Yes, good idea. She knows about Damian’s issues; she knows, as I do, what a challenge Damian’s taking on. Her assistant walks over to me, the microphone cord following her like a snake trail, and holds the mike under Damian’s chin.

"What do you want to sing, Damian?" Nancy asks.

"The ABC song," I say. That and the clean-up song are his two most reliable ditties. He sings it on the trampoline, belting the letters out like a circus announcer. But that’s the trampoline giving him proprioceptive input and unknotting the kinks in his wiring. Can he do it on his own? Is he ready?

I ask (encourage) him: "Damian, do you want to sing the ABC song?"

He does.

He says, "A" into the mike. In clear, ringing tones. Bell-like. "B" follows, then "C." All spaced just a hair apart, enough to know that he knows what he’s saying. It doesn’t sound like a song, not quite, the lilt is more conversational than musical, but yes, my child is singing into the amplified boom of a microphone.

ABCDEFG (look at him, no hesitation at all) HIJK (he looks so serious) LMOP (he always skips N) QRS (damn, I think I’m going to cry) TUV (he wanted to do this because he knew he could) WXYandZ (I didn’t know but he knew) nowIknowmyABC (and here Nancy applauds, I think she can’t contain herself) nexttimewon’tyousing with me? (Damian looks relieved with a dollop of pride mixed in.)

The deed is done, the song is sung. The mike passes to the next kid and my brave little boy settles back into my arms.

None of the other parents seem to get what just happened. Damian made a huge step forward and they don’t have a clue. Nancy knows, though. And I know. And that’s enough.

Remember how, just a few minutes ago, I was looking with envy and longing at that woman’s pride in her musical child? She ain’t got nuthin on me now.

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