Yesterday, on our drive home, my son asked to stop at the local elementary school playground. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I was antsy from grading final essays inside all day, so I willingly brought us there. For the first few minutes, I followed him protectively as he circled through slides and ladders and bridges, dodging the older and sharper movements of the kids also there playing as a part of the after-school program. Eventually, though, I told Elliot I was going to rest on a bench nearby, and not thirty seconds later, I observed him introducing himself to an older boy sitting in the shade underneath the slide, playing with an assortment of small objects.
"Hi," I heard my son say. "Can I play with you?"
I couldn't overhear how the other one replied, and because of the age difference--I would learn later he was in second grade, easily four or five years older than my son--I felt myself again on guard, wondering if El would be able to read a social cue signaling "leave me alone," not wanting to have to intervene, but ready to.
Instead, the two of them sat across from each other pleasantly, companionably even, and I realized quickly that I wasn't needed at all.
I watched the other boy ask Elliot's name, ask him if he was in pre-school. I heard Elliot immediately return the question: Tyler.
"I'm making a motorcycle with these wood pieces," Tyler said, and El leaned in, interested.
Not long later, two other boys Tyler's size began a game of hide-and-seek, or hide-and-boo, or spy--some kind of game that instantly makes sense to school aged kids, which, I realized--amazed--included my son.
"Do like this," Tyler instructed, lining up his body behind a pole, and Elliot complied. In fact, he more than complied. He invented. He protected. Tyler was already the boy on his team.
Each time his face shifted my direction, I looked for signs of distress--those boys were bigger, maybe he was feeling intimidated or overwhelmed or--I didn't know. He was the child that just this last Christmas at a holiday concert cried half way through because the singing had become too loud for him. He was the infant who didn't smile at strangers, went serious the moment he entered a new situation, the one everybody called "observant," which I always took to mean sensitive, a likely introvert.
I expected, I suppose, among the new boys and the new games, to hear him call for his mama.
But I understood with growing clarity that he was closer now to that pack of boys than he was to the baby who had once filled my arms.
And he was smiling. The easy, amused smile of a boy already aware of the wonder of the next moment.
Eventually, Tyler's mom arrived, calling him to the car. Before he left, he found a multi-colored piece of paper from his backpack that he had folded into a fan.
"Here, Elliot," he said, holding it out with one hand, and then with the other, gently patting El's arm. "It was fun playing with you."
As he walked away, El called, "Where are you going?"
"Home," he said, "but I'll be back tomorrow!"
I watched Elliot watch him go, already the friendship something to be lost.
Lucky for him, the two other hide-and-seek boys were waiting--"I'm Kai and this is Finn"--and soon they were off exploring a big branch that had fallen and talking about quicksand. Later, after I'd joined them, I timed all three as they ran loosely around the school's track, Elliot's laughter ringing out over the field as he moved farther and father away.
I kept on thinking about my earlier precaution, how grateful I was to discover the kindness of second grade boys, how innocent and sweet they were: one's long hair hanging in his eyes, the other's rosy cheeks, the other's light hand on my son's wrist. How they welcomed my boy into their world.
But I realized again, of course, that Elliot had been a part of this world for a while.
That the one who needed to be welcomed was me.