The reports from the kindergarten teacher are always the same. “Leo has been smooshing his friends again,” she says. For the better part of the school year, she and I have been working together to help my son process his urge to “squeeze the Charmin.” Or the Sebastian.
I’ve experienced this iron-fist embrace myself. My arms and legs are riddled with fingerprint-sized bruises from all of his spirited cuddling. More than head butted, I’ve been head grinded. And our daily reunions at school pickups have the fervor usually reserved for military homecomings.
As a newly minted 5-year-old, Leo hasn’t yet grasped the rules of social engagement. Leo butts and paws because he loves.
Like father like son. “I get it,” says my husband Karl. “I love you so much that sometimes I just want to bite you.” Mercifully, he resists the primal urge to do so, redirecting his cuspids to more traditional shows of affection.
But our boy, according to his teacher, needs a bit more training. “Let’s try a fidget,” she says one Friday, after Leo lay down on top of several of his schoolmates like a bearskin rug.
A fidget? Was this code for a 5T straight jacket? I knew Leo’s classroom had a “peace chair” where kids went to chill out. Maybe the cloakroom hid a recliner with Hello Kitty fetters.
The answer, it turns out, is none of the above.
“I’ve got a box of them,” she continued. “After Leo picks one, I’ll ask him to put it in his pocket and whenever he feels the urge to manhandle a friend, he can grab his fidget instead.”
After all, if the invention of the fidget spinner was a rumored way to diffuse violence among kids during the Intifada, it should work on the playgrounds of DC, right? Indeed, these toys have gone from tool for kids to national craze in recent weeks.
In this scenario however, the fidget would take the fall for Sebastian—and both Chloe C. and Chloe J.
Now, I really like this teacher. The epitome of toddler hip, a bright silk flower perpetually tucked behind her ear and a layer of necklaces that look like the inner workings of clocks, she struck me as someone who ran her class with a velvet fist.
Still, I couldn’t help but imagine that instead of offering assorted geegaws to distract kids from violent confrontations, her box of fidgets contained a litter of brown field mice that echoed some sort of Steinbeck-penned tragedy. “I will hug him and pet him and call him George,” I could hear Leo saying as he pet his mouse to death with his big migrant field worker thumb.
Since it was Friday, his teacher suggested we wait until Monday to introduce Leo to his fidget, which left me all weekend to fidget, myself. What would Leo bring home from school and, more important, what would his fidget say about his personality? Perhaps this exercise was some sort of Rorschach test. Mmmmm, his teacher would say, Leo selected the Wonder Woman Pez dispenser. Very interesting.
“Cut it out,” said my husband Karl. He had had enough of my dark postulating about what Leo’s choice would be, from headless Barbie dolls to soft-stuffed ninja throwing stars. “You’re the one who needs the fidget.”
He had a point. When my spry and active grandfather was finally bedridden, my mother gave him stacks of dishtowels to fold. Keeping his hands busy, she said, helped manage his anxiety. For her part, my mother painted her fingernails with Revlon’s Love That Red, a visual stop sign that was supposed to remind her not to pick at her cuticles. Still, it was a nervous habit that she continued until the end.
I fished around my desk for my palm-sized stress ball, swag from a recent event at the university where I teach grad students, and worked that thing hard all weekend. By Monday morning, there were fingernail-sized divots everywhere, making the ball look more like a topographical globe of angst.
But at least it did its job, although in the end, of course, I shouldn’t have worried. When I picked Leo up at school that afternoon, his pocket did not contain a field mouse or a ninja throwing star. In fact, what he pulled out looked more like a jointed bracelet, each section done in a bright primary color.
“I know you like jewelry,” said Leo, sliding the object onto my wrist.
Admiring my precious jewel, I just had to smoosh him.