Locks and Keys

Photo Source: Christienne Hinz.

Christienne Hinz – Jonathan is my eldest child and his first word was, “key.” Pointing to the table, he’d ask, “key?”

I gave him the word. Riding on my hip, he would place one finger, very softly, against my nose. “Key?” he’d ask. I gave him the word.

No joy I have ever experienced matches what it was to watch Jonathan gather the keys, and even grind his own, to unlock the mystery of language, and to explore the wide world.

Jonathan is so very smart. But around 1st grade, his keys began to have trouble opening the locks to formal education.

He couldn’t tolerate the noisy classroom or the hurly-burly of a playground. He had difficulty following instructions or completing simple tasks.

A clinical evaluation diagnosed attention deficit disorder. “Are you sure it isn’t autism?” I asked, thinking about my son who played alone and wouldn’t look at the faces of people trying to talk with him.

“Unlikely. We’ll try medication. Meanwhile, get him into Little League. And stop talking to him like he’s an adult.”

It went downhill from there. Because Jonathan wasn’t disruptive in the classroom, his teachers were indifferent to his sluggish progress. An intelligent Black kid who gets Cs and Ds is a travesty to no one but his parents.

Our son struggled to learn with the grit of a grinding stone. Repeated attempts to get help from the school were dismissed as helicopter parenting. “He’s fine. He ought to join the track team. He looks fast.”

He wasn’t fast. And he wasn’t fine. What he was was ashamed and disoriented. “I feel like I’m out of sync with the world. Like things are going on around me that I don’t understand,” he told me.

Clinicians diagnosed the autism two weeks after he’d barely graduated high school.

One day, while in stop-and-go traffic, I see a homeless man walking down the street. Shouting and singing, he pushes a grocery cart stuffed with possessions. He shuffles along in shoes so tattered that his bare toes jut from the tops.

I am suddenly struggling to breathe. An elephant is sitting on my chest. I can’t feel my feet or my hands or my face. My heart is pounding so fast it’s beginning to skip beats. A heart attack; I think. I’m having a heart attack.

When I come back to my senses, I am cold and weak. The car has come to a halt in the bike lane. I don’t know how. What I do know is this: every day beloved children fall through the cracks in our society the way raindrops fall to Earth.

Later, Jonathan and I are in the vegetable garden. I am trying to assemble a newfangled sweet pea trellis. The instructions read like Swahili. Jonathan’s autism diagnosis has left my tolerance for frustration paper thin. I feel powerless, defeated, and stupid.  Tears form behind my eyeballs as I swear at the trellis pieces and at myself.

“Hey Mom,” Jonathan interrupts gently. “Can I take a look?” He turns the trellis parts over and over in his hands. “Okay,” he says decisively. “It goes like this.” Laying the parts on the ground, he explains how it’s assembled. We work quietly together, and whenever I get frustrated, Jonathan gently guides my hands with his own. “If you hold it like this, the pieces slide together. See?”

Despite my best efforts, tears wet my cheeks. “Awww, Mom,” Jonathan comforts. “You’re alright. You’ve got this.”

Here is another thing I know: Jonathan has all the keys needed to unlock a worthy life. He is intelligent, kind, funny, tenacious, generous, and responsible. The diagnosis did not change the substance of who he is. He will always be wholly, beautifully, blessedly himself.


Christienne Hinz, Ph.D. is a writer, a retired university professor, a Master Gardener and a beekeeper.


Photo Source: Christienne Hinz.