He's seven-going-on-eight, but he sounds just like his father, and every conversation is peppered with words I can't believe he knows. From the backseat of the car, he talks and talks without a break, moving from one story to another without any kind of transition. One minute, he's telling me everything I never wanted to know about arthropods, and the next he's telling me about learning to play volleyball in gym class.
He'll be eight tomorrow, and he is this perfect wiry, breezy thing, all ribs and elbows. Every day I am amazed at how stubborn he can be, at how earnest he can be, at how gentle he can be. I love to imagine him in the gym, his wiry limbs akimbo as he learns to serve a volleyball. I can feel his excitement radiate up from the backseat, carried on this wave of words.
"This is a spike," he says. "Look mom, you have to look at me. This is a spike." I glance in the rear view mirror to watch him mime the move. "This is a set. And this is a bump." I peek up in the mirror to watch each move. He says, "See the bump? That's the bump, with your hands together like that. But I'm terrible at it."
Sometimes when he's talking, I see him as a kind of tremulous, overfull balloon of innocence that the world is salivating, slathering to burst. His eagerness wells up, bubbles out of him. His simple joy, that thing we call being childlike, it radiates from him. I take doses of it against the chronic disillusionment that has settled in my chest, drinking in like a tonic the simple euphoria he can find in almost anything.
But every so often, I start to hear the first strains of that virus, that disillusionment, color his voice. He is starting to learn defeat, starting to be colored by the jaded vocabulary of people whose words are barbs. This is how you play volleyball, but I am terrible at it. Why even try, his tone says, because I'll never be good at it. I might as well just give up now.
For me, it was running. I had to suit up in my P.E. uniform and take that damnable Presidential Fitness Test, and in a grassy field next to my elementary school, I became versed in defeat and in shame.
I was the slowest one in class, and I finished the last lap alone. The embarrassment of being watched by all my classmates would have been enough to sting, but just to drive the point home, my coach stood there lobbing cruel jabs at me as I shuffled desperately for the finish line. My classmates, my friends, laughed as he berated my slow pace. I kept pushing forward, miserable, every breath burning my lungs like I'd inhaled shards of glass.
When I came over the finish line, my face beet-all-over and my lungs screaming, he read my time off the stopwatch around his neck and spat more hateful words at me. "That was terrible. There's no reason for you to run that slow. That was absolutely ridiculous."
I just stood there and cried silently, right in front of the whole class, this red-faced, terrible girl who was broken and slow and ridiculous because she could not even run one freaking mile. It did not even occur to me that he could be wrong, or that those words might be entirely inappropriate for a teacher to say to his student. After all, everyone else had run their laps in a time that wasn't ridiculous or terrible, and they had done it without their lungs burning like they were trying to breathe under water.
He is seven going on I-already-know-everything, his childlike effervescence so susceptible to turning into distrust and apathy in the coming years. Right now, he is over the moon for his first fish tank, newly set up and waiting for its fist occupants tomorrow. He experiences a near manic bliss over an afternoon with a stack of construction paper, a pair of scissors, and a fresh roll of scotch tape. So much of the shine is still on him; so much of the fairy dust is still in his eyes.
And yet, he announces one day that he doesn't like to sing in front of people, and he tells me from the backseat of the car how he is terrible at a move in volleyball though he's played the game just twice in his life. Already the vocabulary of defeat infects his language. Already, though he's not quite eight years old, he is quick to tell me what he can't do. Already there are things he has given up on entirely.
I tell him, from the front seat, that I doubt he's terrible at volleyball. I remind him that thinking he's going to fail at something will pretty much guarantee he fulfills that expectation. I assure him that two days of learning to play volleyball is not nearly long enough to decide whether or not he is good at it. I suggest that maybe he could try doing something for the joy of doing it, without grading himself on it or letting other people tell him how well they think he's doing at it.
And, though I don't say it, I pray silently that his innocence and his exuberance are tenaciously rooted in him, that they will be nearly impossible to blast out of him.
Then, I tell him the story of how I decided I was terrible at running because of one bad experience as a child. I tell him how, because I let that experience color my view of myself, I spent two decades not realizing the reason I ran so slowly that day was because I had asthma and was smack dab in the middle of my first asthma attack. When you decide you are terrible at something, I say, that becomes louder and stronger than the truth.
The truth, for me, is that I am still a slow runner. But, this morning I put four more miles on my new running shoes, and I haven't needed that old inhaler in a few years now. It's a truth that has taken me many years to dig out of the ashes of those ear-splitting messages of defeat.
"You're almost eight," I tell my oldest son, "and you have so many years of life coming, so many things you will get to experience. Why would you want to cut yourself off from something you may find out you really love to do?"
You're right, of course, he tells me. But then he falls silent and watches the freeway flash by outside his window, and I can't help but wonder how far gone he is already. He's seven for one more day, and then I will have lost that year forever. Tomorrow, he will be eight. Have I said enough? Have I listened carefully enough, beneath the talk of arthropods and gym class, to the real story he is trying to tell me? Because he's seven-going-on-everything, and I can hardly keep up with him already. He's seven-going-on-eight, still a soft and malleable thing in a world that's barbed and rigid, and I can only hope the tremulous balloon of his innocence will hold for one more year.