The Wall
by Cathy Marciniak

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A gifted friend of mine is an engineer who has won national awards without ever having taken a course in her field. Like so many other exceptional people, she didn’t acknowledge her unusual abilities until early adulthood. “You don’t realize how much you’ve been talking down to people in order to be accepted,” she says, “Until you get to a place like MIT and you don’t have to do it anymore.”

Or, when you see that your children aren’t doing it yet.

“Dbo Cane Oh,” my two year old announced with a solemn expression one morning.

“Come again?” I said. I was a little rusty on my Twospeak.

“Dbo Cane Oh. Ka boom.”

“I’m sorry, Honey. I didn’t quite catch that.”

“Ka boom ,” he repeated patiently. “Big. Dbo Cane Oh.”

“Oh,” I said, and processed like mad. Nothing.

For a few minutes we played one of those exasperating games of toddler charades. “Dbo Cane Oh,” he said, and threw his chubby arms up in the air. “Big. Hod duff. Ka boom.”

“Volcano!” I announced with relief, thinking: one more bewildering event mastered; put it up there with childbirth and head-on collisions. Have Phi Beta Kappa, will travel. “The hot stuff is called lava .”

“Dbo Cane Oh. Ka boom,” he agreed. “Lobba.”

His enthusiasm touched me; something, heaven only knew what, had made quite an impression on him. “You betcha,” I said, smiling.

He added, “Er cake.” He did a little Elvis Presley type wiggle to demonstrate.

“Earthquake,” I translated instantly, proud of myself. I was on a roll, no doubt about it.

“Ka boom.” he smiled triumphantly.


“Ka boom. Er cake. Dbo cane oh.”

“Oh, yes. Kaboom.”

This, it further developed, was my son’s idea of a fascinating conversation.

I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring Adam’s disturbing interest in acts of nature which go kaboom. If I on some level understood that most middle class suburban New England two year olds don’t have much interest in earth science or many three-syllable words in their vocabularies, I kept that inner realization from myself. Yes, I read the label on the vinegar and baking soda volcano experiment, and it clearly said “ages 9 and up,” and, okay, what we came to call the Dbo-cane-oh shelf of the library appeared to be in the adult science section, and of course, my mother found his favorite picture books, volumes of a series called “Volcanoes of the World,” at a middle school book fair, but. But but but. He was a boy, a two year old boy at that. Explosions and eruptions and destruction are very much part of the male toddler program. If anyone had asked why my golden-haired cherub had such a fascination with natural disasters, my answer probably would have been, why not, and besides, have you met my husband’s family? Trust me, he’s just making sense of his environment. Words like “magma”, “crust,” and “shifting plates” are a pretty fair assessment of that crowd.

However, it began to dawn that outside the rarefied, accepting air of our home, my child sets off certain ... alarms.

“Does he do that a lot?” My friend Jeanette asked during one play date with Adam and her son Matthew.

“Build towers of blocks, just to smash them to smithereens?” I asked. “Sure; all kids do. I read about it in Leach, or Brazelton, or somebody. Building block towers and not smashing them to smithereens sort of violates the principle of being two.”

“I read about it in Spock ,” she said. Jeanette was a much more experienced mother than I, -- she always got Matthew, who was her sixth child, ’s weird utterances on the first try -- and sometimes she was little smug about it. “What I mean is, does he always do that ?”

She pointed. In the corner of my living room, while Matthew played with a truck, Adam’s “Toopman” (Superman, a 10 inch action figure he’d received for Christmas) was, yet again, very carefully extracting “Naded Barry” (Naked Barbie; don’t ask) from yet another spectacularly constructed pile of rubble. “Don’t you think that’s a little, well, ... violent?”

“For heaven’s sake it isn’t like he’s attacking Naked Barbie,” I said defensively, as if this approximated some sort of normal human sentence. “He’s just making her a victim of a volcano or an earthquake.”

“Vittim,” Adam said helpfully. “Dbo Cane oh.” He tipped a cookie tray loaded with blocks onto Naded Barry. “Lobba all obah.” He shook his head. “So, sad.”

Jeanette the much more experienced mother gave me a numbed look. “A volcano or an earthquake,” she repeated. “Why would he do that.”

“Because he isn’t allowed to do hurricanes in the house.” I didn’t point out that buckets of water and piles of lego houses were at the ready, that very moment, in the backyard sandbox. Poor Naded Barry had been having a very stressful week.

Jeanette the much more experienced mother, well trained in boys and possessor of an arsenal of parental skills and quick reflexes which had made her my personal heroine, then said to me, with that confused, vaguely disapproving look on her face that I have since learned to anticipate and loathe, the phrase which has accompanied so many closing doors and painful losses:

“None of my kids ever did that.”

None of the other kids do that. This is the first stone in a wall which, without my ever realizing it, was assembled around me when I was young, and which only in my adulthood, with the efforts and the warmth and the friendship and the understanding of intellectual peers, began to erode. Some of the gifted believe that this wall is built by those who fear our differences. Some believe it is punitive. Some even believe that it is a conscious construction of our own survival instincts, built by our younger selves to protect us from the hostilities of those who envy or resent us, and to keep away those who ridicule or exploit our sensitivities. I can only tell you that growing up confined within that wall was a very, very lonely experience. And breaking through it, in order to seek out the like-minded treasures I have managed to find, has been at times almost unbearably frightening. Sarcasm, which has also served as an invitation, a screening mechanism -- come play with me, if you know this game, if you dare, if you can keep up, if you are worth playing with -- keeps that wall sound and secure to this day.

And before my eyes this same wall has been relentlessly assembled around my child: None of our children have ever done that, Mrs Marciniak. You must be mistaken if you believe that your child is doing that, reading that, interested in that, capable of that, thinking that, picking up on that, being hurt by that. I have been a teacher, I have been a school principal, I have been a counselor, I have been an expert, for twenty years, for ten years, for longer than you have been a mother. I have been doing this since long before you went to bed at night praying for him, since long before you suffered the first massive assault on your soul when you heard him cry himself to sleep, for longer than you have breathed and thought of him and felt his every delight and taken his every burden, and none of my children have ever done that. I have two hundred children in this school, I have fifty children in this program, I have twenty children in this classroom, and you only have that single special and unique and irreplaceable and vulnerable little person. None of the others need my support or compassion, none of the others are complaining, none of the others are depressed, none of them are slowly losing themselves. None of my parents have ever asked me to do for a child this one simple thing that you are telling me your child desperately needs me to do for him. I have been doing this in exactly this way for many years and it has never damaged a child as yours is being damaged. Your child is not what you think he is, your child is not what you are making him out to be, your child is not suffering as you perceive him suffering, he is not, he is not , and we will defend ourselves and our roles and this system by minimizing your child and his loneliness and his pain and his curiosity and his intellect and his sensitivities, into nonexistence if necessary.

None of our children have done that, Mrs Marciniak. Your child is not, therefore, one of ours. You, once again, are not one of ours.

Matthew dutifully rammed his truck into my living room baseboard. Adam looked up at me quizzically. “Big,” he said, after a moment, and started to line up toy vehicles. “Kaboom.” He flung a truck into the leg of a chair. It winged Matthew on the ankle and made him laugh. Getting into the spirit of it, Adam rolled a toy ambulance, the one that had been used to transport Naded Barry to the lego hospital, into a trash truck. The boys began to mindlessly jam cars and trucks into one another and the furniture.

“Now that, all my kids did,” Jeanette said with a tired sigh. “The bigger the car crash, the better. What is it about kids that they want to trash the fastest biggest things they can find?” She laughed. “For that matter, what is it about people ?”

For that matter. Looking back, I wonder if some part of me hoped, deep in my heart, that no one would notice how fast and big Adam’s mind really was. And now, now that it has become too obvious for even me in my desperation to deny, I wonder sometimes if I can even afford to hope that a simple straightforward ten-truck pileup could bring that wall down for him. Someday soon, before his big fast heart is broken too, before he is forced, like my friend, to tumble it all down himself within some safe refuge like MIT.

Don’t think that I wouldn’t arrange a good clean totaling-all-vehicles wreck in order to save him. He is, after all, one of mine.