Guess who’s coming to tea?

Amelia, tea party enthusiast (2012)

Amelia, tea party enthusiast (2012)

At my daughter Amelia’s deaf kindergarten, the teachers collect pictures and videos to document each child’s progress from term to term.

They’re candid observations about things like social interactions, learning skills and styles of play.

This week Amelia’s teacher showed me a video of an outdoor scene featuring my little girl and her classmates.

We had been talking about how she socialises with the other kids, particularly how she finds it difficult to join other children at play, and the teacher wanted to show me an example.

In the clip, it’s free playtime in the afternoon sun, and Amelia’s classmates are all engrossed in one activity or another.

Some are riding little bikes around a bricked path, others are messing about in the sand pit. A gang of three girls has set up an impromptu tea party under the dappled shade of a gum tree.

Most are playing in pairs, or at least displaying some sort of ‘togetherness’ or common aim, even when side-by-side.

And where is my Amelia? In this scene she is playing the lone wolf. A wolf in a red hat who is running around and around in wide, continuous circles.

There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to her running at first. She’s just running, well, to run.

Her slightly awkward running style (with a little bit of Kerry Saxby-Junna in the shuffle of her feet) and steadfastly upright gait made me smile as I watched.

Then it became clear that Amelia’s initially aimless path had shifted to track the direction of the bike riding boys.

She was trailing their course, dogging their journey, and running faster and faster to catch up. They were not aware of her at all.

Amelia had ‘joined in’ their game as a tail-ender, playing with them in her singular way, maybe the only way she knows how – just slightly behind, out of shot, waiting to see what the reception to her involvement would be.

Her impassive face briefly lit up with the thrill of the chase, the way we see it come to life at home when she’s playing the Cave Troll to my Frodo Baggins (about to be skewered again), or when she’s diving under pillows to evade her ‘terrifying’ Dad-turned-monster.

As she sprinted on, my eye caught a subtle move of her head and the flick of her eyes towards the tea party corner. Amelia had clocked them, this solid clique of three, but she didn’t seem to know how to approach, let alone breach their imaginary game.

So she kept on moving away from them, but her progress had slowed with the hesitation of someone wondering what to do next. Stay the course or stop to take tea under the tree?

The video clip gave no clues as it came to an abrupt end.

It was the briefest of snapshots of Amelia at play, but it spoke volumes to me about my sweet girl, who is so often happy in her own company but also desperate (and painfully unsure how) to interact with other children.

Amelia’s teacher continued the rest of the story that wasn’t captured on film that day; about how she finally willed herself to break into the circle of that exclusive tea party.

She sharked the girls for a bit, testing the water for signs of risk and making sure not to draw attention to herself.

I see her go through this same routine on kinder mornings when she is sometimes at war with herself about whether to sit in with the bus kids gathered for breakfast. On those occasions I am there to ask her what she wants, to encourage and guide her to a place at the table.

This time there was no one to smooth the way but she took the plunge and sat herself quietly down, making no fuss and speaking not a sound.

Thankfully, the girls were untroubled by her late decision to attend without an invitation. Amelia was a tea-party-crasher, yes. But she was a polite and deferential guest and so she was welcome to stay.

I see it as a triumph of her spirit, this small story about how a girl who hasn’t begun to understand the rules of social engagement punched on through her fear to join in with such a tight group of strong personalities.

And even though Amelia is light years away from being ready to ask to join in and participate on an equal social footing with her peers, I am filled with hope that without me she will eventually find her way.

To my eyes, she cut a wistful figure in that playground, running and running to show movement and activity (and because running is just something she loves) but I could sense that she was also looking, searching for a place to fit in.

Then I was shown one more clip that pointed to an alternative Amelia, one with the potential to be the confident leader of the pack.

She was up on the playground rise, near the fence line and had marshalled that same gang of three plus one to follow her in some invented game with undeclared rules.

It seemed to have only one premise: that all should join her in a conga-line of expressive marching along the fence line for as long as playtime allowed.

Amelia didn’t speak but her hands showed, nay commanded, the way; ‘Come on, come on’, they seemed to say as she urged them on. And follow they did, every last one.

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