"Yet, rather, are we scabbards to our souls. And the drawn sword of genius is more glittering than the drawn cimeter of Saladin."
- Herman Melville
"Your son is an imbecile."
There was a stunned silence for a few moments. Alan and Gloria McKay, a young couple barely out of school themselves, sat across from the intimidating principal, unable to believe their ears. They'd always known Meredith was different – 'special,' they liked to say – but they'd never thought he was stupid. Sure, he didn't talk much, and then only in single words or phrases, and he didn't show much interest in the picture books they got him, but an imbecile?
"I think there's been some sort of mistake," Alan said slowly. He glanced at the corner of the room where Meredith sat quietly next to Jeannie's stroller, systematically stacking blocks and then knocking them down again.
"Mr. McKay," the principal sighed, "Meredith doesn't interact with the other children. He doesn't listen to the teacher. He's halfway through the first grade and can't even read 'see spot run' or write his name. He doesn't draw pictures during art class; he makes nonsensical squiggles and lines. We had him evaluated by an educational psychologist who rendered his expert opinion: Meredith is mentally retarded."
Gloria began crying quietly. Alan still looked stricken, though his shock was turning into anger. These people didn't understand his son, didn't know him. How could they possibly judge him? The principal was saying something about 'educational alternatives' but Alan wasn't listening. There had to be some mistake, he just knew it.
"Hey, Mer," Alan called, sitting on the floor in their living room with a simple, colorful picture book. "Come here, I want to show you something."
Meredith ran over excitedly, dragging his stuffed sock monkey behind him with one hand and clutching something large and heavy to his chest with the other. He was very animated at home, among people and surroundings he knew; it was only in more social settings that he withdrew so thoroughly from interaction.
"Hey, whatcha got there, buddy?" Alan asked, reaching for the object Meredith was holding. "Looks heavy. Introduction to Nonlinear Differential and Integral Equations," Alan read from the cover. He peered closely at his son who was blinking innocently at him. "Were you…reading this?" Meredith cocked his head, his lower lip protruding slightly as he thought about the question. Eventually he shook his head 'no,' though he still looked contemplative. "You like the numbers?" Alan tried again. This got a far more definitive answer out of the boy; he nodded emphatically and smiled in that crooked way of his.
"Alan, what are you doing?" Gloria interrupted, stepping from the kitchen with Jeannie on her shoulder.
"Nothing, dear," he replied. "Just talking to Mer."
"Do you think…do you think he understands us?" Gloria asked, her eyes brimming with tears again.
"Of course," Alan frowned. "He hasn't changed, Gloria. We just know a little more about him now. If it's even true," he added bitterly.
"Alan, that man knows what he's doing," she scolded. "Just because you're a teacher now doesn't mean you know everything." She turned back toward the kitchen. "Dinner in half an hour," she called over her shoulder.
"Okay," he answered vaguely, his attention back on his son. "Okay, Mer," he began enthusiastically, engaging the boy's attention. "What's two plus two?" Meredith frowned, shaking his head in puzzlement; he didn't understand the question. Alan's heart sank but he tried again, this time skimming through the introduction of the book for inspiration. "What about…the limit as x approaches three of five x squared minus eight x minus thirteen over x squared minus five?" Alan chuckled lightly as he read the problem; he didn't at all expect Meredith to understand. The boy looked appropriately confused but, to his father's surprise, reached for the book and tugged insistently at it. Alan gave it to him, wondering what he would do, and Meredith placed it carefully on the floor, open to the page Alan had been reading from, before looking expectantly at his father. Alan wasn't sure what he wanted and told him as much: "What? What do you want?"
Meredith pointed to the page but Alan still didn't understand. The boy frowned, frustrated by his inability to communicate what he needed. He waved his hand over the page again, smacking the book lightly as if in emphasis.
"Numbers," he said, blinking expectantly at Alan.
"Yes, numbers," Alan agreed, still not getting what Meredith was after.
The boy shook his head. "Limitecks," he tried, pointing yet again to the page. "Three, five, ecks."
It suddenly dawned on Alan what his son was asking for. "You want me to show you which problem I was reading?" he confirmed. The boy nodded, and Alan pointed it out.
Sticking his tongue out slightly, Meredith concentrated hard, staring at the page in front of him. Alan watched, fascinated, wondering just what was going on in the six-year-old's head. A few minutes later, the boy jumped up and ran to the desk in the corner of the living room. Tugging open the top drawer, he grabbed a pen and scrambled back to where his father sat stunned with his college calculus book spread on the floor before him. Painstakingly, Meredith drew a large, barely-recognizable "2" in the margin next to the sample problem; sitting back, he smiled in satisfaction and looked at his father.
Alan stared at his son in shock. Grabbing the textbook, he computed the problem quickly in his own head and reached the same conclusion. Gaping at Meredith, who simply sat clutching his sock monkey and smiling innocently, he tried to wrap his head around what had just happened. He had just heard that his son was retarded and now he was showing signs of genius?
"How…" he started, words failing him. "How did you do that?" Again, Meredith didn't seem to understand the question. "Where did you learn that?" Alan rephrased.
Meredith jumped up, tugging at his father's hand and leading Alan toward the room he shared with baby Jeannie. Alan regretted that the room was so sparsely and plainly decorated but between his teaching and Gloria's waitressing, they didn't have much time to devote to the kids' room. Meredith left his father at the door and started digging through the pile of blocks on the floor, searching for something. When he found it, he rushed back and pressed the object into Alan's hands.
It was another book, slightly less advanced. Alan recognized it as one he used to teach one of his upper-level classes; he had noticed it was missing a couple weeks ago but hadn't had time to go look for it. He still wasn't sure how Meredith could understand higher mathematics without the basic instruction that occurred between first grade and twelfth, however, until it dawned on him:
"Hey, Mer, have you been reading – looking at – all my textbooks?" he asked. Meredith nodded. Alan whistled, impressed. He had a whole collection of high school textbooks for the various courses he was teaching, from remedial algebra to pre-calculus, as well as a few left over from his recent college days. Meredith must have been teaching himself math for months – and relying only on examples and diagrams, since Alan was fairly certain the principal had been right about Mer's reading ability. He gazed at his son with a new appreciation.
Despite Alan's discovery of Meredith's hidden mathematical talent, he couldn't convince Gloria or the school principal to let him stay in a regular classroom. Part of it was Meredith's reluctance to 'perform' in front of anyone but his father; most of the reason, however, was the unavoidably looming fact that Meredith couldn't read worth a dime. It was decided that he should be transferred to a special education class for the remainder of the year, though Alan's insistence had won Meredith the right to be re-evaluated at the end of that time.
The first day of Meredith's new class, he came home in tears. Alan took it as vindication for his position against his wife and the principal, growing angry at the school system that couldn't accommodate children as special as his son. Walking slowly to the kids' room, where Meredith had fled as soon as he walked through the door, Alan heard the muffled sniffling through the door. Opening it quietly, he saw Meredith on the floor, playing with his blocks. On closer examination, however, he realized the boy wasn't playing; he was pounding the blocks together angrily to form a rough shape which quickly toppled under the latest forcefully applied piece of wood. Meredith kicked at the fallen figure, crying.
"Hey, Mer," Alan called softly. His son turned toward him, his eyes brimming with tears, his lower lip protruding in a hurt and angry pout. "What happened?"
Meredith ran toward his father, clasping him tightly around the legs. Alan patted his son on the back lightly, then began stroking his hair as the boy's tears soaked his pants. After about five minutes, Meredith had cried himself out and let go of Alan's legs, tilting his head to meet his father's eyes.
"Wanna talk about it?" Alan asked gently.
"No," the boy sniffed. "Numbers?"
Alan smiled slightly. Nothing cheered Meredith up like doing math problems. "We can do numbers later," he assured his son. "Tell me what happened first."
"Stupid," was all Meredith said, crossing his arms in six-year-old petulance.
"What's stupid, Mer?" Alan pressed. The boy refused to say more. "Look, Mer, you're smart. I know you're smart. But other people, they don't know that because you won't tell them. If you would talk more, people would know you're smart and treat you better."
The child frowned, considering this. Finally he said, "Teacher stupid. Class stupid."
"That's better," Alan praised him, "though we're going to have to work on using sentences. How are they stupid?"
"No numbers," Meredith pouted. "Pictures. Stupid bunnies, puppies. Talking."
"Doesn't sound so different from your old class," Alan noted. "What made you cry?"
"Old class, back numbers," Meredith explained, though Alan didn't understand what he meant. "New class, no let numbers. Make talk."
"Oh," Alan exclaimed as understanding dawned. "They don't let you sit in the back and do your numbers? They make you participate?" The boy nodded. Alan was torn between encouragement that this 'special class' was at least taking an interest in their students and commiseration with his son that they wouldn't just leave him alone and let him do what he liked and was good at.
"Okay, Mer, I've got an idea," Alan said, catching the boy's interest just as he was about to go back to his blocks. "I think we can get you out of this new class," Meredith's eyes widened and he grinned, "but it's going to take a little time and a lot of effort." Meredith frowned slightly but nodded, willing. "Okay. I'm going to teach you to read."
"No!" Meredith shouted angrily, knocking down the few blocks that remained stacked.
"Listen to me," Alan continued, quietly but sternly. "People won't believe you're smart if you can't tell them, remember? So you have to talk more. But they also won't believe you're smart if you can't read. People put a lot of stock in reading." The boy still looked unconvinced. "It will get you out of this class," Alan reminded him, and saw his son's resolve starting to crack. "And every time we have a reading lesson, I'll let you do numbers at the end." That did it. Meredith grinned and stuck out his small hand to shake.
It was slow going. Alan had so little time in the evenings after grading papers and preparing his lesson plans that they were only able to put in about half an hour a day. Even that was too much for Meredith's liking and it was a chore to get the boy to sit still and look at a book for thirty minutes; only the promise of numbers got him through. Alan still thought his son just didn't like reading; it wasn't until a week in that he realized Meredith didn't get reading. Somewhere between seeing the letters on the page and attaching meaning to them, there was a disconnect. He could see the word 'cat' and even sound it out (each letter pronounced painfully separate) but it didn't bring to mind a four-legged animal with pointy ears. No wonder he'd had so much trouble, Alan mused. What's the point of looking at a bunch of letters with no meaning?
Unfortunately, Alan had no idea how to get around the problem, or even if he could. It seemed like it might be a mental disorder, though he would never tell Gloria or that smug principal that. A few days later, one of his students came to him with a problem that gave him an idea.
"Mr. McKay, I don't get it!" the girl complained. "How can letters be numbers? It doesn't make sense!"
As he explained how letters could stand for numbers, he suddenly wondered if it couldn't work the other way, also. If letters could stand for numbers, could number perhaps represent letters?
He was so excited by this idea that he had difficulty concentrating the rest of the day. He rushed home, ignoring Gloria's comment about what the baby had done today, and forgot about grading papers or preparing a lesson plan. He burst into the kids' room, making Meredith jump and stare at his father in alarm. Alan grinned.
"I've got an idea."
Meredith was none too happy with starting reading lessons three hours early but when his father promised that it would have something to do with numbers this time, he complied. He could certainly see that Alan was excited.
"Okay, Mer," Alan began, scribbling on a piece of paper. "What's three times one times, uh, twenty?" he asked, showing Meredith the problem he had written on the paper.
The boy looked almost disdainful at the easiness of the problem as he replied, "Sixty."
"Right!" Alan crowed, to Meredith's confusion. Grinning, Alan said, "Can you get me sixty paperclips?" Meredith was more confused than ever but he ran to the office and grabbed the paperclip container. Returning to his room and his almost manic father, he quickly counted out sixty paperclips in groups of ten. "Excellent," Alan declared, then explained the purpose of the exercise.
"Okay, Mer, you understand that sixty," he drew a big "60" on a piece of paper, "means sixty." He pointed to the paperclips. "And that three times one times twenty," he wrote out the numbers again, "also means sixty." Meredith nodded slowly; this was all very basic. Alan knew it was about to get harder as he made a leap of logic that he hoped Meredith would follow.
"Well," he announced, "it's the same thing with letters. 'Cat,'" he wrote the word, "means cat." He drew a crude stick figure of a cat and watched carefully as Meredith cocked his head to the side. That usually meant he was thinking hard about something, but generally following. Alan took a deep breath. "And 'C A T,'" he wrote the letters large and very separate, "also means cat." He pointed at both the whole word 'cat' and the drawing. Meredith stared, eyes flicking from the word to the letters to the picture and back, occasionally glancing at the other paper with the numbers on it.
Finally, after several minutes, he said, "Oh." Meredith looked up and smiled and Alan couldn't suppress a small cheer. That was one hurdle cleared.
From there on out, it got a lot easier. It wasn't entirely smooth sailing – Meredith was still relatively slow at picking up new words and he still didn't like reading much – but they were progressing. After two months, Meredith could read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by himself; by his seventh birthday he had gotten halfway through Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Alan bought him both The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which he thought appropriate for young Meredith's eating habits) and Trigonometric Equations and Theorems for his birthday, though he didn't tell Gloria. She had a tendency to either ignore him or burst into tears whenever he talked about Meredith, so he had learned it was better not to.
Gloria hadn't had time to bake a cake for Meredith's birthday so they had bought one from the store. Unfortunately, seeing that they were to write "Happy Birthday Meredith" on the cake, the store's bakers had taken it upon themselves to decorate the cake with pink icing and small yellow rosettes. Alan secretly thought that maybe it was a good thing Meredith didn't have any friends to invite to his party; he would have been the laughingstock of the school for months if any seven-year-old boys had seen that cake. As it was, it was just Alan and Gloria and baby Jeannie – and April Bingham, the little neighbor girl that Gloria was desperately trying to set Meredith up with.
The party, if it could even be called that, was going fantastically when Gloria decided it was time for cake and ice cream. She served up a huge slice to Meredith and somewhat smaller pieces to everyone else and sat down to help Jeannie get the cake in her mouth and not all over the dining room. Meredith, true to form, tucked in heartily. Alan smiled and wondered where the boy put it all as he took a smaller bite of his own cake. Despite the pink icing, it was actually rather good. The yellow rosettes were apparently lemon-flavored icing, which gave a refreshing zest to the chocolate-filled chocolate cake. Alan was so absorbed in pondering when he had become such a food critic that he didn't notice Meredith until the boy croaked, "Daddy!"
Alan turned to his son, alarmed by the fear in his voice, and sprang from his chair. Meredith had stopped eating his cake and was clawing at his throat, eyes wide and face bright red, his mouth opening and closing as he gasped for air. Alan thought he was choking and was moving to thump his back when he noticed that Meredith's face looked fat, swollen. Choking didn't do that. Paralyzed with fear and uncertainty, he barely noticed Gloria on the phone, screaming hysterically at the emergency operator. All he could do was hold his son's hand and pray for all he was worth.
Two hours later, a doctor met Alan and Gloria in the waiting room of the emergency room. Gloria was distracted, trying to get Jeannie quiet, but Alan saw the doctor heading for them and sprang up to meet him. The doctor said Meredith was sleeping now and that he should be fine, although the lack of oxygen might have caused some minor brain damage, they weren't sure, and it looked like it had been an allergic reaction. They would have to test him once he was stronger to find out what it was he was allergic to.
"I didn't bake that cake," Gloria said defensively. Then she rounded on her husband. "You spend all that time with him; how did you not know he was allergic?"
"How could I have known?" he replied, surprised. "You didn't know either."
"It's no one's fault," the doctor intervened before it could get nasty. "A lot of children have their first reaction around this age because they'd never been exposed to the allergen before. It's no one's fault," he repeated, though he wasn't sure the couple, glaring daggers at one another, heard him.
Meredith stayed in the hospital for a couple of days and his parents visited whenever they could, though separately. The boy was very pale and his face was still slightly swollen but otherwise he seemed none the worse for wear. His appetite wasn't slacking, either, though he carefully examined all of his food before ingesting it – despite the doctor's insistence that he wasn't being fed anything that included any ingredients from the cake.
On one visit, Alan remembered to bring the presents Meredith had never gotten a chance to open. The boy tore through the wrapping paper and was delighted with each gift, particularly the trigonometry book from his father. Alan smiled at him, still feeling horribly guilty that he hadn't known Meredith had such a severe allergy. The allergy tests had been conducted and it appeared that his son was allergic to citrus; Alan still cringed to think how he had been savoring that lemon taste just before Meredith had stopped breathing.
With all the presents opened, Alan pulled out the stack of cards that various relatives had sent. They were mostly birthday cards, though a few had gotten the word of Meredith's hospital stay and sent get-well cards. Alan opened the first one and started to read it when he felt Meredith's small hand on his arm. He looked up and the boy was reaching for the card.
"It's okay, Daddy," Meredith smiled. "I'll read them."