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The Ice Breaker

I can still remember–and cringe while remembering–all the times that Simon has stood apart from a crowd and watched his peers play. The first time I really recall it was when I took him to a baby play group when he was around a year old. While four or five babies happily frolicked in the sand box, Simon strenuously resisted being put in with them. In fact, he never made it inside.

Then, of course, there were the early years of preschool, where every day he froze at the entrance to his room and often reported his playground activities as “I watched my friends play.” These events, both witnessed and reported, were agonizing for me.

By the the time Simon approached his fourth birthday, he was doing much better. But new folks and crowds were still really, really hard. “He’s an introvert,” I reminded myself. “This is just the way he is, he’s not going to change, and you need to remember that being shy around new people is OK.”

Simon still has his shrinking moments. Just about five weeks ago we had to leave a birthday party he couldn’t handle. It was at a pottery painting studio, there were a lot of kids (most of whom he didn’t know) crammed into a very small space, it was noisy, and the primary activity involved drawing, an activity he dislikes so much and is so maladept at that it’s turning into a phobia. No part of that scene was conducive to his having a good time, so he manufactured a stomach ache, developed a sudden leg pain that prevented him from sitting down, and was generally so miserable that I relented and let him leave.

That incident aside, I’ve noticed a new trend of late. If there’s a ball involved, Simon effortlessly joins in the play. Through several seasons of outdoor soccer, two seasons of outdoor t-ball and baseball, a ton of indoor soccer, and a few tennis clinics and camps, Simon has gotten used to being thrown in with kids he doesn’t know. And when it comes to a team sport or multi-kid clinic, nearly all of Simon’s shyness evaporates. He will run up to a new kid and engage him or her right away with no hesitation. His usual opening gambit it to suggest a rally, some catching practice, or some one-on-one soccer.

What’s more, he will engage kids much older than he is. I’ve seen him play with more than one 10-12-year old at the park, and he’s got some much older friends down the street from his grandparents’ house, too. For that matter, at his school’s spring festival this May, Simon blew off all but one kindergarten friend to go play soccer with the 4th and 5th graders behind the play-ground. I felt silly holding a stack of tickets for games we never played, but it seemed even sillier to pull him away from something social he was enjoying. (Side note: Matt overheard one of the funniest things ever at this scrimmage. Towards the end, a boy that looked to be 10 or 11 taunted a classmate with “Man, you just got schooled by a kindergartener!” when Simon got the ball around him and scored.)

In the past four weeks, Simon has attended a soccer camp where he knew no one on day one and was trying to arrange a play-date with Lucille–the 8-year-old girl who was the best player at camp–by day four. Then it was off to tennis, where he palled around with some 7- and 8-year-olds. Then this week, in perhaps the biggest challenge of all, I sent him to an all-day natural history camp at a 1790 estate called Locust Grove. It was for ages 7-12, meaning Simon wasn’t technically old enough to attend, but I found a typo on an old website and played dumb. I knew he’d love the camp programming, but was slightly concerned about the social aspect.

While we signed in that first morning, a nice boy named Tristan walked up and introduced himself. I was so relieved! He was going to have friends! And he did. But not Tristan so much: more like Daniel, Ben, Ryan, and Isaiah, all but one of whom were two years older, and all of whom liked to play–you guessed it–soccer during the free play period after lunch and at the end of the day during pick-up.

The camp officially ended at 4:00, and most days I stuck around until 4:20 or so while Simon and his friends set up pick-up games. Goals and borders were fashioned from cones, mulch, trees, shrub lines, and the like. The play was fierce enough that one collision resulted in a boy falling on Simon and getting a nose-bleed from the contact. And all the while, rather gloriously from my perspective, Simon was every bit as instrumental in setting up the rules and divvying up the teams as his older peers. I’d watch in happy disbelief as he’d hold the ball under his right arm while directing teammates with his outstretched left hand.

It’s still unlikely that Simon will ever be the life of the party. I don’t kid myself that his quiet and introverted nature will forever make some parts of life challenging and be misunderstood by many. But I am starting to see and truly appreciate how often a shared love a sport can be the ice-breaker that he needs to ease into new situations and relationships. It brings out his assertive side and is teaching him to take control. Maybe this is all obvious to everyone else. But for someone like me, who was always extroverted and never interested in sports, it is a revelation: a very happy, very welcome revelation.

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