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Trains on Track

May 11, 2013

Hi, it’s been a while.

So last Sunday, I went to the California Train Museum in Sacramento with my friend and her exuberant 4 year old twins. It’s a pretty fantastic place, and I wish we had gone there when Bobo was younger and was All About Trains. I could write an entire post just describing  its various layers of awesomeness, but for the sake of this moment in time will focus on just one. The  first floor has this enormous, warehouse-like interior with sections depicting different eras of California railroad history: the effort to reach the coast (with serious attention paid to the groups of immigrants who did the work and got vilified for it, so props there), the elegant Pullman cars (no attention to the Pullman Porters, come on folks), and more.  Basically, the floor is like the dioramas in the NY Natural Museum of History with backgrounds and mannequins and scenery….BUT WITH REAL TRAINS. Dudes. It’s very cool. This is the best picture of it I could find.

Obviously, maintenance and updates are a part of regular museum life,  and embedded into the floor of the hall are actual railroad tracks (DUDES) so the trains can be brought in and out. As we walked and looked and talked I found myself more than once fascinated by the steel web of tracking at my feet: twisting and turning and overlaying each other constantly, then in place veering far apart so that the cars could be steered to totally separate places.

Is there a metaphor there? Well.


My beloved office partner, who is a friend and mentor and all-around wise woman, talks about child development as being on ‘tracks’. There is Track A, which of course has its bumps but is a pretty solidly typical trajectory, and there is Track B, which is for atypical special needs. Both move forward. Some kids are born right onto Track B, most chug along on Track A, and then there is the big ol’ raft of kids like Bobo. In many ways compared to a lot of Track B’ers the narrative of his life has been pretty regular so far.  The years of early childhood and elementary life are kind of like the floor of the hall–unless needs and differences are dramatic all the tracks overlay each other in a happy jumble and kids just play together and figure it out.

The museum made me reflect, however, on how often I’ve been like one of those old-fashioned railroad workers trying to direct the trains onto the right track by hand, pulling levers to shift the bars into a new path. As Bobo has careened off onto Track B with his outbursts, his quirkiness, or his overstimulation, I have always, every time, immediately started scanning for the place where we could divert his train back onto A.  I have advocated, brokered, been a diplomat with other parents, smoothed over, hosted, volunteered. My biceps have ached and my hands have blistered and callused as I have pushed and pulled my body weight onto each lever to divert, divert, support and divert. And you know, often it’s worked. We got him through preschool, public school, birthday parties, homework, playdates, afterschool activities, babysitters.

And then, sometimes,  it stops working.

Friendships are not easy for Bobo, and never have been. He is cognitively so brilliant, has the deepest desire to connect and a wonderful, playful, often joyful nature. But his equilibrium is easily tipped over into rigidity or frustration, and when that happens he gets mad, or he does things that look really weird. When kids are little, they don’t mind this stuff. Everyone just plays together and backs off if they need space, then come back together, their tracks crisscrossing and braiding together.

But eventually, each train needs to go to its own place in the hall. Bobo has a couple of good lifelong friends, and kids say hi to him all the time at school, clearly interested in him and enjoying his creativity. He is the apple of his teacher and aides’ eyes, and is full of affection for adults. But the rest of his peer group has slowly fallen away–friendships have turned, gone silent. He wanted to have a movie night to celebrate the end of school, and four or five kids he asked yesterday said no, to his face. A couple were really rude about it. Bobo was a little sad and bewildered for about five minutes and then happily focused on the friend who *was* coming for a movie, and the other friend coming over this weekend. I tried to squeak out some unnecessary words of comfort and then drove from school to his Unitarian church youth group meeting as well as I could with shaking shoulders and quiet tears streaming down my face. I can push as goddamned hard as I want, but the levers don’t work right now. The tracks are curving far away from each other, and no matter how much I wish he could be with the brightly painted strong steam engines his little train has another path. It’s another layer of grief, despite knowing that tracks do eventually come together again, and that as he chugs along there will be some big roundhouses (middle school, high school, swim team and choir which are coming up) where perhaps we will find some other little trains on their own journey. Every adult who knows him, including the part of my brain that is a seasoned child development professional, says clearly he will make it and he will find his tribe. I know this is true, and I am careful to separate my own sadness from his experience. Maybe I’ll  stop looking for the next lever, hop on his train, and lean back with my head at the window so I can enjoy the scenery.



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