My son is a climber. It began at the rock wall at our local fitness center. He looked up at the 40 foot walls with a glint in his eyes that I had never seen before. After his first class, he was a regular.
Kids need a place to go, especially 12 year old boys, especially if they have Aspberger's. Team sports and Middle School hierarchies are so brutal, even for a typical kid. Add to that the inability to read facial cues, or get the jokes and insults that are the grist of Middle School "boy culture". Also, being new didn't help.
We just moved to town. It was a new start after the divorce. We knew no one. He started the first day of Middle School a few days late because the movers were slow and moving is hard, especially when you are a fifty year old Mom packing the truck yourself. It was an enormous act of will to begin again, for both of us.
He came home after the first few weeks of school ragged with anxiety. The kids were cruel, and crude. "What does fucking faggot mean, Mom?" Do I have to cut my hair to stop being called a girl? I like it long! Some of the guys at the rock wall have cool hair like mine." And so began many discussions between us about kindness and tolerance, and what being different means. But sometimes it was just better to go to the rock wall.
By now I was belay certified so I could be his climbing partner. We would walk in and his fellow climbers would always greet my son with a smile and some friendly words like "hey buddy", or "try the new route on number 10", or "cool hat" ( his red hat became his trademark there). So the hours away from school were spent climbing, with Mom in the harness below holding on to the ropes.
One night, after a particularly rough day at school, he turned to me as we were hugging goodnight. "Mom ", he said, " I am afraid I will fail my classes at school. I am afraid of the bullies too." His eyes were very serious.
I gazing steadily into his face, "Do you know what your job is this year?", I said. He replied, "to get good grades and not get in trouble at school?''. "No", I said, "to climb as high as you can, just like on the rock wall! No looking down! Just keep improving your strength! I mean this as a... metaphor. Do you remember what that is?" I asked. "A symbol, he said, something that stands for another thing". "Exactly!" I answered, as he held on to me.
"But what if I... fall ?", he said, after some time in thought. I knew I would have to dig a little deeper to make this work. What could I say to him? I closed my eyes and pictured our time together at the wall.
"That's why I am on belay", I said. I will not let you fall. I've got you. Your job is to figure out how to reach the top. My job is to keep you safe. We are a team. Do you understand?" I whispered gently to him.
It has been well over a year since that conversation. He has settled in to living here, and school is a little better. And sometimes, before a big test, or talking about a difficult encounter with the mean kids, when I truly need to reassure him that I am "there for him", all I have to do is face him and clearly say "on belay ", to which he responds, with a renewed smile in his eyes, "Climbing!"