What Wally wants

Originally published on October 31, 2015

10.31.15Recently Wally asked a a new friend, “Guess what street I live on.”

Lucas, the friend, has never been to our house and is four-years-old. He surely had no idea what street we live on and sensibly replied, “I don’t know.”

“Just guess, it’s easy,” Wally said.

“I don’t know,” Lucas said.

“I promise, it’s easy, just guess,” Wally went on.

Finally, Lucas relented. “Prince Street?” he ventured, naming the street that he himself happens to live on.

“That’s it,” Wally replied cheerfully, and the two of them went back to playing.

Later, Lucas’s mom told Caroline this story and Caroline wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was Wally playing around or had he in fact forgotten the name of our street?
That evening Caroline and I talked about it some more. One thing we agreed on was that the interaction Wally had had with Lucas was not one Jay, who cares a lot about accuracy, would be likely to have had with anyone.

Jay likes facts, right answers, knowing the rules, and doing his best by them. The other day he and I brought a Wiffle ball and bat to the playground. We soon attracted a crowd, a whole lineup of kids. We established a loose batting order. Jay led the way in marking out bases. Some kids were better than others, but I encouraged everyone to run the bases, even kids who hit pop flies that got caught or who didn’t manage to hit the ball at all. The first few times I prompted kids to do this illicit base-running, Jay was beside himself. He’d caught the pop fly after all. He’d made the out. The rules were the rules and he didn’t see the aspects of the situation that made it better to set those rules aside.

I was momentarily frustrated with Jay’s inability to go with the flow, as I often am, but overall I understand him because I am like him. I also recognize in Jay another, related tendency. When we go to the park or hang out on the playground after school, he’s often not sure how to get in the social flow of things. But when there’s a ball around, a game being played, he jumps right in. It takes some kind of structure to help him know how to act.

Wally is very different. He strikes up conversations with strangers more readily than anyone I have ever met. He does very well in free-form social situations because he’s outgoing and always has an idea- let’s play construction, let’s play cheetahs and gazelles, let’s make a farm. He’d rather make up his own rules than adhere to ones that already exist. He doesn’t seem driven at all to do well by someone else’s standards.

All of this makes Wally a wonder to me, but also a mystery. It’s clear from the way he has a hard time falling asleep each night and the inexhaustible way he bounds around the house like a baby sabertooth, that something mighty makes him go. I just can’t put a finger on what it is.

Caroline has said recently that the two things that are most important to Wally are imaginary play and social relationships. I had that in mind when Caroline told me about the conversation she’d had with Wally on the way home from Lucas’s house. She wanted to get to the bottom of that address story, so she asked him, “What street do we live on?”

Wally screwed up his face like it was a weird question. “Why are you asking me that?” he said.

“I just want to know,” Caroline said back, “What street do we live on?”

“Mom, Bishop Street,” Wally replied, as though he were saying the most obvious thing in the world.

And indeed, we do live on Bishop Street, which makes me wonder all the more what Wally was up to with Lucas. Was he playing games? Trying to affirm his friend after he’d promised him the name was easy to guess? Whatever the explanation, the story is a reminder to me of how to approach Wally. When I see him, and want to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, it’s a good idea to look once, and then look again.

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