Twice a week, Kai’s homework is to write in his journal. Or, to put it more accurately, twice a week I have to do Kai’s journal homework.
It’s useless to pretend that he has anything to do with it. He hates to write, so he tells me what to say and I write. He hates to think about writing, so I have to draw one-word answers into a three sentence paragraph. The truly annoying thing is that Kai doesn’t give a mouse-sized shit about his journal. He doesn’t read the teacher’s feedback, I’m not even sure he could identify the thing by sight, as I’m the one who takes it out of his backpack, opens it up, and writes in it.
I’ve come to hate the journal, too. I hate that I forget about it until Sunday night at 5 pm, and then have to scramble to get it completed. Even the topics, subject matter that would be innocuous or even fun in most households, kill me. The first of the year, Kai was asked to write down his resolutions for 2015. But since he doesn’t know what a resolution is, I would have to explain it, and since the only thing he’d change about himself would be to acquire more toys, I bailed on that topic and chose the next one: What could you do that your teacher would appreciate? Kai’s answer: Make popcorn.
This week’s topic was to list three ways in which you are important to your family.
I pulled out his journal and wrote the topic on the first line.
“Kai, how are you important to your family?” I asked.
“My hat,” he said.
“Your hat is awesome, but I’m wondering what is it about you that makes you special in the family? What do we like about you?”
He hesitated. “My iPad?”
“No those are just things,” I said. “What do we like about you?”
“Yeah, but—,” I began, and stopped. But what? I stared at him for a long moment, not understanding why he couldn’t answer the question. Do I not tell him specifically why he’s important to me, I wondered? I wondered this because the mom-guilt is always the first place you go, like Oh, crap, I never tell him that I love his drawings or the way he plays peek-a-boo with crying babies. This, of course, is ridiculous. But still. Why was this so hard for him?
“Kai, what are some things about you as a person that make you special?”
He looked at me. “My hair? My eyes?”
By now I’d forgotten the original question.
“Well, let me ask you this,” I said. “What do you like about your family?”
“I don’t like Ryan,” he said.
I sighed and drew a big “X” across the entry. I turned the page and decided to go rogue and make up my own topic, and because this was now my show, I lobbed him a softball.
“Kai, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A builder!” he exclaimed.
I was surprised. Usually he tells me that he wants to be a waiter at the local pizza place.
“Why?” I asked, hoping he would give me some glimpse into his inner self—because I want to design a flying castle or because I’d liked to build a space colony on Mars. This is, I realized, the part of the journal that I hate the most—optimism that through this exercise I’ll glean some insight into this child whose brain is a swirling vortex of thoughts and ideas I’ll probably never even fathom, disappointment that he won’t (or can’t) let me in.
“Because I am strong,” he said. “And good at hammering things.” *
He drew a rectangle on the page, and then handed the pen to me.
“That’s the handle of a hammer,” he said. “You will draw the rest.” And he left to watch TV.
I thought all afternoon about that journal question, about why he wouldn’t answer me. I couldn’t believe he didn’t mention his knock-knock joke skills at the very least. I could only assume that he just doesn’t get the question, that he doesn’t even think in that way about the nature of our relationship with him or his role in the Punchdrunk universe, least of all as an exercise in his school journal.
We drove to a birthday party later that day, and I was struck by an idea. I turned down the radio.
“Ryan,” I said, “Why is your family important to you?”
“Because you’re nice to me?”
I decided to accept that, though it is perhaps the biggest understatement of the decade considering just last week she threw up on me. In my bed.
“And why are you so important to us?” I asked her.
She thought for a second.
“Because I’m so special?”
“You sure are, honey,” I replied.
She is going to ace second grade.
*This is not true.