After months at a therapeutic boarding school, Pauline Gaines’ son has recognizably changed.
After breakfast, Luca wanted to watch Planet of the Apes on TV, so we went back to my hotel room. He kicked off his Vans and crawled in bed, under the covers. I crawled in next to him, and we watched the rather dopey remake of the classic film, in which scientist James Franco brings a lab ape back to live with him. For awhile, the ape is happy hanging out with James and his doddering dad in their glorious Craftsman house in Berkeley.
But the ape, being an ape, is too wild to live in the suburbs, and winds up caged in an animal control center. Franco goes to visit him, and the ape is furious at his “father,” refusing to communicate with him. Eventually, the ape commandeers an ape mutiny, and legions of apes storm the Golden Gate Bridge, waging war with SWAT teams. Franco and the ape survive the massacre, and Franco takes his “son” into the forest, where he sets him free.
I looked over at Luca, who was clearly enraptured by the film. I wondered if he was wrestling with the irony of watching a primate being freed from captivity, when he was headed back into it. He didn’t seem to be.
But I was.
I liked his boarding school. I liked the hominess of it, the rustic buildings with big couches to sprawl on, the sheep-herding dogs roaming around in search of kids to herd. I liked Luca’s therapist and the staff, all of whom seemed like members of that proverbial village, the village that it takes to raise kids—especially kids who can’t be raised in a regular home or learn in a regular school.
Before Luca went to boarding school, when he was living with me the majority of the time, and the house was a battleground, I used to fantasize about having a grandma, or an aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm. I’d heard stories, generally from bygone eras, about parents who sent their unruly kids to live with a relative on a wide-open space, where they had to rise when it’s still dark and milk cows, or muck barns, or do whatever you do on a farm at dawn.
Ever since he was a toddler, Luca’s outsized energy has seemed to almost burst through his skin. He was not a kid who could tolerate any down time, ever. The last two turbulent years before he went away, Luca chafed inside my house and his dad’s house, pacing frenetically, calmed momentarily when presented with an activity he enjoyed—paintball, riding those stomach-curdling flippy rides at carnivals—only to plunge into a dark, restless funk when the bells and whistles went away. The park-your-butt-in-a-chair demands of homework and tutoring invariably crescendoed in screaming fits and head-banging. Luca took to bolting out of the house, sometimes shoeless, roaming the streets for hours at a time.
These were the moments I longed for an Uncle Fred who would offer to take in my too-big-for-city-life kid and plunk him down on a ranch where he was free to roam. In my fantasy, Uncle Fred, with his Alpha-male calm and his calloused hands and pot belly, would intuitively know how to settle Luca down because he’d had years of practice settling down wild animals. After a summer of non-stop physical labor, but labor that translated into tangible results—eggs, milk, corn—Luca would emerge with a sense of self-agency and the ability to regulate himself, something no therapy or social skills group might ever succeed in teaching him.
Isn’t this what ADHD meds aim to do? Create enough stimulation that kids thirsting for high-octane action calm down and focus on schoolwork? What would happen if “hyperactive” kids were sent to farms instead of loaded with stimulants? Would it be easier for them to learn?
My hunch is that the equine therapy utilized at Luca’s boarding school is modeled on the “send ’em to the farm” theory. Paired with horses, the kids quickly learn how their energy affects the animals. If they want the horses to move a certain way, they need to focus intently, calming themselves in order to gain their horses’ trust so they can work together.
Horses, unlike parents, who are riddled with their own issues and worn down by years of skirmishes, don’t have baggage. If they don’t like the way a kid touches them, they pull away, but there’s no guilt, no shame, no lecturing.
As much as I liked the philosophy of Luca’s school, there was no sidestepping reality. He didn’t live with Uncle Fred. I couldn’t drop in and visit when I felt like it. Luca bunked in a bedroom with seven other boys; I couldn’t join him for an evening snuggle.
I looked at Luca for a long time, nestled in my hotel bed, under the covers. Calm.
I glanced at my own form under the sheets, lying next to him. It had been years since we had shared such a mundane-yet-intimate mother-son experience. I closed my eyes to take a snapshot of this moment, which may never come again.
But I was aware of the time. I had a plane to catch.
“I have to take you back now, Luca.”
He turned towards me.
“Aww, really? I wish I could stay.”
Luca handed the Staff the sample bottles of shampoo and lotion he’d taken from my hotel room. She held them up to the light, squinting, then scribbled on a clipboard.
“You have to inventory the shampoo?” I asked.
“Everything,” she said. “If he brings in a pencil, we write it down.”
Luca slipped off his shoes and pulled his pants pockets inside out to show her they weren’t stuffed with contraband.
The Staff glanced down at his empty shoes.
“They strip-searched us in Wilderness,” Luca grinned at me.
I looked from Luca to the Staff, a been-there-done-that kind of broad.
“If it was up to me, we’d strip-search ’em here,” she said.
Luca and I stood on the landing of the main building. The October air was cool and crisp. We hugged for a long time. I wrapped my arms tight around his bony shoulder blades, and kissed his head.
“I’ll be back in February, for the Parent Workshop,” I said.
“Stay longer next time, OK, Mom? Can you do that?”
I pulled back so I could see his face, his skin still smooth and soft like a child’s. He blinked at me, and I smiled down at him.