#14 – may 20: bartleby the seventh grader

“Can you keep your camera on during class?”

I would prefer not to.

“How about catching up on your homework assignments today?”

I would prefer not to.

“It’s a beautiful day; you should get outside.”

I would prefer not to.

“Do you want to meet up with a friend today?”

I would prefer not to.

“Let’s go for a family bike ride.”

I would prefer not to.

If you know Herman Melville’s famous short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” you know what I’m getting at. It’s been a long time since I read it, but the key plot points are: the narrator hires a copyist for his law office named Bartleby, who at first works diligently and efficiently, and then one day, asked to take on the specific task, says simply, “I would prefer not to.” From that point on, every attempt by the narrator to move Bartleby to explain himself or to do any other task or errand is met with the same response: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby remains inscrutable, intransigent, unyielding right up to his final sad end.

Ensconced on his top bunk, with a rectangular grey cushion propped up like a screen that hides him from view, my 7th grader spends six hours a day, four days a week with his school-issued iPad and headphones doing remote learning. Or something. And then he is playing video games. Sometimes he pops his head up over the cushion to respond to a greeting or a question. Other days, he is a disembodied voice, about two octaves lower than it was a year ago, responding in monosyllables. “What?” “Hold on.” “No.”

He appears downstairs for lunch in the middle of the day and then disappears just as quickly into his room. Sometimes he is in the mood to play video games with his younger brother; sometimes he is decidedly not. The overriding feeling is of a creature withdrawing into its burrow. Occasionally he can be coaxed to go on a walk or meet up with a friend. Occasionally a joke or funny story at the dinner table earns a laugh. But many days he is immovable. Going outside is not an option. Now, I sometimes don’t even bother suggesting, because the friction between my request and his refusal doesn’t seem worth it. He is a storm cloud with legs.

My husband and I take turns being equal parts angry/annoyed/frustrated and worried/empathetic. What is age appropriate tween moodiness and what is pandemic-induced depression? And in this protracted pandemic year, does that distinction even matter? Our son will never be doing 7th grade again; he will always have entered puberty in quarantine, isolated from his peers and other adults beyond his parents, in a time of great turmoil and fear. There is no way to know how things might have been under “normal” circumstances.

I’m reminded of something I read online about how to think about children’s behavior that challenges or baffles us: “all behavior is communication.” It was talking about toddler meltdowns and tantrums, but the lesson seems broadly applicable. What are my son’s refusals trying to say?

Transitions have always been hard for our first born. He was not one to jump into new activities, always preferring to hang back and take things in before engaging. He is happy to wear the same pair of sneakers day in and day out; he protested when I changed the brand of shampoo. So, it was something of a pleasant surprise that when our world shut down overnight in mid-March 2020 our son seemed to adjust so well, seemed to take things in stride. If he couldn’t have a 12th birthday party with all his friends together indoors, then he wasn’t interested. He seemed happy enough celebrating with a steak dinner and homemade cake, just the four of us. Camps cancelled, we tried to provide some kind of structure to our children’s days while working full-time from home. Plenty of Minecraft and Roblox, punctuated by family reading time and near daily family walks. When the possibility of returning to school was raised, he rejected the idea of having to wear masks all day sitting six feet apart and agreed that he would prefer to stick with remote learning.

Looking back, I realize he had decided he was going to just wait this thing out. This became clear to me when I asked him recently what he wanted to do for his birthday this summer. Maybe with restrictions lifting, we could have a party at the local video gaming place with a few of his friends, I suggested, but of course, they’d probably have to wear masks. “No, I don’t want that,” he said. If he couldn’t have the party he had imagined, like the birthday parties he’d attended there pre-pandemic, then he wasn’t interested. An introvert who had never liked crowds and had always been good at entertaining himself, he figured he could hunker down, bide his time until his world could go back to the way it was. But weeks stretched to months, summer turned to fall and then winter descended – no more meet up with friends outside, fewer reasons to venture out, no end in sight to masks, and no eating in restaurants, no movie theaters, no museums, no bookstores or libraries. How much forbearance could one 12-year-old be expected to possess? What reserves of mental strength, perseverance, and resilience can you accumulate in a dozen years of life?

I can’t remember anymore what time feels like when you’re 12.  And I can’t imagine what time feels like to our children this year. We try to feed them hope with ideas of post-pandemic life (“when we can go back to restaurants, where would you like to go first?”), but such vague futures don’t nourish them in the here and now. Maybe “I would prefer not to” is a reasonable response to the bleakness of waiting without end.

Which is why the news that kids 12 and up are now eligible for the vaccine felt so momentous. Even reading that the announcement was imminent didn’t seem real until I had actually signed up for an appointment. And then I immediately texted my son’s friends’ moms. If I could give my sad son the birthday party he wanted, maybe he would laugh more and be present in the world instead of preferring not to.

Having received his first dose and having some specific things to look forward to (the next MCU movie in the theater!), his mood seems to be lifting, though it still feels touch and go. A few months ago, his piano teacher chose a Chopin prelude (Op.28 No.4 in E Minor) for him and sometimes I could hear her during their zoom lessons trying to coach him about playing with more feeling, not just getting the notes right, trying so very hard to elicit a response from him that was more than a mumble. At the Spring recital last weekend, with his long, overgrown locks hiding most of his face, my son cut something of a Romantic figure, and he played more expressively than I had heard him yet. I hope it helped him to play those notes. The piece has become for me a kind of theme song for the year. Eight more days of school. Let the summer of healing commence.

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