Basking in My Son's Shine

Tim embodies my unrealized social self. My son's readiness to engage the world has counterpointed my solitude-seeking reticence ever since he could pull himself straight in his stroller to lock eyes with fellow pedestrians. When he moved beyond merely smiling, winking, and gurgling up at all the passing faces and began talking to them, I saw the end of my quiet, self-absorbed strolls.

"Hi, who are you? Where are you going?" he'd pipe. I'd push faster, giving a slightly pained greeting to the bemused focus of Tim's attention. It's a stage, I thought. He'll outgrow it. But he did not.

My social horizons expanded with each trip to the park, store, or library. I met people in lines - and even at stop lights - as Tim irrepressibly embraced the world and its peoples as a fine place and population, indeed, well worth knowing. Each year added fuel to his friendly fires.

Eventually, of course, he had to learn the cautionary lessons about engaging strangers, and also the caveat that not everyone wants to be talked to. Some people are more like Mom, content in the realm of their own thoughts and not always "up" for a spontaneous interchange. Learn to read and respect the signals, I told Tim as we flew home together from Grandma's a few years ago. Our seatmate was close to sleep. Tim fought a lively battle with all of his natural instincts, but ultimately refrained from a rousing chat.

Sometimes on our outings and travels we'd argue, he for tossing out the conversational ball, me for containing it. To avoid a real showdown, he became adept at rolling it ever-so-lightly in promising directions. He developed a way of looking at people, willing them to make an overture. Too often, I saw this working, and we'd make yet another acquaintance. Tim has introduced me to some pretty nice folks.

A few years ago, Tim began flying to and from his grandma's on his own. This, of course, required pre-arrangements with the airlines and booking a direct route. A flight attendant makes special efforts to sit and interact with a child flying alone.

Tim was in his element.

"Awesome," he said after his first solo trip as he waved cheerfully to the entire flight crew. He didn't say much about flying per se, but had "talked to lots of people." He'd even been permitted to take the intercom and greet all of his fellow passengers at once.

Talk about scoring.

Since beginning school, Tim has consistently aced Oral Communication - a category I don't even remember from my early report cards. They were written in an altogether quieter era, about a child who would rather eat Spam than speak out in class. But Tim, true to his times and temperament, buoys his average with Oral-Comm.

THESE days, when we go out and about together, my fourth-grader is more apt to look before he leaps toward new contacts. There is more thought and purpose behind his social overtures.

"Mom, there's that beautiful garden! Let's knock and tell them how much we enjoy passing by here."

"Nice idea, Tim, but I don't want to disturb them. Next time we see them outside, we'll say something."

"Yeah, OK." He was actually satisfied.

Another time, a jogger slowed as he passed us, then stopped and turned.

"Well, hi," he said, panting for breath. I searched his face but did not know him. Tim also looked perplexed.

"You remember," the man encouraged, "we flew the same flight to Bloomington together last March. You'd been visiting your grandparents - friendliest guy on the plane."

Tim beamed, remembering, and greeted him in turn. We both waved as he jogged on around the corner.

My son hasn't set his sights on any one career yet, but he wouldn't do so badly as a goodwill ambassador to some country with a rich oral tradition and culture. For now, his outgoing ways complement me well. Even though I set limits on their over-exuberant expression, I wouldn't want to see them fade. Next time we pass the house with the garden, maybe we'll knock.

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