Sunday, May 4, 2008

A singing frog

I've been thinking a lot about an old Warner Brothers cartoon I used to see as a kid. While it seldom made it into the rotation on The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour on Saturday mornings, I remember it vividly. The name of it is One Froggy Evening.

The story goes like this: A construction worker discovers a box in the cornerstone of an old building that's being demolished. When he opens the box, a frog jumps out and puts on a top hat and launches into "Ragtime Gal" in the style of Al Jolson. The construction worker sneaks away with the box and prepares to make his fortune as the promoter of the world's only singing, dancing frog.

But each time he attempts to show off the frog - for a talent agent, for a crowd at a theater - the frog merely sits like a lump, just croaking. And each time he is alone with the frog, the frog belts out another number. The man is ridiculed and humiliated and ultimately ends up penniless, sitting on a park bench alone with a frog singing an aria.

There is often such a stark contrast between Ben's theatrics and antics with us at home and how he sometimes acts around strangers that it makes me think of the man and the frog in this cartoon.

For example, Ben spends a lot of time at home walking around the house singing at the top of his lungs and dramatically acting out various scenes from books and TV shows. But at his weekly dance class this Saturday, he stood motionless, staring into the mirror as the other kids learned a number from The Aristocats and barely spoke above a whisper when it was his turn to say his "line" in front of the class.

I find most of these no-you-should-see-him-at-home moments pretty funny. But sometimes they sting. Like when a preschool teacher informed me that Ben saw "no difference between a person and a piece of furniture."

And I thought about this cartoon was when we got a 12-page report from an assessment conducted by a psychologist from the Regional Center of the East Bay. It's a great report, but it describes Ben in the driest, clinical detail (appropriate for a report of this nature). It doesn't even begin to convey the goofy, giggly kid that begs to be tickled and chased around the house, or the kid who runs across a playground to greet his play date buddy with a hug.

Ben had limited facial expressions which he rarely directed toward the examiner. It was difficult to recognize when he was excited except by slightly increased rate of speech. His eye contact was typically inappropriate.

What the psychiatrist saw was the croaking frog Ben, not the Al Jolson Ben. And that's fine, because only frogs qualify for services. But in those situations, its hard not to want the world to see what I do. Not because I ever feel humiliated like the character in the cartoon, but because Ben is just so awesome. It seems like every day he does something that defies expectations.

Like the other day when some friends of ours dropped by. Ben practically worked himself into a frenzy of glee interacting with their 8-year old daughter. And it was honest to goodness social communication in that he was talking to her merely to extend the interaction. And isn't this the very definition of small talk: I'll just keep talking even though I don't have anything to say so that you will keep paying attention to me.

I think all parents experience the same disappointment, from time to time, that the man in the cartoon does: wanting others to see your child's talents the way you do, and I'm not even talking about the unhealthy stage-mother way.

But the other thing that this silly little story gets at is how all of us behave different with the people we love than we do in the world. Only when we feel totally safe can we take risks, show our true emotions, let it all hang out. So the world can actually never see our kids the way we do and that's probably a really good thing.

So, for right now anyway, we'll make a safe place for Ben to be himself, and with any luck, help him find ways to expand the territory of that safe place a little farther into the world.

And while not everyone will see it for themselves, I know it's true. My frog can really sing.


jaki said...

what a beautiful story and astute observation. When he's home, he's "safe" and can just be Ben. That's just really nice!

KAL said...

You expressed this so perfectly. I really loathe those droll reports and I think you're absolutely right: it's the safe places where we shine.

Drama Mama said...

I've written about this exact cartoon - Michigan J. Frog - about my own kid.

I just enjoy the show whenever I can get it. It sounds like your son is quite the character.

eileen said...

your little frog certainly does sing and dance here at nana's..... and his glee, his sadness, his acting, his stories entertain and delight me every second i am with him.....
and he absolutely knows the difference between me and the dining room table !
i am so sorry that those reports have to be so dreadful sounding....
i await with longing the next al jolson number !!!!!