I cried my way through most of the last Superman movie, Man of Steel. I couldn’t help it. So much of what I saw reminded me of my younger son.
Of course, my son is not Superman. He has no superpowers, he does not fly, and no lasers shoot from his eyes.
My son is not Superman, but I do sometimes think of him as the Boy of Steel. He is stubborn. He does not bend.
On one of his good days, I can almost, but not quite, forget the darkness in him. When he grins, gap-toothed, goofy, sly, I would forgive him anything. Yet even his love is sandpaper sweet. As I hug him, he grabs my head and holds it to his, his fingers waggling my ears and knuckling my scalp.
In a rage, his eyes cloud, his arms windmill, he tips tables, and he tears pages. During one of our hours-long struggles, our black doxie protectively inserts herself between us, and we are momentarily frozen, a statue of Laocoön and his son ensnared by each other instead of deadly snakes. We release each other and he slowly pets the dog, something I have never seen him do before.
“Good dog,” he says, “not like my bad father.”
What I Realized in the Movie Theater
Young Clark Kent sits in his classroom. The teacher is asking him a question, but he cannot comprehend her words. Instead, his senses are flooded with the beating hearts of his classmates, the click of the second hand on all the clocks across the school, the drumming of fingers, the tap of a pencil. He does not want to look, with his x-ray vision, inside of his teacher and see her skeleton, her muscle tissue, her heart, but he cannot help himself. Clark is terrified.
It’s frightening to be a child and to be Superman. How much more terrifying is it to be a child with a behavior disorder?
The Boy of Steel sees things differently too. He sees threats to himself where none exist, and he reacts aggressively to slights whether real or perceived.
The Boy is throwing wood chips at two girls on the playground. The adult on yard duty does not realize that this he is upset because the girls told him not to sit near them. The adult on yard duty does not know my son very well, or else she would not come up, get in his face, and yell at him angrily.
The next day my son will apologize. The scratches on the woman’s arms will heal soon.
A Poison Burrito
Superman’s parents must have had to come to terms with the fact that Clark would not have a “normal” life, and I am not sure if my son will have a “normal” life either.
But we all worry, whether we believe our children are “normal” or not. How will they turn out? I absorb as much as I can about bipolar and mood disorders. I hear stories about friends’ children who did some of the same things the Boy does. Some of them grew out of their problems. Some of them did not.
Tonight I am trying to coax the boy out of his bed.
“Come on,” I say. “Just come back to the table.”
“I’m staying here,” says a voice beneath the bed covers. “That’s the deal we made.”
“We didn’t make any deal. I was punishing you. Now you’re unpunished. Come back to the table.”
“No, we made a deal, and the deal was I stay in bed.”
I size up the boy-shaped lump under the covers. Try playfulness, I tell myself. Playfulness can work.
“It’s like there’s a little burrito talking to me, wrapped up in a blanket. Can I eat this burrito?”
“It’s poison,” the Boy says.
Believing in Superman
In Man of Steel, Superman’s success in life is not a foregone conclusion. Through his young adulthood, he wanders through small towns, has no friends, and is unable to keep a steady job. Perhaps he can’t get close to anyone because he knows he is different, but he is also struggling with his personal demons, and with his anger.
So how did troubled young Clark become Superman? Clark Kent did not become a hero because he crashed in a cornfield and ate apple pie and went to baseball games—where he secretly wanted to very much, but did not, use his super powers.
No. Superman became a hero, despite all of his challenges, because his parents believed that he would.
And when I realized that, I couldn’t stop the tears.
I said my son was the Boy of Steel because he is incredibly stubborn. I know that it is no super power. But maybe he will stand up for what he believes is right no matter what. Maybe he will be unwavering in his support of his friends.
Worry is inevitable, but I must remind myself to believe, not just in the struggling child I see now, but also in a man who will one day do great things.
Today the Boy’s teacher said he had a wonderful day. He kept his hands and feet to himself. He was kind to his friends. He followed directions.
These good days make it easier for me to believe that my son’s weaknesses can also become his strengths. Tomorrow may not go as well, but that’s when I most need to believe in the Boy of Steel.
John Glass started out teaching English and journalism at the high school level, then made a career switch and joined a startup in 2009 to develop software. His interests include boardgames, politics, and open source software. He lives with his wife and two boys in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Photo credit: “Run Like The Wind” by Kelley Boone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.