By Royal Young
“Matt is impossible today,” his teacher said when she wearily passed him off to me. I could only see a 4-year-old whose large, frightened eyes were wet with tears. He looked lost and lonely and I immediately found myself wanting to shelter him. I was a 23-year-old kid myself, barely paying rent on a rundown railroad in Bushwick. This was the first real job I had landed, yet I was only a novice, an uncertified preschool librarian in Brownsville.
“Spiderman,” he whispered, handing me a blank sheet of paper and a black Magic Marker. He held my hand as I carefully traced out his favorite superhero. “Jump, jump, jump.” Matt completely covered my illustration, morphing the champion into his alien arch nemesis, Venom.
I feared I was more like the superhero’s powerless alter ego, but none of Matt’s classmates or teachers could get close to him. They were ready to send him to counseling. Every day at noon, when I clocked in, his teachers brought Matt to me explaining he would cry all morning until I got there. Instead of spending weekends alone throwing back 24-ounce cans of bargain beer, I fixated on Matt’s case, looking for clues.
Carefully interviewing his teachers, I discovered that at age three Matt had been living in Venezuela with his grandmother. I imagined his parents leaving him in her caring, wrinkled hands when they moved to Los Estados Unidos to make money. He lived with his abuela in the small bedroom they shared when she died of a heart attack. His parents immediately uprooted him, sending American dollars for a plane ticket to Brooklyn.
My strong conviction that the world was wildly out of my control colored my perception of this little boy’s life. I was only able to fall asleep after learning Matt had been reunited with his estranged parents in Brownsville before he was enrolled in my preschool. Yet it was rough neighborhood where Matt barely understood the language he heard in the street, let alone the ABCs they tried to teach him in the classroom. He cried constantly, pushed chairs at his teachers and became preoccupied with orphaned Peter Parker who could transform into Spiderman. Not being able to relate to his parents, who he hadn’t known for the first three years of his life, his grandmother had been his only support. Now, that comfort had been torn from him.
I wondered if Matt symbolized the son I didn’t have with the fantasy girlfriend I couldn’t find. Then I realized who I really recognized in him: me. I was a shy 4-year-old on the Lower East Side in the early ‘90s, when my eccentric shrink parents enrolled me in an understaffed preschool. I had insisted on wearing a Superman cape every day, shielding myself from a world full of villains, which included a female classmate who abused me. My family had a history of fixing other people’s problems while ignoring our own, and that included my negligent teachers who in turn, ignored me. Knowing they were ignorant of my suffering, I became obsessed with dictating stories about escape that my clueless parents wrote down, or making them administer Rorschach tests to me, making out morbid shapes in the black splotches of ink. Ashamed, I never told my mother or father what had happened to me. This made me determined to heal Matt and myself in the same setting I’d once shunned.
When Matt threw wild tantrums, I felt helpless to intercede without stepping on the toes of older, more experienced teachers. His screams and sobs echoed down the hall where I sat stranded, surrounded by dusty children’s books. Only the elevated J train outside my window muffled his moans. I tried to see him every day, not caring about how many hours his visits took away from shelving books or cleaning up toys from the library floor. But, the more dependent on me he became, the more I knew it would hurt when he graduated in June, another connection in his life severed too quickly.
I was mindful of threats to Matt, like the preteen babysitter who taught him to curse while his mother bagged groceries at C-Town. Matt looked expectantly at me after he swore, eyes ringed with dark circles from staying up past midnight for his mom to get off work, waiting for my reaction. I too had used obscenities to mask my hurt and rage. I recalled the way I’d shout at my parents trying to bid for their attention. Wrapped up in their clients’ problems, they didn’t realize their own son was screaming for help.
When Matt was dropped off with me again, I admired his newfound fearlessness. He climbed on my desk and jumped off, splaying his arms and legs as he landed. He laughed and said, “Webs shoot!” When spring swept over Brooklyn, I took him outside to a terrace playground on the roof of our school. He swung off the monkey bars, giggling at his weightlessness.
His play was manic as he ran and kicked a soccer ball towards me. When I accidentally kicked the ball off the roof and it landed in the street 50 feet below, Matt tried to scramble up the wire safety fence.
“Spiderman has to jump,” he said, protesting as I gently lifted him off.
“No, you’ll hurt yourself, Matt.” I nudged him the other way.
“I fly.” He shook his head impatiently.
“We can take the stairs,” I said, folding my hand around his, showing him the safe way down.
Perhaps he thought if he could have run past me, over that fence, super-powered and unstoppable, Matt might finally gain the control over his life he longed to have. But I hoped for both of our sakes, I could prove our power would come from the same source as our pain.
Royal Young just finished his debut memoir “Fame Shark.” Follow him at @RoyalYoung