“The tiger gets….?”
“DIRTY!” Madeline shouts.
“Good job, Madeline!” Karen, the speech therapist cheers, then continues slowly. “The tiger gets dirty. He grabs a towel and soap. Then he washes himself in the bathtub.”
Karen sits cross-legged on red circle cushion as my three year old daughter, Madeline, flops on her belly on a blue one. With unbelievable patience, Karen recites the story once, then twice, acting out the plot with a little rubber tiger from the dollar store and an empty coffee mug for props.
By the fourth repetition, Madeline has the plot. In a run-on sentence which cannot quite be defined as a sentence, lacking as it is in prepositions, determiners and the occasional verb, Madeline recaps the action: “Tiger dirt on his back he towel and soap get all clean bathtub.”
She spouts off this information with a chuckle in the back of her throat—this tiger is crazy! Why is he getting so muddy? Everyone knows making a mess is bad!
I giggle at her enthusiasm, willing Karen to move onto a new activity. But no. Karen slows Madeline down, dwelling on the clauses of her ramble, encouraging her to add more detail.
“The tiger HAS dirt on his back.”
Madeline nods. Yep. That’s what she said.
“Madeline, why does the tiger need a bath?”
“He dirty. He silly.” More chortling. This tiger is really something!
“He IS dirty,” Karen presses.
Madeline nods. “He dirty.”
“The tiger IS dirty. And now he needs a towel and soap so he can…?”
I notice how Karen turns every partial statement into a question by raising her eyebrows, lifting the tone of the last few words, and holding her hands open. Expectancy. That’s what she’s creating.
Madeline takes the bait. “Go for a bath.”
“Good words, Madeline!” Karen congratulates, making a note on a clipboard on the floor beside her. I wonder if she’s writing “This kid isn’t completely thick after all,” or perhaps the more detailed, “Complete clause: verb, prep., det., noun.” Most likely she wrote the verbatim, “Go for a bath.” The sentence structure can be analyzed later.
I’m tempted to check my phone. I need a diversion. The elephant is dirty now and I see a stack of animals. I assume they will all be dirty and will all need towels and will all need soap and will all need washing. I find this exercise tedious but Madeline is enthralled. An elephant is dirty! What?! Dirty on his ears? This is fantastic! Who would have thought of such a thing!
I check my phone. Not too obviously. I don’t want to be THAT parent, the one who doesn’t pay attention and can’t expect their child to be anything but a wordless mute. I have one text. It’s my husband, reminding me to pick up garbage bags and toilet paper when I’m out.
“And then the BEAR got dirty!” Karen exclaims.
Madeline rolls onto her back, giggling, “Bear dirty!”
“Back on your tummy, Madeline,” Karen cajoles.
Madeline, flat on her back as she is, catches sight of the light fixture on the ceiling. A simple circle, Madeline stares at it, curiously.
“On your tummy, Mad,” I say, trying to focus her attention back on the therapist.
“Mom,” she says, now with her finger up her nose. “Look! The sun!”
“Yes, the light is like the sun,” I say. “Sit up now, Madeline, and don’t pick your nose, please.”
Madeline doesn’t budge, leisurely fingering boogers from one side of her nostril to another.
“Look, Mad,” says Karen. “The bear has dirt on its back!”
“On BACK?!” Mad is hooked again. All ears, she sits up quickly and grabs the bear. “Dirty bear!”
I glance at the clock. There’s still forty-five minutes left in the session. I must be patient, but I struggle, not just because these sessions are mind-numbingly repetitive but because I feel my own inadequacies as a parent. I read Madeline a book once, and then we read different books. I don’t read the same book six times in a row. I don’t squeeze words out of Madeline like drops of water from a sponge. Does that mean I’m contributing to Madeline’s speech problems? Are they my fault? Am I a lazy parent? A bad parent?
Madeline chooses this moment to hop up, run to me, and kiss my cheek. “You’re the best, Mom!”
I smile. “You’re the best, Madeline! But you need to listen to the story.”
“Okay, Mom!” Madeline hurries back to Karen and I watch her with a smile.
Yes, mothering is tedious. Boring. Excruciatingly so. But who else knows Madeline as well as I do? Who else can read the difference between boredom and confusion in her eyes? I am her best chance. I can do the exercises, the practices, the speech modeling. I can overcome the tedium and help her.
But, the giraffe is dirty now. On its bum. And nothing could be funnier, not to a three year old.