Roman just attended his second three-day letterboarding camp in Austin. For those of you playing at home, Roman’s intelligence was first revealed to us in 25 minutes at age 12 via a plastic stencil, a pencil, and an Indian lady named Soma. It was a karate chop to the gut, learning that our funny, quirky guy also possessed math skills and meaningful speech. We learned that he could spell words like San Francisco (<- !!!), was up for exploring Mars, and was embarrassed “when I try to talk and right words do not happen.” This, as you can imagine, was a piledriver to my heart.
As is her custom, Soma materialized outside before every session to usher Roman in, easily breaking through his wall of anxiety with her friendly banter. She plunked him down on the sofa and got right to work with her stellar chairside manner, spinning stories set in ancient Egypt, explaining the beginnings of the state of Maryland, retelling the myth of Atlanta, relating quirky animal behaviors, posing math problems, and reciting poetry by heart.
All of this is, of course, a pretext to test attention, comprehension, and memory skills. And again, Roman surprised us by spelling words he isn’t *supposed* to know, like CURIOUS, DECREASE, CUBIT, SILVER, REFLECT, CENTURY, SURPRISE, CUCUMBER, PREDATOR, ENTRAILS, DISTRACTED, ALLIGATOR, and EVENING. When asked if he had been listening to the news, he offered up TRUMP and HILLARY, but was not yet prepared to predict the election results.*
The most striking difference for me between this session and last year’s was in Roman’s level of engagement. Previously, he was mostly silent - communicating only through the stencil - and at times appearing supremely bored. This time, Roman was actively listening and reaching more often for the pencil, at times even fixedly looking at Soma. In the face, y’all!!! That’s yuuuuge.
Soma picked up the pace this session too, no longer transcribing Roman letter by letter, but letting his words flow two or three at a time before capturing them on paper. She didn’t let him daydream, requiring a spelling word every sentence or two, and alternating those with open-ended questions and math. She is like a mystical medium, exposing a fleeting and cloudless glimpse into Roman's mind.
Prompted for a sentence containing the word “distance,” Roman supplied: THE DISTANCE BETWEEN FAMILY MEMBERS MUST BE CLOSE.** A sentence with “night”: NIGHT IS THE BEST TIME BECAUSE IT IS TIME TO THINK. And something with “silent”: THE SILENT MAN HAD A MOUTH TO TALK.***
No longer silent, Roman showed more of his personality, chattering throughout the sessions and often saying the opposite of what he was writing. Soma: “What kind of work do you like to do? Roman says “Sputnik work!” while writing MACHINES. Or cracking jokes. Soma: “If 10 + 5 = 15, then 9 + 5 = ?” Roman: “Too much!” while tapping out 14 on the stencil. He randomly called out some of his favorite words while answering unrelated questions- words like defense, parrot socks, lamp post, twine, spear, pot roast, parasail. If only we could harness this multitasking smart-assery- we could make thousands!****
To me though, it was a fascinating window into Roman’s inner workings. Saying one thing and meaning another is so common that it’s mundane in his world. Soma called this the difference between instinctual and purposeful speech, and asserts that the path forward for Roman is for him to learn to control his chatter in order to harness his pragmatic communication skills.
Towards the end of his last session, Roman was drawn to the letter Z on the stencil, repeatedly pointing to it like a motor stim. Soma yielded, asked him to make a poem using Z, a poem about Zach:
I know Zach
He can pack
He likes dogs
But not frogs
Zach likes trains
When it rains
But only Zach
Will tell you that
A creative end to our time together. The following day, we were in the car headed to the library. From the back seat, we hear: “Soma is my friend.” “Oh yeah, buddy? Why is that?,” I ask. Roman answers “She understands me.”
And I totally get it. Because for us, Soma has been the thin end of the wedge- we can see daylight; the weather on the other side looks fine. And suddenly, Roman's future is evolving into a nursery of possibilities.
*I'm just gonna leave that one there and back away slowly...
**Perhaps he IS getting a little road weary.
****Backward facing pinky to corner of mouth.