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Recently, I sorted through paperwork accumulated since our two adopted kids arrived, five years ago this September. Every medical document, communication with social workers, school form. Each piece of art or writing I thought they might like to have later. All dropped into boxes in no particular order, for five years.

Hours after starting, I accomplished my goal: a box for our son, a box for our daughter, a box for documentation (school/medical/legal). In the process, I found a picture he painted.

I’d forgotten “The Blackbird.” Although his artistic leanings often surprise me, a blackbird is out of character. His illustrations tend to be technical—buildings, vehicles, maps, stars in the sky, landscapes, World War battle tactic representations—with many details. Representation of anything living (other than “military guys”) is rare.

Blackbirds symbolize freedom and the link between the temporal and the eternal in many cultures…they tend to symbolize secrets and mystery, and…being a highly intelligent animal, can also symbolize the human soul, specifically human intelligence as well as wisdom.

Whether he intended it or not, the description fits him. He’s a ten-year-old mystery we’ve spent the last five years understanding. Rare revelations of the secrets in his heart and mind give us glimpses of the trauma he endured. He’s highly intelligent; in spite of five years of neglect in every sense of the word, he’s reading two years ahead of his grade.

He’ll bring you to tears when he prays. It seems he has a direct connection to God that everyone around him can feel. He’s a paradox of impulsive behavior and wisdom beyond his years: attempting to corral him leaves adults frustrated, while a one-on-one conversation renders them utterly floored by his deep thought process.

Picking up the paper to add to his box, I noticed a flap folded behind the page. As I straightened the piece, two words changed everything: Self Portrait.

My Son, the Blackbird

My initial perception of his artwork was completely off. You don’t have to be an art therapist to figure out this one.

We’ve known for some time that his self-image is a little blurry. It’s difficult to like yourself when you know the people around you think you’re “bad.” Until third grade, every time I walked into his classroom, even for a class party, children approached me—in front of him:

“Do you know what he did today?”

“Can’t you make him behave?”

“Why is he so crazy? He never listens. He distracts the class.”

Pickup from the children’s group at church usually involved a monologue of his exploits and interruptions. Babysitters kept lists (and quit). Parents and children complained after play dates. And honestly, interactions with us weren’t much better. His behavior was so out of control; many of our conversations the first three years centered around discipline or instruction.

Looking at his painting yesterday, my heart broke. Realistically, he probably drew a self-portrait and didn’t like it, got frustrated, and painted over it in black. I can tell the piece didn’t begin as a black smudge. But still. The art is an accurate expression of his recent testing, which showed some depression. When we received the results, I was surprised, but perhaps I just haven’t been looking. He’s heard from everyone in his life, whether they intended to communicate this or not, that he is less. “I’m not good enough” is a message many kids internalize.

Growing up as a fairly “normal” kid, I felt as though all my friends were better at everything, that I wasn’t good or pretty or thin enough, that I was less talented. It left me hesitant to try new things, this desire to be perfect coupled with the knowledge that I was not.

He’s at an even greater disadvantage: abandoned and neglected by family, misunderstood by untrained foster parents, dragged from home to home by inept social workers, deposited in a school system with little understanding of special needs, rejected by children who assumed his ferocity stemmed from meanness.

Finding a solid self-perception is an enormous task for our little guy.

I found myself drowning in the overwhelming need to do something. And then, my perception shifted once more. His picture started out fine but didn’t turn out as he wished. So he changed the artwork to something else. Something beautiful.

When we looked through a scrapbook of my art from high school, I told him that some of my favorite pieces were the ones that started as mistakes. What I wanted didn’t materialize, my art seemed ruined, but then I saw a way to make the piece even better. Maybe he wasn’t thinking of that conversation when he created The Blackbird. Regardless, he created something amazing out of what he considered an error. It gives me hope for our remaining years together.

Yes, he had a rough beginning. Horrific years before he arrived with us. Difficult years with us, learning to behave like a human child. But the last two years have been better. This summer has been the best yet. Hubby and I have been intentionally focusing on the things he and his sister do right, rather than the negative behavior. We’ve encouraged reading, art, karate and physical movement. We’ve noticed the improvements and celebrated. Together, we are all painting over the original masterpiece; broad strokes creating wings for a broken boy.

He’s already learning to fly. I can’t wait to see how high he goes.

[Photo Credit to Casey Alexander]

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