THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Lori, the true hero of this story, went to work. First, she got Tyler transferred to H-B Woodlawn, an Arlington, Va., school with a new program for high-intellect and mainstreamed Aspies—a move that Tyler now says was “life-changing.” Second, she persuaded me to drop my objection to stronger drugs to help him focus. His severe attention-deficit disorder was preventing him from learning how to modify his social behavior.
But the hardest thing was figuring out how to integrate Tyler into society. “He can’t make friends. He’s depressed. How horrible this all must be for him,” Lori wept as we left Quinn’s office. “He’s going to be so lonely.” She enrolled Tyler in a therapy group with a handful of other socially awkward teenage boys. More than that, though, he needed something social he could lose himself in.
Finally, Lori sent me on the road with our son. “He would feel valued if you did this with him,” she told me, inadvertently unearthing a deep wellspring of guilt. Had I been around more, would we have diagnosed Tyler sooner? When I was home, was I a good enough dad—or did my job compete with Tyler for attention? Now Lori had a redemption plan: “You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him,” she said, suggesting that we visit historical sites, preferably those connected to presidents, because Tyler loves history and I spent my career covering the White House.
I called them guilt trips. Tyler and I drew up a list of places we wanted to visit, starting with those closest to our home in Arlington or connected to his favorite historical figure, Theodore Roosevelt. At Lori’s urging, I arranged meetings between Tyler and the two presidents I covered from the White House beat, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She thought: What better way for Tyler to both view history and learn social graces than to sit down with a former president? And so we traveled to more than a dozen destinations, including the homes and/or libraries of Presidents Washington, John and John Quincy Adams, Kennedy, Ford, Clinton, and Bush. The project gave Tyler and me weeks alone together that might have otherwise been devoted to my work and his video games.
Tyler took the lessons he was learning in social-skills classes and therapy on the road, discovering, one stranger at a time, how to communicate, connect, and belong. In Great Falls, Va., he drew on humor to disarm. “There is a 90 percent chance that George Washington stood on that rock while he surveyed for the C&O Canal,” a park ranger said, pointing to a boulder pocked by an 18th-century surveyor’s tool. “Well,” Tyler replied, “there’s a 10 percent chance he was never even here.” The ranger laughed and said, “That’s the first time somebody has called me on that, son.” He and Tyler spent the next 10 minutes swapping obscure anecdotes about the nation’s first president.
Slowly, I learned to see Tyler through the eyes of others—a skill he, too, was trying to master—and felt proud of what I saw. In Quincy, Mass., Tyler dominated the guide’s time during a tour of the Adams homesteads. For every story the ranger told, Tyler had a question (“That’s not an authentic fireplace, is it sir?”) or a historical anecdote of his own (“You know, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July Fourth”). I started shushing him—“Give somebody else a chance to speak, son”—until an elderly tourist noticed that Tyler had grown silent. “What happened to that nice young fellow with all the smart questions?” she said, turning to me with a lecturing stare. “You didn’t tell him to shush, did you?” I realized those cringes came too easily.
Finally, I learned to admire Tyler’s quiet grit. One therapist had called him courageous, which I simply hadn’t understood. How could a boy afraid of bees, needles, and dark rooms be brave? But the boy who faces up to his fears—to introduce himself to new people every day, for instance—might be the bravest person I know.
That’s certainly what I had in mind, when, standing in the back of a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., Tyler tugged at my elbow. His face was pale. “I don’t want to do this,” he said. “You interview him, please.” Our second-to-last trip had taken us to Bill Clinton’s presidential library. It was March 2012, and we were about to meet the former president.
“Let me show you around, Tyler,” Clinton said as he opened the door to his suite atop the library. His penthouse is long and narrow. It reminds me of the shotgun shacks that once dotted rural Arkansas, but Clinton’s is longer, wider, and brighter, with polished blond-wood floors and an art collection befitting a head of state. An imposing west-facing wall flanks the bedroom, an oval-shaped office, a dining room, and a den with floor-to-ceiling windows that give Clinton a full view of Little Rock, the city that launched both of our careers—his as governor and mine as a reporter covering him.