I remember a little boy when I was young who was handicapped. I don’ t remember his name, but I’ll never forget the impression he made. Walking for him required effort, his expressions were contorted, and the sounds he made when he spoke seemed involuntary and scary to me as a child. I remember my mother shuffling us past him in the breezeway leading to the sanctuary at church. I’m not exactly sure how I was reminded, but the basic message was to keep walking, and don’t stare, or make his family feel uncomfortable. He was the only handicapped kid from my childhood that I remember.
I’m not sure where children with special needs went to school then, I simply never saw them. How refreshing it is that times have changed. I am amazed today to walk through the halls of Casis Elementary, to not only see these children fully integrated into school, but also to see them so fully embraced by the children who surround them.
Two weeks ago, we attended our son, Garland’s poetry recital where all the parents were invited to sit in child sized chairs and be read adorable poetic creations by our snaggle-toothed second graders. Each child read two poems that they had written from a podium at the front of the class.
Before Garland left for school that day, I reminded him to speak slowly and loudly, while clearly projecting his voice so that everyone could hear him.
We settled into our chairs and were served refreshments by the children and waited for the performance to begin.
The first student to read was a boy named John who is autistic. As John approached the podium to read his poem, Garland and another friend, named Henry were invited to the front of the class to be with him while he read. Garland held the microphone for him with one hand, and with the other hand, he encouragingly, and gently patted John’s back, while Henry pointed to the words. The two boys whispered the words and read along slowly in unison with John. When he finished, Garland and Henry proudly held up John’s illustrations and returned to their seats.
With a lump in my throat, tears welled up in my eyes as I balanced a fruit kebab and punch on my knees and I sat in absolute awe of what I’d just seen. They were not tears of pride for something my child had done, but rather tears of humility and total awe of God for the children he creates. The completely spontaneous and natural compassion and the sense of comfort the three boys had together was a beautiful and unexpected gift.
Honestly, I have never addressed how Garland should treat a child with special needs. I have done absolutely nothing to foster his empathy and compassion; he was just born that way.
As I left the poetry recital, my mind raced back to the conversation I had had with Garland before school. My advice on how he should project and assert his voice completely vaporized.
I went to the poetry recital expecting to see and be proud of what Garland can DO, but instead left with a beautiful picture of who Garland can BE……..I didn’t see the child I created, I saw the child that GOD created.
Time and time again, I have been moved by the love and compassion that Christiane’s classmates have shown her, and as a mother of a child with special needs, I’m especially appreciative to experience both sides.
After reading to Christiane one day in the library, I returned her to her classroom only to find that the children’s desks had been rearranged to form a semi-circle. Christiane and I stood confused at the back of the classroom for only a brief moment. Knowing that Christiane was unable to see where her desk had been moved, a classmate spontaneously came to Christiane, seamlessly took her by the hand and led her to her newly positioned desk. Compassionate and kind, the gesture was completely unprompted by the teacher, the classmate simply saw a need and handled it.
Another time, I showed up to observe Christiane in Art, and was so touched to find a boy sitting next to her, announcing each color as her fingers ran over the pastels lined up in the box. “Oh, Christiane, that’s a beautiful choice, that one is lavender and the next one is blue. I love those colors together.” Smiling and encouraging, he completely abandoned his own work to assist Christiane.
I absolutely revel at these children, pure and unbiased, and so naturally inclined to help one another in the most loving way. It stops me dead in my tracks to think of the time and energy we spend engaging our children in activities promoting what they can DO rather than fostering who they can BE.
We focus on what we can teach our children, but what about what they can teach us? I mean let’s be honest, what we want our children to DO is not nearly as important as what we want them to BE. It’s possible to DO lots of things, but still be a zero as a person. DOING is just activities and accomplishments while BEING is the essence of the kind of person we become inside.
I wonder if the parents of the adorable girl, poised, beautiful, accomplished, and intelligent who helped Christiane back to her seat know who she really IS with others………kindhearted, lovingly helpful, and empathetic.
I wonder if the parents of the precious boy, engaging, outgoing, slightly naughty and sometimes a little rascal, know that his mischievous nature is far and away outweighed by his love and kindness, compassion, and the gentleness of his heart.
As parents, we have so many hopes and dreams for our children and expectations for their accomplishments and everything they do. We’re so focused on teaching our children what we really want them to DO, that we’re missing out on who our children really ARE. There are so many means of measures for success and awards for doing. But I believe hands down, there is no ribbon or accolade or tangible trophy that can replace BEING……….considerate, polite, responsible, honest, respectful, diligent, helpful, forgiving, encouraging, grateful, gentle, loving, patient, hospitable, affirming, faithful, kind, joyful, generous, compassionate and selfless.
Imagine how much more these qualities would shine in our children if we spent half as much time cultivating BEING rather than DOING.
Sometimes I think outward compassion in adults is stymied by what our culture dictates or what we perceive is or isn’t our place for fear of intruding. I am so inspired by the loving acts of these children, so natural and unimpeded by what others may think. They see a friend in need and they simply respond to the need with love. I look at Garland and marvel at the empathy in him that comes so naturally and wish I had his instinctive compassion.
I think we can learn from our children’s example and strive to be more childlike in this regard; uninhibited and spontaneous to others in need. After all, God teaches us and inspires us through our children and there is no better mirror than our own brood to reflect the unrefined parts of ourselves.
Well, I do know that there is no mistake that God has created Christiane strong -willed, resolute, persistent and independent and I know these qualities will certainly equip her for the journey ahead. Now I see that God has created Garland perfectly too. The same child who emptied his piggy bank and counted out $56 when he found out there was no cure for Batten Disease, is also the child God chose to be Christiane’s brother. He is naturally equipped to respond to his sister’s eventual needs with empathy, kindness, and care. Maybe I’ll learn a thing or two from them along the way and I’ll be one step closer to becoming the whole person God created me to be.