“Are you going to do something about this ‘situation?’”
An older woman was referring to my son Arlo who was taking a his sweet time jumping off the diving board at our community pool.
This is our normal. Most people at the pool know Arlo. He often takes 5 minutes (or longer, I can’t tell; time slows to a crawl when he’s up there) doing what I like to call performance art before finally taking the leap. Lifeguards will count for him. Parents will cheer for him. Kids often encourage him.
Today, the 4 kids behind him, including his sister, were rightfully annoyed. They’re kids after all. One boy who was visiting his grandmother asked, “what’s taking this kid so long.”
I was standing there encouraging Arlo, letting him know others were waiting. I told the boy that this kid’s name is Arlo and he has Down syndrome. I asked him if he knew any other kids with Down syndrome. He looked unsure but said yes. I told him it takes Arlo a little longer to do some things. I asked him if there was anything that took him longer than other kids. He said of course. Then he and I chatted about his vacation while I kept encouraging Arlo to jump. I empathized with all the kids about how hard it is to wait. I admitted it can be frustrating for me too. I told them how much I appreciated their patience.
This is when the boy’s grandmother came over. In front of all those children she gave me this look, and then nodded toward Arlo. All of them could hear her. “I see you have a situation here. What are you going to do about it?”
My heart sank while my pulse raced. I was handling the situation. I was encouraging Arlo to jump while explaining the “situation” that is my son to the other children.
I glared at her, reminding myself there are children present. “If I had an easy answer to how to get him to jump, don’t you think he would have jumped by now?” I can’t remember her reply, I was too shocked. I was trying to remain calm. “This is my everyday,” I said to her, “He is my life. What you see now is my constant. There are no easy answers.”
She walked away and I felt sick. I kept smiling through my tears as Arlo finally jumped. As usual, after that first, drawn out jump, he was speeding through with the other kids.
But I couldn’t let this go. Not this time.
The grandmother was sitting alone, watching from the other side of the pool. I approached her and said, “Look at my child. He is amazing. What you did was not OK. People like my son are still put in institutions. I have had to fight to keep him from being segregated in school and the community. Here he is having fun at his pool. This is our summer break. And you called him out when he was doing nothing wrong? You just ruined our day. You ruined my day,” I cried. “This was your chance to teach the OTHER children a lesson. To teach your grandson patience and to do what is right. Instead you scolded me for no reason in front of all of these children. You had no right. The next time you see a kid who is different, remember that and do the right thing. Use it as a lesson to teach the other children how to include that child, instead of calling out an innocent child who is doing nothing wrong.”
I walked away.
We talk about how we don’t want to change our children to fit into this world; how the world needs to change a bit so they can live and thrive in it. We encounter nastiness everyday. Some of it is intentional, some of it isn’t; but it is always awful. Pointing out the malice usually comes at a price. It could put us in danger. It sometimes costs us relationships. It is almost always uncomfortable.
This time though, if nothing else, it was sweet relief. But hopefully going forward that woman and her grandson will be more understanding of people who need a little extra time, whether it be on a diving board, at a crosswalk, or in other walks of life.
Erin- thank you for helping another person – and all of us reading- understand how being “different” is not less. I feel the glare of others as we move along in our life and am so sad that they do not get to understand how amazing my daughter is and enjoy her – she presents as “different” too. We will continue to go out in our community and if someone gets “educated” along the way – all the better.
Miss you in Alexandria!