Every once in a while, there is a video floating around Facebook of a student with a disability – often Down syndrome – who is a member of a school sports team. This typically means that the young man is assigned as a manager or an assistant or has other duties – on the bench.
I find these stories both bitter and sweet. Bitter because I wish the boy was right on the field or on the court just like the rest of the team. Sweet because he’s still part of the team, and this seems to make everybody feel good (including, I’m sure, his parents, which if they feel anything like me, are desperate to find their son a sense of belonging).
When Aaron’s school principal suggested he be on the grade 6/7 boys’ basketball team, I hesitated, immediately suspicious. “He’s not going to be happy sitting on the bench,” I said. (And neither would I). “Oh, he’ll play,” the principal assured me. And play he does.
I wake Aaron up an hour early every Monday morning to take him to school for an 8 am basketball practice. “DO NOT GET OUT OF THE CAR,” he says when I drop him off in his very typical 12 year old boy way. Games are Tuesdays after school, and I am permitted to sit on the gym stage and watch him. Occasionally he waves at me or brings me his water bottle for a refill. Otherwise, he’s all in on the team.
Every game, he has gotten at least three shifts. He keeps up with the other boys, despite his bad knee and slower response time, and adjusts quickly to the constantly shifting direction of play on the court. His team members call out advice to him on the court (Defense Aaron! Shoot Aaron!), but otherwise he holds his own. Depending on who is on shift with him, he might get the ball passed to him. Other kids avoid passing him the ball, even if he’s wide open, but I try to shrug it off. This happens to other players too. He’s often chosen as the kid who throws in the ball from the sideline so at least he gets his hands on the ball.
Today was their third game. On his first shift, Aaron got his first basket. It went down like this: he intercepted a long pass, but the ball slipped from his fingers. The player on the other other team recovered it and passed it back to Aaron. I’ll repeat that: the kid on the other team passed the ball to Aaron. All the boys stood patiently for Aaron to line himself up to throw the ball. Shoot. Swoosh. Score!
The crowd erupted. Yes, I shed a tear. His teammates high-fived him. Aaron gave me a big thumbs up, his face plastered with a grin. Is this inspiration porn? I don’t know, and I don’t care.
I love my children equally, but differently. I remember the first time my now-22 year old son packed up his drums for his first real gig, and when my then-13 year old daughter – a crackerjack player – made the competitive soccer team. I was thrilled then too.
Aaron’s basket is different in this way: his team, and the other team made some natural adaptations so that he could score. Yes, this is probably because Aaron has Down syndrome. But, to be truthful, that doesn’t matter. These young men demonstrated compassion for a fellow player. They simply helped someone who need a hand up. Hyper-competitive, dog-eat-dog world be damned. I think those boys demonstrated a kind of character education that would make their parents proud.
And to me, that’s more sweet than it is bitter. Win-win-win all around. Go Aaron Go! (Edited by Aaron to add: HELL YA).