It happened this week.
It was a typical morning (ie: We were frantic and running late). I had a doctor’s appointment and my dear friend, Lindsay, volunteered to pick up the kids and take them to school.
I was rushing everyone (like I hate and always do).
“Get your backpack!”
“Where is your water bottle?”
“Did anyone feed the chickens?” (You heard me).
“Where is your coat!”
Utter chaos in those last few moments before they enter the rest of the big, wide world.
Nash raced off to the chicken coop and within a few seconds the world came to a stop.
In that same distracted, unpredictable moment, Shaw looked me deep into the eyes and said, “Mom, do I have special needs?”
I froze. I was silent. It seemed to last an unordinary matter of time.
Shaw continued, “I feel like the freak of the family.”
These words can/will silence a mother. At that moment, my entire world stopped. His chocolate eyes looking up to me for all the answers.
As if in slow motion, I bit my lip to fight the instantaneous tears - how can they appear at an instant? I just pulled him close to me.
I don’t know if I was biding time or in shock. I just wasn't prepared. I honestly had no idea what to say. What is the answer?
Most of the time, us Moms, we can bullshit our way through…. “Everyone is ‘special’.” “I love you and your brother the same but differently.” "We are all different." It happens daily: we have no idea what we are doing, but feel pretty confident responding off the cuff. It may not be Nobel Prize worthy-but it seems to appease and keep things moving.
This was not one of those times.
This was real and raw and HARD.
The only thing I knew to do was to ask more questions, in my loss for ability to respond.
“Shaw, what does special needs mean to you?”
“I’m just not smart, Momma.” “I can’t run fast or do Math and always go to therapy…” onandonandonandonandon.
“I’ve had 20 surgeries.” He continued.
As I listened and struggled for just the right, impactful, search-ending rebuttal, Shaw said, “This boy in woodworking, he pretends he is going to touch my shunt and acts like he is disgusted.”
Another awkward pause. (Why don’t I know what to say?!)
“Disgusted.” From my seven-year-old rang through my ears and my silent tears began to boil.
At the moment, the horn beeped, doorbell rang and our world fast-forwarded back to reality and it was time to go to school.
NOOOOO! Not okay. This is critically important. Character-defining. Truth-telling. These are the moments that all parent fear and long for – to teach… to make a tiny difference in this relentless world.
And he was off...
With a harder, more emotional squeeze that he needed, the door closed. I buried my head in my hands and tried to catch my breath for the next five minutes.
That, my friends, is the beginning.
Of course, I want to kick that kid’s teeth in – that’s only human, right? And of course, I fault the parents for not teaching this child to respect differences and honor them. And of course, I cried a full 24 hours at the thought that my child is finally aware – or at least vocalizing – that he knows he is different and how I can’t protect him.
Those that know me well, know I went into OCM (Operation Crazy Mom) to try to ‘fix’ it. (Don’t tell my husband).
I emailed his teachers – not the woodworking teacher - but his two everyday teachers that I respect and admire and have survived hundreds of students and grown children. I call on them often, like therapists. (Come to think of it, I should pay them).
I talked to his Occupational Therapist. “What happens when kids aren’t kind? How do you explain the therapy they receive and why?”
Our sweet school even had a teacher with a sibling with a shunt, who offered to talk with Shaw about his relatable experience.
Personally, I went to work on how to organize my thoughts:
How do we encourage building confidence when we can’t control what others say?
What language do we use – modified from years past to adapt to his maturity – to explain what he has endured and overcome?
How do my husband and I get on the same page because one of us says ‘don’t over react’ while the other (me!) wants to address head-on?
I spent hours last night writing down my thoughts to be prepared for the next surprise inquisition that of course won’t come until I am the least prepared.
We talked with the boys, probably with too many words and for far too long.
I've learned that the 'talking' is really for parents. Kids take in about 5% - the rest of the words are to appease the adult heart. Maybe they retained 1/10th and that’s okay. We’ll keep talking. This isn’t the last time.
Here is the astounding revelation:
Forty eight hours later, our family is racing to the airport to catch a flight. We leap out of our Lyft, kids weighted down with car seats and backpacks and we march to the gate to check in. At the moment we reached the counter, I watched our boys look past me, point, smile and guilty-giggle (you know the one).
I turned around to see an adult man - about half my size, just a hair taller than my 8-year-old, staring blanking past my boys, acting oblivious to their very obvious notions.
I. Thought. My. Head. May. Literally. Spin. All. The. Way. Around. And. Come. Off.
I’m not proud to type this. Of any family, I was sure we had this down.
We just had the conversation for God's sake.
We respect others.
We are kind.
We appreciate differences.
God made all of us exactly how he intended.
We were just on the other end of this scenario…
And (after the fire daggers that shot from my eyes and another two hours of unwanted conversation followed), I came to the ugly realization of all the work Michael and I have to do.
These little, beautiful, courageous minds are creative and loving and naïve. They have no idea how cruel this world and what awaits them in the grueling school years ahead. They are curious and funny and want to make their friends laugh, at any expense. These kids aren’t mean - but they are desperate to be taught. And it’s obviously not just one conversation. Instead of a two hour conversation, it is a weekly/daily reminder to be kind and embrace others.
I don’t know the secret. I was rocked to my core two days ago and later surprised how resilient these children are to be on the other side that I am so ashamed of. What stands out to me is how important it is to our children that we keep our finger on the pulse of kindness. We (as parents) are responsible. We are the ones. We must teach our children to look those that don’t look like us in the eye and say hello, to invite them to parties and meet them at a lonely lunch table. Those that are pulled out of class for asthma medicine or diabetes pricks, we should be extending a pat on the back for being brave or those kiddos that can’t play at recess, we should grab a book and join them in the shade.
We read the book, Wonder, this year. Just completing it with the boys felt like a tremendous accomplishment. (Mainly because Mommy cried through every single chapter).
How quickly they forget.
The onus is on all of us to teach our children, to be the example.
Be Kind. Be Kind. Be Kind. Should be our mantra. We are single-handedly shaping our future and those that will run it. Say it again - every day if you have to. Don't let your children (my children) be the ugly ones. The responsibility is ours.