The basketball careened off of his head for a third time…
My beautiful seven year old son was experiencing his first basketball practice and scrimmage. His face red and his eyes glistening, my boy fought back tears. Oh, sweet child. How I wanted to caress his face and hold him close so no one could ever hurt his heart again. I wanted to hold him in my arms and keep him safe from all the bad experiences but I could not. He needed to do this on his own.
My son has special needs. He is quite skinny, can have an awkward gait and his bright blue hearing aid in his left ear reveals just one more way he’s not typical. Normally he is wowing us with his rare musical gift or encouraging others with his sweet disposition. I’m used to him being different and in many ways his differences are beautiful and extraordinary, but on this occasion my heart ached. For one, I grieved what I already knew. My son would never play sports at any sort of higher level. I was never talented enough to provide such a progeny that would leap over defenders and dunk in your face, but there was always an infinitesimal chance that my children would get my uncle’s gift for basketball. But with our son’s spacial awareness, developmental delay and his ADD, it was clear, he was pretty much in over his head. Still he persevered. I watched other kids cut in front of him when it was time to take their shots. I watched their laughter. Moments later, they dribbled across the court, sinking 20 footers while playing lights out defense. Often the coach would shout to the talented kids not to steal the ball, but to his dismay they would disregard and pass the ball down the court to the kids they knew would sink the shot. He often looked like he was playing defense against his own team, hands in their face, desperately pleading for them to pass him the ball. When my son did manage to get the ball, he would dribble well enough and get right under the basket only to fling an un-makeable, underhanded, granny shot, toward the bottom of the rim, to a distinct chorus of muffled snickering. Throughout the scrimmage, which I’m pretty sure lasted about 30 years, my wife and I took turns leaving the room to compose ourselves so as not to show our son the burden our hearts wrestled to carry.
As the scrimmage went on, each child was cheered for by the room as they made their respective baskets. My son melted to the floor as he noticed the lack of cheers for him. Unable to secure a basket, no one rewarded him with the feedback he so desperately wanted. Coach blew the whistle for a quick water break.
Our son stomped back to his mother, head down and defeated. Tears streaming down all our faces, we came to the conclusion he was not going to finish his scrimmage. It was decided; he would find comfort on our lap for the rest of practice and then resign from the team. But with our son’s face still hidden in his mother’s bosom a small child with a sweaty face, red from effort, softly walked up to our family and tapped our son on the shoulder.
His soft, gentle voice not much more than a whisper.
“Will you come play the rest of the game with us?”
I had no doubt his mother was involved in his sweet message of compassion but I didn’t care. This petite harbinger of grace showed courageous empathy to our son and it made all the difference. My boy went back out on to the court. He didn’t make any more shots but he now had a friend who wanted him there. At the very end, the coach gave him the ball to try one more shot and our little, white, skinny, seven year old, Magic Johnson swished that bad boy as the crowd erupted in cheers. We still weren’t coming back next week of course, and then the new young friend came by to check in on us and tell us that he hoped we would come back next week. We still might.
Parents. I cannot urge you enough. Prepare your children for what to do when they experience a child that is “different.” How they respond to a child that has special needs, dirty clothes or burns on 80% of their body, will have much to do with how you speak to them in advance and the way you model compassion. Their words and behaviors can make and break our fragile children who already have much to fight against. My son will not be a pro athlete. He may never sink a basket in a game. But he now has a friend on the team and that’s enough for us.