Here’s our story, it’s sad, but true…
The day was hot. The late May afternoon sun was still above the trees and shooting its rays right on the picnic pavilion on the grounds of Eastern State Hospital. A small group of residents was taking advantage of the shade when our team arrived for the yearly dinner to celebrate whatever we had just done. Most of the time that meant a break even season, some parents with hurt feelings, and a relief that I could finally go home right after school. This year the picnic felt strange. I was going off to college and my athletic career was pretty much over. Growing up was coming, but it was still quite a ways away. Little did I know that this day would start me thinking that there was much more going on in this world than we could ever know.
At James Blair there had been a special needs student that I had helped in gym class. The kid would get so frustrated in class because he was being asked to do things that he probably didn’t want to do, running, sit-ups and push-ups being a few. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to him and because the times were less progressive back then, I don’t remember there being any other kids with special needs in our school.
I probably didn’t notice because I was lost in my world of sports and fun. My experiences with mental disabilities was skewed because I lived across from a large mental hospital, Eastern State. I knew little about what went on there, but my father assured me that none of it was pleasant. Really all I knew about the hospital was that it provided a risky speed trap short cut from Longhill Road to Ironbound Road. On this, my senior picnic day, I would learn things would change my perspective of what was going on inside the mind of those who were burdened by mental illness.
The fare for the day was as usual, hot dogs, burgers, and a bunch of stuff from other people’s homes that I would not touch. Come on, who wants to eat something made in someone else’s kitchen? Potato salad, egg salad, any salad…I think not. I looked at all that food and knew it would have to come off the grill before I could even think about eating it. Some of my teammates saw the buffet differently and loaded their paper plates up as many times as they could before the Chinet finally gave way.
Everyone seemed like they were having fun. Well not everyone, the group of residents at the back of the pavilion were looking at the food and all of the conversation with the hint of hope that they might be included. I’m not sure anyone in our group ever thought to share the food or invite them into the games.
It’s sad and true…
One of the residents, a girl in a long dress, walked over and picked up my cup of iced tea. She never drank from it. She looked at, whispered something I could not understand, and handed it back to me. I was not sure what to do. Regrettably, my first instinct was to put it down and wait until I could get another cup. Fortunately, there was a little bit of civility in me and I said, “Thank you.” I took a drink, the girl laughed, and the whole group walked down to the field where the trees were beginning to cast shadows.
“Come on, man. I’ve got this song I want you to hear,” said Fred, our sometimes catcher and outfielder. Really, he was our music connection and all around prankster. We made the trip down the hill to his VW Bug, but I was not feeling too well. Fred was talking about some Time-Life purchase he had made, but I kept hearing people talking about how rude we were.
“You’re going to love this tape,” said Fred.
“Why don’t they like us?” said a voice.
“They treat us like we don’t exist,” said another voice.
I was totally lost and wondering if I was sick. Then Dion came on singing Runaround Sue and things went hay wire. Fred was dancing. Sammy, the centerfielder was dancing. Bob, the first basemen with all the brothers, was dancing. We all were, but I could not hear the music. I only heard the voices.
“Look at them, how weird.”
“We would get yelled at for doing that.”
“I wish they would leave.”
The song was going on much longer than it should have. The whole team was dancing, jumping into each other, wrestling and having a crazy time, but I could not join in. I had to know where the voices were coming from. I looked over to the pine trees and there stood my answer. It was the group of residents who had been on the pavilion. The girl saw me looking their way and motioned for me to come over. I went.
“I can hear every word you guys are saying,” I said.
“Because you know,” said the girl.
“Because you know all of this is wrong. You know you guys should treat us better and you know we feel the pain of being treated differently.”
Sadly, I don’t think I knew the way that I should have. Maybe back in James Blair I had missed the signals that people with mental disabilities and mental illnesses think and have feelings. Maybe in my lack awareness I had failed to speak up for things that were morally right. No, there was no maybe. I had failed to recognize the abilities of people living with whatever being “non-normal” is. As I stood in the shade under the haze of enlightened ice tea, I believe I stepped from under the haze of ignorance.
“Come on, I’ve got this song you should hear.”
I started walking towards the mayhem, but the residents started walking the other way.
“Where are you guys going?” I asked.
“This is not the time. You need to do what is right when you are not so aware of the people who need your help. It’s too easy for you now.”
With that, they were gone and the song was over. The parents had cleaned up the pavilion and the bugs were starting to take over. The picnic would end and we all found some Saturday night party with an unsuspecting house to ransack. I wondered if the lesson of Runaround Sue would ever resurface.
It does. It rears its beautiful message everyday when I’m dealing with students who have special needs. I know, we all are special, but I’m talking about for students who are dealing with much heavier issues than whether practice is cancelled or if the prom proposal is flashy enough.
The other day I was at our local YMCA and two of my longtime students were in the gym. James, who has Down’s Syndrome was knocking down set shots like he was Steph Curry. He doesn’t talk and has been out of school for a couple of years, but whenever I see him I rebound his makes. He never misses… Rheem was a student who came to America from the Middle East and has overcome many learning obstacles, the main one being English which she loves to speak at any time. Both are nearing adult age and both are still young children.
There we are shooting, James, Sasha, my stepson, and me. I fed the ball to Andrew, who passed to James, who hit the shot Villanova style. We all yelled, high fived, and got back into the next set for the next shot. Even James was smiling.
Sasha handed me my water bottle and I took a drink.
“This is the time,” Sasha said.
I looked at her a bit confused. Most of our conversations has been about my cats and dog. She would laugh each time I said my cats’s name, Habibi. Her translation for habibi was “sweetie” and she thought that was a funny name for a male cat.
“Excuse me,” I said wondering why she chose those words.
“This was the right time. You are sharing a moment with your stepson. You’re relaxed. He’s relaxed. This is the way we should all be. Together…”
She was right. My career working with kids was one thing, but to see my stepson being so great with James and Rheem was special. Hopefully, he was getting his compassion from all of the adults in his life, but on this day, I was happy to be with him. I took another drink and said to Sasha, “How did you know to say, ‘this is the time’?”
“What’s your cat’s name, Dr. Hancock?”
I suppose some things cannot be explained.