The woman stood in the field, her hair swirling around her head from the wind as she snuggled deeper into the soft warmth of her sweatshirt. Clouds intermittently covered the sun, blocking its warming rays. Her husband stood beside her, both of their eyes fixed on the same, small person clad in a purple sweatshirt amidst a field of her schoolmates. It was the end of the year field day; a day of various athletic games set up at different sections of the school grounds for friendly competition among the students. Sports were not what the little girl excelled at. The couple stood watching their child struggle to participate while showing obvious signs of emotional distress over knowing she was not performing at the same level of most of her peers. Of course, there were other children in the crowd who were not athletically inclined, but it did not seem to affect them in the same manner, or maybe it was just because they knew their child so well. The first event had been one the woman would not have done well at either; throwing small balls through various sized shapes in a large canvass hung a few feet away from the allotted standing points. The little girl’s first attempt fell well short of the canvass and she was immediately visibly discouraged. The woman felt her husband tense up beside her as he stepped forward a bit and began to offer well-intended verbal coaching to his daughter. It was more difficult for the man to watch his daughter struggle as he had been a natural athlete, and even a coach at one time. The woman gently grabbed his arm, “Let her be, babe. She has to do her own thing. We just need to cheer her on.” The man relaxed, knowing his wife was right. He took a deep breath and silenced his previous instinct. He did not get to experience such events often, and once again he marveled at how much his wife did for their child. He made a mental note to tell her so once they were alone.
The little girl had special needs, something he had struggled immensely with accepting at one point in their life. She was high-functioning and by all appearances, a typical, and beautiful child. She was more advanced than most people, adults included, the man knew. In some ways, her gifts made her struggles difficult for the man and woman to know how to best parent the little girl. The woman had recently shared how much she desired a break from it all, she was just exhausted from the never-ending ups and downs of such a high intellect, a strong will, and low functioning emotional self-control. The woman was in her mid-forties and still learning to regulate her emotional self. Nobody had taught her the many things she worked so hard to teach their daughter. The man understood how draining it was for the woman, as he felt it during his time at home, too, even though more limited than his wife’s. Whenever he thought of the parents he and his wife had as children, he held a slight resentment against them for their not making effort to be better parents like he and his wife worked so hard to do. The woman always reminded him she used to feel the same way, but she finally realized they did not know how to be any better than they were. Of course, the man and woman knew many ways to be better as parents, and God still thought it would be swell to send them a child with a completely atypical development. They treasured the gift she was, although often overwhelmed and left feeling inept as well.
The couple moved through the differing activity stations set up around the field, cheering on the children alongside the other parents, and teachers. “Oh, no!”, the woman and man shared the same thought as they approached a mini-high-jump bar and mat. This was not going to be pretty. The event quickly divided the athletic and non-athletic children in the little girl’s group. The high-school volunteer running the event made the division more pronounced as she continually inched up the jump bar. The only way to clear the bar was to hurl one’s upper body over it first, basically diving into the mat. The man and woman stared as their daughter ran to the bar, suddenly stopping each time, performing some type of Irish jig foot moves, finally attempting to step over the bar, and knocking it down. Every single time. It was painful to watch. The final two competitors were a little boy with an obviously bright future on the track and field team, and a little girl highly skilled at gymnastics who was doing front jump rolls and tucks over the bar. She won that event with quite an impressive flip. The couple watched the little girl hang her head after each turn, knowing she felt embarrassed. The woman listened to the athletic kids in line, cringing at the fear of one of them mocking her little girl. It was an eye opening moment for the woman. She realized she was not upset her daughter struggled athletically, the woman herself had never been great at traditional sports, and her daughter was a beautiful dancer, and artistically creative to no end. It was not about disappointment in her skill level, it was the fear of her daughter not only being perceived as different, but being mocked because of it. The little girl had been bullied in the past, being timid and socially challenged had made her a target. The bullying had begun with another little girl openly mocking the woman’s daughter for not being as fast of a runner as the other children. It increased from that point when her daughter did not stand up for herself. She was not as adept on the playground as the other children, and as a result often played alone during recess; ever since she attended pre-school. The woman used to cry when she would pull up to the school and see her tiny girl sitting alone, safely away from the other children. She knew her daughter struggled to make eye-contact, or to verbally interact with people she does not know well. The little girl was in her sixth year of speech therapy and had come a long way from not being able to be understood by others, yet she still struggled to communicate with her own peers. As field day ended, the woman and man hugged their little girl goodbye. They all had tears in their eyes as they parted. The little girl always had tears when she had to say goodbye to the woman. The parents were teary knowing their little girl always struggled to part with her mother, while fighting internally to keep her sadness and tears hidden so as not to embarrass herself in public. It was also hard for the couple to walk away leaving her playing alone on the hopscotch court, with a crowd of happy children playing together behind her. The woman felt sad, as she always was by this familiar scene, yet grateful her husband was with her to share in the experience and better understand her role in their life.
The woman thought about how it is so easy for parents to watch their children excel at things. She turned to her husband as they walked exclaiming, “We take pictures of when they win a trophy, videos and action shots of their accomplishments and life-skills, but we hide away their struggles. I know some parents do this out of their own ego, they believe their children are a representation of them and therefore each accomplishment, or failure, is reflective of who they are. I have always been afraid of doing that to the kids.” The man listened, leaning closer to her as they walked. “I just realized how much I don’t do that at all.”, she continued. “I only want to protect her from being made fun of, even though I know we can’t protect her at all, really. WE know she can’t swing, and is terrified of the kids who are running around among one another like maniacs, and that’s why she hangs out alone on the playground. WE also know she can already create art that should be hanging up for sale in some trendy coffeehouse!” The woman began to cry.
She knew what it felt like to be judged by others, to be hurt and wounded for being different. She had struggled most of her life with problems invisible to most outside of her intimate world. Invisible diseases, invisible disorders, invisible abuse; she knew it all too well. Looking typical on the outside, beautiful even, led people to make many assumptions which were often painfully far from reality. The woman knew the term High Functioning was merely social code for: “We know you can keep it together since you often do, so that is expected of you. Please hide the messy and unpleasant parts of yourself.”
The woman thought perhaps her child was not a reflection of herself as a parent as she had feared, but rather a reflection of herself as a child. A painful reminder of being a troubled, different, little girl who did not have anyone to guide her. Also, a reflection of the man as a little boy. Two, once vulnerable, wounded children who had deserved better than they got, somehow found one another as adults and created this amazing little girl. Of course she had special needs, the most special people do.
The woman smiled through her tears as she realized what a gift it all was. Even on the days it felt like a burden to carry, it was an honor bestowed upon her and her husband. An opportunity to teach a child it was not only okay to be different, but to celebrate what makes us each unique. A chance to teach a future adult, some days we are out of our element. We struggle, cheer one another on, and do the best we are capable of doing without feeling bad about ourselves. Other days, we find ourselves in a place where what makes us special is exactly what makes us shine.