“There’s a mean kid at recess,” she tells me matter-of-factly on our way home from school. It’s an afterthought really, not as important as the other things she’s already told me about her day, and she doesn’t seem frazzled one bit when this comes out.
“Oh yeah? Who?” She tells me his name, and I vaguely remember his sweet face from a couple years back when they shared the same class.
“He’s mean,” she says again. I wait for her to tell me about who he picked on, what he did, how it happened but wasn’t expecting what followed.
“I told some of my friends that Nella has Down syndrome,” she says–Nella just a car seat rim away from her–“and he heard me. He was laughing at me and telling these kids ‘Her sister has Down syndrome! Her sister has Down syndrome!’ He was making fun of her and laughing.”
Okay, so we’re here. I knew we’d get here eventually. And I know what to say because I’ve written and stashed these little scripts in my brain, waiting to pull them out. But yeah. For a second I feel a flutter in the abyssal zone of my stomach, where it’s dark and the sea creatures you never hear about live.
“How did that make you feel?” I ask.
“Like I wanted to cry. But I didn’t,” she answers.
Jesus. I remind myself that this is life, not near as dramatic as I pictured it would be five years ago. I thought about how this would go down when Nella was born. In my war-torn mind, it would happen all the time, plenty of times before Lainey hit third grade. I visualized what they’d say, how my kids would feel when they said it, and my stomach bottomed out with every imagined “Retard.” The world was a discriminate battlefield, and picturing my little soldiers getting emotionally pummeled out there was perhaps the greatest weight of sadness there was back then.
“We’ll raise them strong,” I told myself. “To withstand.”
We are five plus years in, this is the first time it happened, and it doesn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would. For a second it does, but for a second a lot of other stuff we’ve dealt with the past five years has hurt, and none of it had to do with Nella.
“You know why he laughed?” I explain. “Because he doesn’t know anything about Down syndrome and when you don’t know about something, it’s easy to make fun of it. I bet if he met Nella and knew her like you do, he’d feel really bad that he said that.”
“Yeah,” she answers right before she finds Nella’s school bag and digs through it to see what her sister brought home today—a picture of a Stegosaurus she colored for Dinosaur Week. We talk about the event more later, but to be honest, it bothers me a lot more than it did her.
The kid at recess? He’s a third grader who has a lot to learn, and it’s our responsibility to teach him and every other kid out there that there’s a whole world of syndromes, but they are overshadowed by the amazing people who house them. There’s a good chance this kid is feeling different himself.
As for my own kids? “We’ll raise them strong,” I used to tell myself, “to withstand.” But that’s not my focus anymore. We don’t raise our kids strong to withstand; we raise them strong so that they will change the world. We think less about the shield they’re walking out there with and more about the sword they’re carrying. How will you show them? What will you teach them? What sort of life are you living? What kind words are you speaking? How do you make people feel? Challenge them. Show them how good life can be when you create beauty. That is your shield.
I heard about her shield when she told me that her little friends ran to tell the recess attendant about the incident today, and how it was appropriately handled with a follow-through note home.
I felt her shield in the sweet words of my family today.
And her sword? Goodness, it’s beautiful.
So it happened, this thing I knew would happen. What I didn’t realize is that it would be wedged so tightly between the other stuff—the UNO game we played on the bed last night and the dance party that erupted at the front door this afternoon—that it would barely have room to breathe.
This is a small incident, and yes there’s a battlefield out there. But this is how we’ll do it: Fill the bookends with beauty so that those deep sea moments in between barely have room to breathe.
And carry a very big sword.