The Race

Barnaby has left school virtually every single day saying the same thing, over and over – “This was the best day *ever*.” His enthusiasm for school was actually *greater* than my pessimism at his age. It was simple small things, “we had science AND music!!!” or enormous things, “we did a play and I got to do TWO LINES!!!” but every day was amazing in some way.

When I came to pick him up yesterday and he was crying, it was so beyond my frame of reference that it wasn’t until I had carried him all the way home that I started to piece together how bad the day was. Barnaby’s class had traveled to a “track meet” at another school and all of the first graders had competed in different areas – running, jumping, spazzing out, whatever it is that six year olds can do on a “track” and/or “field”. Barnaby had been really sick the week before, even missing school (something he is loathe to do) but we sent him in because, even with a cough, he didn’t want to miss anything.

I got him home yesterday and on the couch and, after checking his knees and legs, called the doctor who diagnosed him with terrible shin splints and a hyper-extended knee. When he told his teachers he was in pain, they suggested that he might still be a little tired from his cough. He told them that his knee hurt, his right knee, that it hurt in a very specific area and they told him he was probably just feeling bad because of his cough and the race.

Now, Barnaby’s class is a combined class – it has special needs kids and general ed kids. Do I say special needs? What do I call them now, are the developmentally delayed or developmentally disabled? Or are they retarded? I mean… have we found the word that makes us all comfortable? Because my kid is the one with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist. My kid is the one with underdeveloped musculature for his age, he’s the one who has to sit in a special chair so he can concentrate, and it’s not like *I’m* getting all touchy-feely about what you call it.

You have three reading groups and call them A, B and C, and the kids will all figure out who the smart kids are. But guess what – if you label them Sharks, Pirates and Ninjas, it’ll take them six extra minutes to figure it out. And “Ninja” will become synonymous with “retard”. Changing the name doesn’t do shit.

But whatever, Barnaby’s in a class with the kids who have special needs. And every day, these kids excel at reading and writing, or science or math, or music or art, or even just being nice kids with good friends and at no point are they singled out for abuse or celebration. But they decided it would be a good idea to take this class, along with all the general ed classes, to another school so everyone could compete in *athletics*.

Here’s the hilarious part. According to Barnaby, they did their races in groups of four, and then handed out ribbons. You got first, second, third or “participant”. When I found the ribbons in Barnaby’s bag, I gave him a huge smile and said, “Hey! You got two ribbons!” and he, off-handedly, said, “those are for the losers.”

Changing the name doesn’t do shit.

We talked for a bit. We got to the part where a couple of the kids were calling him a “loser”, and when I asked him how that made him feel, he said, “Bad”. I asked him if he talked to the teachers about it, and he said they told him that he was probably just not feeling well from the cough. More not feeling well from More the cough, I guess.

And see, life is shit. And I know that, and you know that, and the sooner Barnaby figures out that life is shit and nobody’s there to protect you and your only choice in life is to determine how to deal with the very immutable fact that life is shit, the better. I thought about calling his teachers – parents certainly do that. And I thought about ratting out the kids who called him a loser, people do that too.

But I didn’t. Maybe it was a mistake, but I didn’t.

We sat and talked for a while, and his sister stood next to where he was sitting on the couch with her hand lightly set on the knee that was bothering him, as if she was some kind of passive reiki master. He was telling me that most of the kids could jump five and some of the kids could jump four, but he could only jump three. And that he had tried. He wanted to know why other kids were able to do things with their bodies that he couldn’t do.

At four, they told us he had the fine motor skills of a 14 month old. His gymnastics teacher says he admires how unbreakable his spirit is, that in the fact of such awkwardness, Barnaby still smiles and tries. When he plays with the other kids in the park, they climb trees and he pretends he’s a dog – because dogs are awesome but can’t climb trees. How do I answer this question.

“Have you heard of something called ‘grace’?” I asked him.

“What’s grace?”

“Well, they use that word for dancers and athletes and people like that. There are some people who are able to walk through a room and they move like slow water, like they know where there arms and legs and bodies are supposed to be.”

“Are you like that? Are you grace?”

“It’s ‘graceful’. I don’t know if I’m like that exactly, but yeah, I pretty much know how to get around. And I used to dance a lot.”

“I love dancing.”

Jesus Christ. It’s crushing. They’ve got a hundred things they do, and he’s pretty good at any number of them, but *jumping a distance* is the thing they’re handing out ribbons for. I felt lost, honestly, about what to do as a parent.

“Are you… Are you a good dancer?”

“Yeah,” he said, “everyone always says I’m a good dancer. Like, every day.

“What do you mean ‘every day’?”

“Well, at the end of the day, there’s a group of people and I sing this song ‘Baby Gone’ that I made up. And everyone dances when I do it. And I sorta, like, I show them how to dance, and that’s what they do.”

And he’s not sad, I realize. He was *made sad* by circumstance, he responded to stimuli that was sad-making, but it doesn’t mean he’s sad. He’s not. He has none of the fury that I had my whole life. This was a bad day in the middle of a good life.

“There’s another kind of Grace,” I tell him.

“What kind?”

“Well, grace is used to talk about moving in a space – like through a room or around a field or across a stage or whatever. But there’s also a kind of grace to how you live. And it’s related. Like, if you’re dancing in a room of people and you have grace, then the other people don’t get bumped and they’re all glad you’re there dancing. Well, this other kind of grace is the same, only nobody’s dancing.”

“What is everyone doing?”

“They’re just being people in a room, and someone with grace comes in the room and suddenly *that room* becomes a better room to be in because of that person. Because what he says or does makes the people happy and gives them joy. A person with grace makes time easier, makes time itself more joyful. Most people are a little bit nervous most of the time and aren’t sure what to say or who to talk to, and a person with grace can make them feel like they’re making good choices no matter what they choose.

“Well… I don’t feel nervous most of the time. Most of the time I’m just, like, *normal* or *excited* or *hungry* or whatever, I’m not nervous about talking to people or doing stuff.”

“That is having grace, kiddo. And when other people come into the room where you’re not nervous, they feel happier because someone in the room doesn’t seem to worry about what’s right or not, they’re just being.”

“Well, yeah, I’m mostly just being.”

“But the kid who called you a loser, was he being graceful?”

“No. But he’s one of the outburst kids. He’s one of the kids who can’t stop making noises and yelling and stuff. He probably was calling me a loser because he just says stuff and can’t really control it.”

This isn’t my influence. I know that. I’ve been pissed off as long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for motherfuckers who call me names just so I could prove how behind the eight-ball I *always* am. I’m the only guy I know who was born on third base and is pissed off because he thought he hit a home run.

“Barnaby, sweetheart, that’s the kindest possible thing to say about someone who didn’t treat you kindly. I am unbelievably proud of you.”

“I just don’t understand why everyone else can run better. It’s just running, how can everyone else do it better than me?”

“We’re not all good at everything. Some people are bad at a lot of things and some people are good at a lot of things.”

“There isn’t anything I’m good at. Okay, okay, I know, I’m good at some stuff. But not really. Not in a really BIG way.”

I don’t know. I can’t fix this. The world is the world, and he’s six – it’s all downhill from here. Girls that will break his heart, bad grades on tests he studied for, six months wiped out on weed, the first car he crashes, the first job he loses, the failings too horrible to contemplate or list. You’re a child one minute and the next, you’re the world.

“I don’t know what to tell you, sweetheart. All I can tell you is that when you’re here, with me, I don’t give a crap about any race, I don’t give a crap about your grades and I don’t give a crap about your height or weight or hair color or anything. All I can tell you is that my heart fills when I see how much you love your mom and your sister and how hard you try to be good at stuff. And I think as long as you keep doing those things, you’re gonna be okay.”

I believed it when I said it. And I believe it now. If I believe it enough, then it’ll turn out to be true.