Day 17 of the #UltimateBlogChallenge and I STILL don’t quite know what day of the week it is! Welcome back to the blog! I’ve been off in my own little world, reading, thinking about podcast related stuff, and working with some incredible people to get my little idea off the ground.
I’m flying high on the creativity fumes. Today I wanted to tell you all a little story about the little engine that could. Before you get all confused, that engine was me. And I was little. Go figure.
Growing up as the only daughter and the youngest of three, I was always looking for things to keep me entertained. If it wasn’t watching cartoons, it was playing with alphabet magnets and making the Q use the O as a soccer ball. It even included everyone learning lessons about not bullying one another. Listen, the refrigerator door was full of drama, okay? My interests then went to playing with my brother’s Legos, then play-dough, my bike, and on every evening/Saturday morning, cartoons.
My mom was known for keeping us busy. We took swimming lessons at our local pool at the park down the street from my childhood home, where we made lifelong friends with the lifeguard staff. Parents weren’t very happy that I was receiving ‘preferential’ treatment from the lifeguards teaching us how to float and kick. What they didn’t know is that I was blind. Not only that, but that I was scared of literally everything.
I remember that my mom was furious with the staff who suggested I take private lessons, although I was doing just fine in the class with the other kids. They were simply trying to appease the upset parents who felt that the disabled kid didn’t need hands-on instruction and that their kids did. Despite this, one amazing lifeguard took matters into his own hands, teaching not only me, but the entire class about working together and being kind to one another. He persuaded my mom to let me slide down the giant waterslide, assuring her that he’d catch my little thrashing self, (and he did). He was later joined by another kind lifeguard, who would later become my brother’s boss when he became a lifeguard ten or so years later. These people were kind, accepting my mom’s stubborn streak and accepting that they couldn’t change her mind, and why should they? Sports should be equal and available for all kids.
From swimming, my mom enrolled me in little league tee ball. She expected no one to help the blind girl, so she did it herself. That’s right. She ran with me, she told me everything that was happening, she made sure I was included. Again, other parents complained. They claimed that my mom was cheating just for holding my hand and showing me where to run. I held my own bat, I swung and hit the ball by myself. My mom simply was my running sighted guide. And yet… this was considered preferential treatment because to others, I didn’t belong there.
Of course, this didn’t stop my mom from literally not caring what others thought. She gave me the experience that many other blind kids can say they’ve had. I played with other kids my age, at a park near my house, learning to play as a team member. We even still laugh about the time I hit the ball and we took off running, which was quickly brought to a halt when I tripped and fell and unbeknownst to her, my mom dragged me the rest of the way to first base. Yes, we got an out, but it was also hysterically funny.
I never was very competitive, I’ll admit. So, to no one’s surprise, I never knew, or cared, if we won or lost those games. I just loved being included, and yes, we got participation trophies. But guess what? Those didn’t serve any purpose in my life except to solidify the fact that I belonged just like the other kids. I deserved to learn how to swim. I deserved to play little league tee ball and even play soccer. I deserved to take karate classes with a bunch of sighted people of all ages. Nothing should have made me feel unwanted. But as hard as my mom fought for me, she could never stop me from knowing, and feeling, like I wasn’t wanted.
The things I remember most from my time as a young kid was how adults made me cry by refusing to acknowledge that I was just like any other kid on the field or in the pool. I remember being so overwhelmed during a game where all I knew was that it was too bright outside, my mom was angry, and the referee wasn’t a very nice person. What followed was me finally getting a chance to kick the ball and screwing up and kicking it into my own team’s net. Everyone was, so, upset. But me? I was happy because until that moment, I’d never gotten to kick the ball because this sport wasn’t “meant for kids like her”. But once I realized that I had made a mistake and the adults shouting were upset with ME, I was… ashamed. I was near tears because while little league is supposed to be fun for kids who are just learning sports, parents take it too serious sometimes. I was the subject for a lot of unhappiness just because I had an extra pair of eyes with me. But they didn’t understand, and they didn’t try to.
Another incident I remember was when, after swim class on Friday, we got to free swim in the pool. Of course, this turned into a game of sharks and minnows, and I had to sit out because I didn’t understand how to play. It later turned into everyone playing and splashing around, and I ventured from the steps, gripping onto the wall with all my tiny five-year-old might. I wanted to play; I just had no idea how to get involved. Well, lucky, (or unlucky for me), a kid threw a pool toy in my direction and I flinched and burst into tears. (I was a prone crier, okay!) I moved back to the stairs, but not before I heard a parent tell the instructor, “See, this is why she doesn’t belong.” I sat on those stairs and tried not to let the adults know I had heard because even then, I desperately just wanted to be included. Clued into the goings on of the activities around me. I wasn’t physically fragile; I just needed a little bit of direction.
The instructor, probably knowing I had heard, took me to the water slides, where he flipped on the one meant for all the older kids and told me, “I know it looks scary, but you can do it. Land in the deep end and swim forward to the wall. Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” He left me there, me trembling in my Lilo and Stich swimsuit at the top of the curvy slide, until I finally got up the courage and try. Since I wasn’t wearing glasses and couldn’t see without them, the literal only way down was through that slide. So, I did it. And I came up for breath, gasping and remembered to kick my little legs until I got to the edge. The lifeguard was standing at the edge, beaming, while everyone else was either shocked, or clapping and cheering. But I knew that the proudest person there wasn’t just my mom. It was Gabe the lifeguard, who gave me the space to be afraid, but also gave me the guidance to do something only, until then, the sighted kids got to do.
After I finished my swim lessons there, my brother and I started to swim competitively with a swim team for nearly 9 years after that. For those who wondered, yes, I swam with everyone else. I competed fairly against the other swimmers. I swam a 500 with my sighted peers. (For those who don’t know, a 500 is 20 laps of sheer, unadulterated pain and suffering, but competitively.) We occasionally got yelled at by other swim coaches, judges, and the referees for being the blind kid in lane 1one, but they soon realized that nothing was going to deter me from getting to have this moment like the swimmers in lanes 2, 3 and 4.
We still occasionally see Gabe and his super sweet coworker, AKA my brother’s boss. They remained the supportive amazing people they were, making sure to remind me every time they saw me, that they were proud of me for being scared, and doing it anyways. My main take aways from these experiences led me to push for equal access to little league sports. Not all sports should be played separately. If it can be adapted to include kids with disabilities, let it. Kids don’t understand that other kids aren’t meant to be on their team. They love to play with anyone if their parents teach them that it’s okay for their friend to not see, or not have legs, or to act a little different. As long as little league is around, keep it noncompetitive. Keep it equal for everyone. A game is just a game and most of all, kids should be able to learn, grow, and experience working with others who may need a little extra help. So next time you’re on the bleachers yelling at some mom who’s guiding the kid in glasses to the bases, remember that your kids learn from watching you. Your kids learn to be kind from your kindness, to be accepting of others by teaching them acceptance. A game is just a game. Keep it that way.