A few weekends ago, we were at a birthday party for one of Zoe's boy classmates. The kid really likes sports, so the party was at the gymnasium in our local rec center. One of the rec center employees, a high school kid, was tasked with moderating dodgeball, kickball, and basketball for a bunch of first graders. There weren't a lot of us parents out there on the floor -- just me and the father of the birthday boy. His son didn't need his help, so the other dad could kind of float around, have fun, and mingle with the kids. I stuck with Zoe, since that's...what I do. And I dragged her along to play the games, since that's the other thing I do. Usually, she likes it, if her energy level permits. When it doesn't, she gets annoyed, but she usually manages to tolerate my stubborn insistence.
We were in the field first for kickball. Initially, I positioned us too far away (right field, where I learned to blend in so many years ago when I started playing organized baseball). A few at-bats went by with no action. I figured, if we wanted to just stand around, we could do it anywhere, so I decided to move us over behind second base. That part of the infield was too crowded, though, so I moved us over to the hot corner. However, I didn't have time to explain to Zoe why it was called that before the next kid up kicked a screamer right at her head. I was able to make a play from my knees, knocking the ball away while holding her upright. It exhausted her (or so I told myself as I struggled to catch my breath), and we took a break to sit on the sidelines. The break also gave me a chance to explain to her who Orioles' third baseman Manny Machado is, and how hard it would have been for him to make that same play, especially if he'd recently turned 41 and was incredibly sleep-deprived. Luckily for her, it was our turn to bat before I could get too in-depth with my story.
We were fifth in the batting order, and the bases were actually loaded when we came up. I wasn't sure she understood what an important kickball run-producing opportunity this was. I whispered to her to get ready, and just as I did, her teammates started chanting "Let's go, Zoe, Let's GO!" If I'd been watching this unfold on television, I'd have rolled my eyes and changed the channel. What kind of cliched, feel-good movie crap were they trying to subject me to? If they'd started a "Rudy"-style slow clap, I would have known right then and there they were just messing with me. But they weren't. These kids were sincerely rooting for my girl. And this wasn't even kids that we consider to be her friends. The girls we knew were all on the other team. Zoe and I wound up on a team with all the boys -- those boys: the crazy ones, the ones who punched everything. The ones who I always assumed said shitty things about her amongst themselves, when no one important was listening. Thirty-five years ago, I never would have done what they were doing for Zoe. I probably would have been saying shitty things about some kid with special needs. Which doesn't mean I was a jerk in those days. Our educational environment was just more compartmentalized, and we didn't interact with special needs kids our age in any meaningful way. There was one special needs class in my school growing up. The kids in it were different from us, we assumed. Furthermore, we assumed they were not different from one another, in any meaningful way. Now, the kids in Zoe's class might not be able to enumerate the differences between Rett Syndrome, Down Syndrome, or Cerebral Palsy, but they seem to know there are differences. They seem to get the fact that they're looking at an individual with their own merits. So someone's doing something right. And I know a few people who are grateful for it.
Zoe and I did not kick a grand slam and get carried off the field on the first graders' shoulders. It's harder than one might think to manipulate a child's foot to connect with a kickball while holding them up with your other arm. But we made contact and got on base. The boys cheered behind us, but I didn't look back at them as we ran to first. I've learned in the last few years that my eyes have this horrible allergic reaction to people being kind to Zoe, and it's possible the first grade boys would have made fun of me for it (and possibly punched me).
We switched to dodgeball after another break that Zoe and I both needed. The kid who was the ringleader for the "Let's go, Zoe" chant wandered over and asked if they could throw the balls at Zoe. "Sure," I said. "Try to be gentle, though. Don't peg it at her head or anything." He looked me over with an expression that told me he might not know the term "double standard" yet, but he knew one when he heard it. I was fine with that. Kickball, dodgeball, basketball. These are all things with standard, straightforward rules. Figuring out how to include a child with a disability like Rett Syndrome is not one of those things, and we're making up the rules as we go along.