I worry so much about Schuyler’s success or failure at participating and functioning in my world, but sometimes, not all that often, but sometimes I get the opportunity to observe the world that she and her fellow special needs kids occupy. It can be wildly, frighteningly inscrutable.
Every fall and spring, for about six weeks or so, Schuyler spends her Saturday mornings playing soccer with our local Miracle League. Schuyler’s soccer experience became a lot more enriching for her last year when she advanced to what they call the Unified League. Before then, she was playing with kids with physical impairments, many of whom required a neurotypical buddy. I think she was afraid to really play, because when she did, she was something of a ringer.
When she joined the Unified League, everything changed. It was a positive move, for the most part. The Unified League kids are mostly ambulatory, so the playing field was more level, so to speak. There’s still a wide enough range of kids that young kids are often pitted against players in their late teens who are sometimes bigger than me, which is a problem that I think still needs to be addressed. But it mostly works.
The Miracle League is awesome. It gives kids with disabilities a chance to play sports and feel a degree of every-other-kid-ness that can normally be elusive at best. There are about 250 Miracle League Organizations in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada and now Australia. There are over 200,000 kids and young adults who participate. They play baseball and soccer and bowling and basketball and probably other sports as well. They meet in facilities designed for players with disabilities, and they also meet in public spaces like any other sports organization. In a world woefully lacking, Miracle League is a pure good.
When Schuyler steps onto the field, she’s largely among her own, in a way that she really isn’t at any other time. I mean, when she goes to her special education classes or sits at her “Island of Misfit Toys” lunch table, sure, but on the Miracle League field, it’s different. It’s their place, it’s their game. And on paper, they are all the same.
But the reality of the Unified League is that there are a few kids with Down syndrome, a handful of nonverbal rarities like Schuyler, and a whole lot of autistic kids who are working as hard as they can to play the game and be in the moment. What this sometimes means is that the Miracle League games that Schuyler plays in, while uneven and subject to a great deal of chaos theory, are nevertheless pretty ordinary affairs. Until they are very much not so.
Schuyler’s team is made up of small and polite kids; she is in fact the tallest among them. There are players on the other teams who are much larger and more powerful, and Schuyler’s distaste for what she perceives as a bully is never very far from the surface. She has a hard time understanding that a kid who is a foot and a half taller than her and outweighs her by almost a hundred pounds isn’t a bully, but rather just another kid doing his or her best just like she is. Schuyler grasps the power imbalance, but not the underlying reasons.
So when she and a young man clashed over the ball last weekend, neither one of them seemed prepared to let it go. I know why Schuyler was upset, or at least I think I do. He was much much larger than her, larger than anyone else, and there was a sort of fundamental unfairness in his presence on this particular field. But I don’t know, and probably can’t know, exactly why their scuffle bothered him so much. I only know that as she walked away, he slapped her in the head. And I know that she turned around and told him to stop, and then gave him a big push for good measure when he came at her again.
Game play continued for a while, but I could tell that he was still upset. After a goal was scored and everyone walked back to their positions, he stepped up behind her and began repeatedly thumping her in the back of her head.
Schuyler turned and said something to him, harsh and loud. I have no idea what she said; honestly, I can’t imagine he understood it, either. An angry Schuyler is an especially unintelligible Schuyler. But whatever it was or whatever tone she used, it pushed his button. He began screaming and spinning in circles, stimming furiously. Someone had to come lead him off the field to calm down. And Schuyler walked away, a smug look on her face.
My emotions were complicated. I was sad for the boy, for the emotional storm that my daughter had (mostly) unwittingly unleashed on him. I was displeased with Schuyler for making the life of a fellow special needs kid more difficult. And yet at the same time, on a very caveman dad level, I was proud of her for defending herself and for making a big boy understand that her body and her personal space were not up for grabs. I felt ever so slightly relieved at the idea of her moving through the world on her own.
To be honest, I didn’t understand exactly what occurrred. No one did, I don’t think. Certainly not Schuyler and the boy. It was one of the hundreds of hard-to-explain encounters that they must go through in a week, experiences that leave all the participants wondering what the hell just happened. And it stood as a reminder that as hard as we as parents may work to provide an environment for our kids in which they are prepared to understand and navigate their way in an imperfect world, the reality is that their own worlds remain powerfully inscrutable, perhaps to them most of all.
In the car going home, Julie and I had very different conversations with her about what had happened. Julie explained that we don’t need to understand why the boy was behaving the way he was or why he became so upset. We only need to respect his reactions and let him have them and cope with things as best as he can. I reminded Schuyler that no boy gets to touch her if she doesn’t want him to, and if she tells him to stop and he doesn’t (which she did) and if she can’t get to an adult (which she should have done but didn’t), she is within her rights to physically stop him from touching her.
“Can I punch a boy in the eye?” Schuyler asked, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth.
“Schuyler!” Julie said. “No, you can’t hit him in the eye.” But she understood that Schuyler was joking.
I was less sure. “Punch him in the nose,” I whispered, because Dad advice is sometimes bad advice, but at the same time not entirely wrong. “It hurts a LOT.”
She laughed behind her hand. Schuyler was back from wherever she’d been, from that place where no one gets the rules because there aren’t any, and not always words, even. That place where friends and enemies are made and forgotten in a morning, and where parents like myself can only watch, and wonder.
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