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The Teachable Moment

Today at a local store, Schuyler encountered two exceptionally mean-spirited young teenaged girls who were mocking her behind her back as she played a video game, completely oblivious to what was going on. As I walked up behind them, I heard one of the girls say, “I’ll bet she’s retarded.” Then they saw me standing there.

I have a confession to make. I am terrible at teachable moments.

This certainly isn’t breaking news, or even a recent epiphany. Schuyler has had a diagnosed disability for over nine years, and an identifiable one for longer than that. Her behavior can be odd; her speech can sound Martian. While in many ways hers is an invisible disability, it does’t take much in the way of observation to come to the conclusion that she is a very unusual little girl. And human nature being what it is (ie. dependably horrible), we have never had a dearth of condescending looks and snotty remarks to deal with. We live in a North Dallas community that probably prizes conformity more than most, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to develop a thick skin and sensitive reply for the decided insensitive remarks that generally accompany Schuyler in her progress through this grand rough world.

But I’ve never gotten there. I’ve never reached the point where I could sigh, collect my thoughts and then patiently explain why Schuyler doesn’t talk, or why she behaves the way she does, or why hearing a term like “retard” can be so devastating to families like ours. I’ve never achieved the ability to transcend “protective father” and embrace the teachable moment.

I wish I could say that when faced with rudeness or even abuse directed towards my daughter, even in the absence of patience and an appreciation for the opportunity to shine a little light into a dark world, I at the very least will wield my authorly wit (a dubious thing to begin with) and eviscerate the insulting party with a cutting barb of my own. But the sad truth is, I rarely even rise to the occasion that much. When faced with a hurtful world, my response is fast, confrontational and decidedly uncivilized. I can usually be counted on to provide a two-word response, and not “Happy Birthday.” I become Caveman Dad.

This is what happened today. My response to the girls wasn’t constructive. It wasn’t kind, or educational, and it wasn’t appropriate. When they returned several minutes later with their grandmother, my responses to her were similarly unimpressive, unless perhaps you’re a casting agent for a basic cable reality tv program. Fortunately for me, the grandmother seemed to know her grandkids well enough not to be surprised by their behavior, and the whole thing was defused quickly. There were no apologies, but no one called the cops, either. I’ll take that.

Any time I mention incidents like this on Twitter or Facebook, I inevitably get lots of “Go get ‘em, Dad!” responses, and they certainly do make me feel better about my hot head, my short fuse and my harsh language. Well, in the short term, anyway. But the truth is, I’m not proud of my reactions. I’m not just a dad looking out for his little girl. I’m also an author and speaker on disability issues. And theoretically at least, I’m a role model for my daughter. (Stop snickering back there.) I’d like to be able to display a higher standard of behavior. I’d like to do better; I’d like to BE better.

I’m not sure what the answer is to this problem for me. The piece that I seem to be missing the most, patience, isn’t one that I come by easily. And every time someone says something horrible or insensitive to Schuyler in front of me, I can’t help but wonder how many nasty things she hears when no one is present on the scene except her classmates and peers. It doesn’t help that she’s becoming a touch paranoid about what people are saying about her. It’s clear she’s heard enough to fill in the blanks herself when she’s unsure. Shy of even her thirteenth birthday, Schuyler has become a little jaded about the people around her, particularly the ones she’s never met and who simply judge her on her shaky ability to conform to the world around her. She gets that from her own experiences with that world, and she no doubt gets it from me, despite my desire to teach her otherwise.

I’ll keep trying to do better at this, although I feel confident that I’ll probably continue to fail. That depresses me a little, but on some level, honestly? I can live with it if I must. I wish I could do better at the teachable moments. But I hope to never disappoint her when what she really needs is an protective father. Even if he’s just a caveman.

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