Schuyler has been participating in Miracle League for many, many years, and so the number of games I’ve sat through is pretty high. I don’t mean that in any way other than positive; even when the games are early in the morning, I enjoy them very much. (Once I’m there, anyway. I’m not a morning person, not even a little.) But I had an opportunity to watch the kids play with fresh eyes yesterday. I’m glad I did.
Yesterday was different for a number of reasons. First of all, it was basketball, a sport Schuyler doesn’t participate in. It’s never held much interest to her, and frankly, it’s one of my least favorite sports, so I’ve never really pushed it. (That squeaky sound the shoes make on the court drives me nuts. I have Issues.) One of Schuyler’s friends who helps with announcing and score-keeping texted her in the morning and invited her to go cheer for her friends, and I agreed to take her and sit through the two games with her, because I am swell.
We sat together for a short time, and then Schuyler went to see her friend and to help him out, and suddenly I found myself alone, and this time not talking to anyone or watching Schuyler play. I sat back and observed the game with a small amount of distance, which I’d never really done before.
I’ve discussed Miracle League before. It really is an extraordinary organization, allowing kids with disabilities to participate in sports in an accommodating but meaningful way. Baseball, soccer, basketball, bowling, all sorts of opportunities for the kids. Schuyler plays soccer, mostly, although she’s anticipating her return to baseball soon, after taking a couple of seasons off. The friends she’s made who have endured have mostly been through Miracle League. It’s as close to her tribe as she’s ever found.
Sitting back and watching the kids play, you see the obvious things first. That sense of community I described is strong, and while there are a few yelling parents, by and large the stands are filled with people who well and truly get it. Special Needs parents exist in a world that is different for each of our families, but at the same time carries some universals. It’s those experiences that we all carry with us as we navigate in the real world, and which we can set down for a few minutes during the games.
We root for our kids fiercely, because every thing they accomplish is meaningful, representing steps forward that are anything but guaranteed. Our society loves to make fun of the participation trophy, but the fact is that our kids earn those trophies in ways that society can maybe just begin to understand. When a kid on the other team scores a goal or connects with a baseball, we lose our minds for them, too. And not just the parents. The kids are just as happy for the other team, especially since they mostly know each other from the various sports. Schuyler is a notorious hugger of opposing players. Fraternization is a thing. Well, what are you gonna do?
And yet, competition is very strong between players. It’s easy to think of Miracle League as a place of gentle interactions, but that’s really not the case at all. The players push hard, although when someone gets knocked down, everyone goes full Chumbawamba immediately. The kids compete fiercely, but it’s complicated, because they’re not just competing with each other. They push themselves hard, they focus on the task at hand, and they are in a constant state of simultaneous conflict and negotiation with their disabilities. When professional athletes claim to leave it all on the field, this is what that really looks like.
I worry a lot about Schuyler and her friends as they grow older and move into a world for which they might not be entirely prepared. But watching them all play hard together, I’m reminded once again that they’re already working on that.
The range of disabilities accommodated by Miracle League is limitless. To avoid complete chaos, the league is divided into subsections, so that kids with physical disabilities that require more actual accommodation get the help they need, while kids like Schuyler who have more neurological disabilities like autism, PMG or Down syndrome play in their own group with their own particular accommodations. It might not feel like total inclusion, but it really is necessary.
Even within those separate groups, however, there’s a lot to work out. Schuyler is very physical in her interactions, like a lot of kids who grew up without expressive language in their earliest years. Kids who don’t enjoy a lot of physical contact or loud expressions of affection or humor are perhaps not her most obvious peer group.
And yet, they love her, and she loves them. They power through their sensory issues and she powers through her misunderstanding of social cues, and they all adore each other, awkwardly and imperfectly. Schuyler’s autistic friends squeeze their eyes closed and clinch their teeth when she flies in for a power hug, but they smile hugely, too. They’re already learning to navigate their differences to get to the friendships waiting behind those awkward walls.
It is a familiar trope in the world of advocacy, the idea that people with disabilities are not there to serve as inspiration for the rest of us. And yet, watching Schuyler and her friends navigate their differences with such a sharp focus on what really matters? THAT’S inspiring to me. So why the hell does the rest of the world have so much trouble with it? Maybe that’s the “miracle” part. I wish it wasn’t quite so miraculous, though. Our messy, walled-off, angry world could use a little bit of that.
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