Last week should have been a triumph.
Eastern Shore Repertory Theatre’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid had just concluded and the result was even more glorious than last fall’s James and the Giant Peach – and that’s saying something! This time, Sarah Kate was a seagull, without a name or any lines, but with a distinct personality – a “fan gull” friend of Scuttle (she nailed it, by the way).
I wish I could watch her performances with a less finely-tuned eye, holding my breath in fear that she’ll fall during a performance. Instead, I simultaneously marvel at her accomplishments and mourn that she can’t do more. It’s not important to me that my child is the star, but a part of me struggles knowing that no matter how hard she works, the key roles will likely always be out of her reach. Disability is more visible in film, TV, and theater than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go.
On the opening night of the play, I had a similar experience across town at Nathan’s t-ball game. In the last inning, his coach put him in at pitcher. He fielded a ball hit in the infield and threw it to the first baseman, who caught it and then tagged the runner. Our whole cheering section erupted and his coach grabbed him up and tossed him into the air. It was a great moment – amazing because of how rare it is, but sobering for the same reason.
On Thursday, I was feeling “sober.” Nathan’s last t-ball game was that night, and I lugged my camera gear up there in hopes of snapping a shot or two of him crossing home plate, even if the run didn’t count (the coaches and umpire always let him run even when he’s been called out). Usually I split my time between sitting in the stands and on the ground with my lens pressed against the fence, but I opted to just stand up this time, snapping a few shots here and there but mostly just waiting for it to be over.
As we approached the hour mark which would bring the end of the game, Nathan came out of the dugout. I was sure it was a mistake (he loves to bat so much that at times he’s decided it was time to be on deck when it wasn’t), but his coach waved him up to the plate. It was the last game so I figured no one cared if the kids were batting out of order (not uncommon in t-ball because…it’s t-ball). I decided I’d take the opportunity to snap a couple more shots of him batting.
He hit the ball and as he neared first base, I could see the coach excitedly waving him on to second. Nathan’s a pretty consistent hitter, but not a very powerful one, and it’s rare for a kid to take more than one base in our t-ball league – in fact, I’m not sure I had seen it all season. I didn’t see where the ball went because I was watching Nathan through my lens, and for a split second thought Coach Fred had lost his mind for sending him on; Nathan runs with gusto, but he is not fast.
And then it hit me what was happening.
Nathan’s coaches had orchestrated a walk-off homer for Nathan to end the game, and both teams were in on it. When he reached second base, the other team’s on-field coach sent him on to third. As he approached third, our coach sent him on home. The one girl on the team – a friend who is also in his class at school and was the first baseman for the play the week before – ran alongside him as he reached home plate, and then the rest of the team ran out and surrounded him. Coach Andru picked him up in celebration (I did notice he didn’t toss him in the air this time – I guess he learned his lesson after last week 😉 ).
A lot of these kinds of stories are floating around on the internet, and I always have mixed feelings about them, hoping that the collaborators are motivated by love for the individual and not personal glory. There’s also the ever-present worry about these stories becoming inspiration porn that stigmatizes people with disabilities. Inspiration porn IS a real problem – illustrated brilliantly in a recent episode of Speechless – but when it was our family’s story, I realized that every story like Nathan’s isn’t inspiration porn.
Nathan’s walk off home run is a story about love.
Wherever Nathan goes, people love him. In the grocery store or at the park or (fill in the blank), random kids I don’t remember ever seeing before – many of them older – come over and speak to him. Younger kids proudly proclaim to me, “Nathan goes to my school!” His class adores him – a fact that I witnessed firsthand one morning a few months ago when I was a field trip chaperone. I was waiting outside in the hall as he entered the room and the cacophony of greeting made it seem more like a surprise party for Nathan than an ordinary weekday morning. He even rode home in carpool with a friend of mine recently, even though I was already at the school to pick him up and she doesn’t live in my neighborhood, because the other boys love him and wanted him along for the ride.
It’s not just the kids, either. The Target lady lets him run the register and the IEP meeting last week was a 50/50 blend of serious discussion about his educational plan and school personnel regaling each other and me with tales of Nathan’s adventures (and I don’t just mean his current teachers). Listening to them talk and watching their facial expressions, I had no doubt that they love him…and that not one of them is immune to his charms.
Some people will see the video and decide the story is about how charitable the coaches and kids were to a poor little boy with Down syndrome. But those who were there – and those who weren’t but who know Nathan – will understand that the real story is about a little boy who doesn’t say much but whose joyful spirit motivated a team to celebrate him and make him smile.
And it begs the question – what would our world be like if we all talked a little less, loved without bounds and, like Nathan, spread joy wherever we went?