The Last-placing Winner


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Yesterday I went to watch my five year-old son run the cross-country at school. On the way home in the car I was shuddering and wiping tears from my eyes. I’m going to tell you what happened.

My son attends a mainstream school, as far as the school grounds and school uniform go. But his class is a “satellite class;” all the students in that single classroom have special needs, and the classroom resources and teachers are from a special needs school based at a different location. The whole mainstream school – including the classroom my son attends – took part in the cross-country during the school day. Parents were invited to attend.

The children run by age group, so my son’s grouping was early on in the day. He was in the second “heat” (basically, the second rather large grouping of children for that age group). The group included only a few children from the special needs class, the rest of the many children were all mainstream.

As the starting gun fired he set off, me on the side-lines watching on proudly. Proud because he understood what was required of him on this occasion, and proud because he was able and willing to do it.

Within metres he was last of the pack, even though he was running as fast as his legs would carry him. My son looks like any normal child, but his autism affects his gross movement; he doesn’t run well, it’s a sort of rolling gait that most people might not notice. And his ankles roll in significantly, so he wears orthotics to correct the alignment (and thereby address the consequent muscle and bone issues). He has always had notably low muscle tone, particularly in his core. He has trouble coordinating movement in general. (I’ve been told that all of these issues are results of his autism; he has no comorbid conditions causing these problems.) So I see my boy run, and already I know he’s doing something great.

He continues to be last as he reaches the top of the hill and turns to the right. But he is still running as fast as he can, so I am smiling my motherly head off. I am impressed that he follows the route and I am glad to see him not running away as he has a tendency to do. I notice that a teacher and some other student seem to be lagging back with him, and as they get closer to the finish line I can see that it is one of the special needs assistance teachers, and one of his own classmates, actively encouraging and directing him; it is harder for him to figure out which way to go now that almost everyone else has crossed the finish line and there’s not really anyone left to follow.

As he pulls into the final straight, I can see all the next heat of children anxiously waiting for the starting gun, which will not fire until the last child from the previous heat crosses the line. My son. So everyone is watching, waiting, and I am ashamed that a small part of me feels exposed and worried that my boy is holding everyone up. This isn’t about me, it’s about my son. I refocus as he nears the finish line; I shift his baby brother to my other hip as he tries to wiggle free, trying to draw his attention to his clever older brother running his cross-country race.

As my son crosses the finish line all the parents there don’t breathe a loud sigh of relief and turn to watch their own children running the next race. They don’t mutter or make impatient faces. They cheer. And they clap. For my boy. The boy who came last but ran the whole way and did it with a smile. They are happy he has finished, not because they’re glad the race finished, but because they see the dedication and joy in what he has just accomplished. It’s written all over his beautiful face, for everyone to see. And what a sight it is.

I felt a wave of emotion just engulf me. The classmate who stayed with him out on the field, clapping and encouraging him along. The parents who genuinely cheered and clapped as he crossed the line. And my little man doing something that doesn’t come easily or naturally, but doing it as best he can. I gave him a cuddle and my goodbyes; I had to get his by-now very tired and increasingly grumpy brother, back to the car and home for a nap.

As I walk back to the car I feel the tears start. I’m embarrassed by the tears; walking in bright sunlight in public, openly crying. And I don’t even know for sure why I’m crying. It’s a mix of emotions that I still can’t quite pin down and describe. I was just over-whelmed, by so many aspects of the experience.

There is something I can say for the whole experience. It was like a metaphor of what I want for my son’s life. I want him to try to be part of the world and take part in the world. I want him to try his best, and challenge himself. I want him to be supported by friends and mentors along the way. And I want those observing his life to rejoice in the achievements he makes, even though he’s not about to win the race. And I want him to know that his mother will always be watching proudly from the sidelines, celebrating him and his achievements along the way.

I hope that all of that is not too much to expect for his life.

He may have placed last in a cross-country, but my son was still a winner that day, in more ways than even he may ever know.

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16 Responses to The Last-placing Winner

  1. sarasiobhan says:

    Awww… I have so had that experience in the past.. Same set up with satellite school, same mix of emotions as LB ran a bit then sort of lost momentum, not really having any understanding that there was a ‘finishing line’ he had to cross. And the lovely response of other parents and kids. You have expressed it all perfectly. The only thing I would say, a few years down the line, I am now an emotional wreck and blub at every collective event I go to. It’s hilarious really. To begin with, the tears would start, like you, leaving the event, or in the car on the way home. Now within about 30 seconds of the start of the play/assembly/race or whatever, I’m howling. Not just events to do with LB but any of the kids!!! Luckily the other parents are used to it!

  2. Stephanie says:

    You have me blubbering over my keyboard here.

    Beautiful post.

  3. Sharon says:

    I started crying at the third paragraph. I feel so proud of your boy and I haven’t even met him. Give him a hug from me.

  4. Nostromoswife says:

    That was so lovely 🙂 I feel the same way whenever my son does something other parents might consider pretty normal, but to us is just a miracle. The other day, our normally non-verbal boy picked up a pear and said as clear as anything ‘Peearrrr’. Well that was enough to start the tears flowing!

  5. Tsara says:

    That was so lovely! You and your son have just reminded me of the time my now fifteen year old (who had Irlene Syndrome) insisted on trying basketball. He was terrible and tempted to quit. Then a game came along that we were winning to such a ridiculous degree the whole team decided that Tyran, my son, was going to get a basket! You explained so beautifully the mix of emotions… and the nervous worry that the other parents and coaches were going to be staring at your child and judging… the surprising feeling of support for your baby when you see how much they want him to succeed… it took ten full minutes of constant posturing and passing and missing and setting up but eventually… he did it!! He got a basket! I smiled and thanked and hugged and ran outside to cry so as not to embarrass my then twelve year old son.

    We needed this reminder. Tyran is going through a rough patch right now (pretty typical teenager stuff, but painful for him none the less) and the way you wrapped up your post with a reminder of the importance that our children take an active and excited part in the world, that they are supported by friends and mentors along the way, that we remember to celebrate and see achievements both big and small… that’s what I need to remind my son to feel and see.

    Once again, you have shared openly and kindly a beautiful story just when I needed to hear it!
    Huge hugs!!

  6. Thank you so much for your comments Steph, Sharon (consider him well and truly hugged!), Nostromoswife (that’s wonderful!), and Tara (thank you for sharing in return too, what a lovely special story).

  7. Pingback: Last place wins hearts « Homepaddock

  8. Rachel says:

    Oh, that was just beautiful! I can feel the emotion as everyone cheers for him. A small moment of what life should always be.

  9. I’ve removed the off-topic comments about the physical symptoms of autism; that were getting nowhere and increasingly heated. (Basically, I’m enforcing my Comment Policy:

    If you’d like to discuss the physical symptoms of autism, please do so over here:

  10. nostromo says:

    I so know those feelings but in respect to my NT(ish) daughter, she does athletics and is almost always last, sometimes by 200 metres, we had a goal for her to come ‘2nd to last’ and she did it last year. She gets the same sort of support at the end of her races, its really good, basically the people there love the effort, and those who stick it out to the finish as I’m always reminding her. And a hotdog and raspberry strap to those who try their best helps too :-).
    I am sometimes wowed a little by some of the kids who are really good athletically, theres a little girl in my daughters group who runs like a little adult sprinter and completely outclasses the rest, I sometimes indulge myself and wonder what would it be like to be a parent of a kid with so much natural not have to struggle.

  11. Leah Kelley says:

    I really appreciate this wonderful post. Additionally, your writing is beautiful. You had me captured and feeling as though I was right there along-side you. I have a son who has autism as well, and it is so great when we are able to read each about each others’ experiences and feel that others walk with us on our sometimes unexpected paths. Thank you for sharing your journey…

  12. I am a shocker for mummy-tears anyway, I blubber freely whenever any of my class overcome their personal challenges, but your post made me smile, laugh and cry all at once! What a wonderful experience for him and for you – something you will treasure as a memory but he will probably never even think about! Typical of our children! Your blog is inspiring – thanks for sharing your journey with us all.

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