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.