Small victories

When we get out there, we’re gonna yank ’em and tear ’em and rip ’em! We’re gonna take ’em and roll ’em around and rip ’em up to pieces! And then we’re gonna slaughter ’em. And after the slaughter is over, we’re gonna come back here and ring that victory bell. Like we always wanted to.–Coach Calhoun, GREASE

I have basically every line in the movie Grease memorized. Just ask Angie or Jamie. But I admit I looked up that quote just to be sure I had it word for word. I remember how every time we watched the movie (all 10 billion times), we would always say the last part in unison.

My kids’ current school actually has a victory bell, and they actually ring it when there is good occasion. For example I’ve heard that the Principal will suggest ringing the victory bell when the Academic Team wins a meet, or when the school was named a Blue Ribbon school, or when they met their goal of 100% parent participation for the year. I’m sure there are lots of other times they ring it.

So it only seemed natural that following the 5th grade promotion ceremony, our principal invited all the graduates to ring the bell to celebrate their final day as elementary school students. One by one they gathered around and took turns ringing the victory bell…like they had always wanted to. As I watched the kids gleefully pulling the cord and laughing with each other, lining up to take photos with classmates or a favorite teacher, hugging parents and holding up certificates with pride, I swallowed down my own disappointment.

I should have been proud: after all, Thomas was one of the 5th graders moving on to middle school. He was even recognized with a Presidential Gold Award for academic achievement. Just days ago the principal had given me an essay Thomas wrote on the topic of leadership that won a school-wide contest. He placed Distinguished in every single subject all year long. In short, he is amazing.

But my child was not part of the group celebrating. He stood awkwardly to the side, not smiling in the picture I forced him to take with John; not lining up to hug his teacher; not joining the kids who raced to ring the victory bell. His anxiety forced him apart from the so-called normal kids.

It made me think of the previous day when I had volunteered at Field Day. I saw my friend Kerri there with her son, who suffers from some coordination issues as part of a disease called ataxia-telangiectasia. Kerri’s son was doing his best to participate in the field day events, but it wasn’t easy for him. I knew she was probably struggling with her feelings as she watched the other kids running effortlessly around him. While my heart ached for her, I noticed that she did not let it ruin her experience. Later on Facebook she posted a beautiful photo of her son running at field day, and she explained how proud she was of her “strong and brave boy.”

I could take a few lessons from Kerri.  (Honestly, we all could. She is such an inspiration–see the link to her blog on the right). Thinking of her made it easier for me to swallow down my desire to take Thomas home after the graduation ceremony. The entire 5th grade was headed to the park for a picnic celebration, and I envisioned him sitting alone all afternoon while the other kids laughed and played. I wanted so badly to save him from the situation and my preconceived notions of what he is capable of on his own.

At that moment a girl from his class came running up and threw her arms around him quickly and squealed, “Thomas!”, smiled and ran away quickly. And my child, who can’t stand to be touched and will usually flinch if anyone so much as touches his shoulder, LET HER hug him. It was small, but it felt like a victory. I left him to attend the class picnic alone and finish out his last day in the 5th grade.

Later when he got off the bus I asked about the picnic, my voice full of trepidation as I pictured him admitting that he had a miserable time. I remembered all the Valentine’s parties and Holiday concerts I had attended over the last few years and saw him standing alone, overwhelmed by the activity and noise, his anxiety taking control. But he surprised me again.

“How was the picnic?” I asked?

“Great,” he said. “We signed each other’s yearbooks and I exchanged contact info with some friends.”

Some friends. All the academic awards in the world couldn’t make me feel as proud as I did in the moment. Suddenly I pictured him running around laughing and having fun with his classmates. Suddenly his anxiety wasn’t the main focus of my day. Suddenly I felt like celebrating.

I wanted to drive right back up to that school and ring the damn victory bell myself!

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