Right out of college I taught at an elementary school for deaf children. There were eight kids in my class, and in addition to being deaf, some of the students were either physically handicapped or slightly mentally retarded.
I don't claim to have been a good teacher. I hadn't been trained in special education. Communication in the classroom was on a rudimentary level. I did all right with the sign language alphabet and a few common word symbols, like "boy" and "girl" and "love." Some of the kids were lip readers, and they interpreted for me to the others, and vice versa. We all did the best we could.
As soon as it got warm enough in spring I started taking the class outside, to the small, asphalt playground beside the school. I felt that showing my kids how to diagram sentences was fine, but it wasn't as useful as getting them into the fresh air for a kickball game. I believed then as I believe now that sports are great medicine.
Most of my kids didn't need any special help at playing. But Nathaniel wore a helmet to protect himself against head injuries, because his coordination was severely impaired and he often fell down. He'd kick the ball, and sometimes I'd carry him from base to base. And Allison used crutches, and for the longest time she was reluctant to play because she couldn't actually kick the ball. I showed her how to use a crutch as a bat. After that, she was the first one out the door.
I was only there one semester. I wasn't cut out for that line of work, and after a few months I stopped trying to convince myself I was. I suspect the best thing I did as a teacher was bring my kids outside for kickball -- Nathaniel with his helmet, Allison with her crutches, all of them yelling and shrieking with joy when they scored a run or threw someone out at third. For better or for worse, I tried to open a window to the outside world for them, encourage them to compete, to be aggressive, to try to win, and to try again if they lost. After each game I hugged them all, winners and losers, and explained the best I could that the winning or losing wasn't the big thing: The big thing was going out and trying. And I admired them so, all of them, because they tried so hard at everything they did; no matter what cruelties fate had dealt them, they came to school eager to try again.
I thought about them over the weekend when I was at Gallaudet watching the District of Columbia Special Olympics Summer Games. Special Olympics is a year-round athletic program specifically designed for the mentally retarded. On July 31, some 4,500 athletes from 73 nations will convene in South Bend, Ind., for the jewel in the crown, the International Summer Special Olympics Games.
There are no losers at Special Olympics; everybody gets a ribbon or a medal for competing. That's a fine system, because rewards are an essential aspect of competition -- especially for the disabled, who may be embarrassed by the risks of public competition. Mike Walker, an aquatics coach in D.C. Special Olympics, said he knew of an athlete who won a medal -- a bronze, not a gold -- who didn't take that medal off for months, who held it out for you to see and recognize, that's how proud he was of it.
There were hundreds of athletes at Gallaudet -- encompassing the wide range of the mentally retarded: young children and middle-aged adults, severely retarded and higher functioning -- competing against athletes of similar ability, exulting in the joy of effort to reach a finish line, throw a softball or kick a soccer ball. Yes, the winners were elated, but you have never seen so many exhilarated runners-up in your life, their smiles as bright and as warm as any torch ever carried.
The purpose of Special Olympics is to expose the mentally retarded to the same thrills and lessons of sports as the rest of the population. "Let me win," their competitor's oath begins, "But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." How can anyone not see this as healthy? How can anyone think that participating in an activity that generates such enthusiasm wouldn't be helpful? To think how many years were wasted, and how many lives were lived without ever running in the sun, without ever throwing a ball, because mental retardation was thought of as something shameful and something to hide in the dark woods.
Yet, curiously, the athlete who moved me most was a small boy who came in fourth in a 50-yard dash, couldn't contain his disappointment at losing and began to sob. Nothing would cheer him, not his ribbon, nor the fuss they made over him at the awards ceremony when they announced his name and hung the ribbon around his neck, not all the hugs he got, and he got many.
"I didn't win," he said.
"But you're going to get a ribbon," he was told.
"But I didn't win," he insisted.
"Sure you won. You competed," someone said.
"You'll win next time," someone else suggested.
"I want to win this time," the boy said. "Now. Now."
Forgive me, but I felt oddly encouraged by the boy's anger. He appeared to be what Special Olympics coaches call "high functioning," in contrast to severely retarded, and his reaction reminded me of how slippery is the path and how narrow the slope between support and suffocation. As a society, we sometimes let our good intentions overcome us. While trying to help people who are less fortunate -- handicapped or disabled in some way -- we may seek to smooth their road so much that we succeed in shielding them from the fullness of life, the anger and the pain in losing for example.
A medal or a ribbon might be the best thing for a severely retarded athlete's self-esteem. But Steve Mason, the head of training and programs for D.C. Special Olympics, spoke of how the higher functioning athlete can actually be helped by losing. "So much is 'special' in their lives," Mason said, referring to designations like special education, special needs, Special Olympics. "Losing isn't a part of 'Special.' In special ed, they don't have testing. It sets a tone for their lives. They never really lose, and you can learn a lot from losing. This competition may be the first time they've ever gotten mad. It's a revelation. As a coach you have to turn it around so the winning is worth something, but the striving to win and the improvement they show is even more important."
In time, that young boy will learn that losing teaches humility and better prepares us to accept the evanescence of winning. But this once it was nice to see a Special Olympian mad about losing, for in its way it reminds us that the mentally retarded aren't emotionally vacant, nor are they automatically docile. I watched that boy cry, and in his eyes I saw Nathaniel, Allison and all the kids I taught, kids who taught me about courage and endurance, and for the gleaming strength of his spirit I wanted to hug him.