The Kindness of Strangers
Getting caught staring is an embarrassing situation most of us have experienced. You suddenly lock eyes with the person that caught your attention and you immediately turn away a little panicked and maybe getting the urge to leave in a not so discreet way. Now let's look at the other side of the coin for a bit, how do we react when we are the recipients of curious stares? How should we react? And are they always unwelcome?
Catching someone staring is something that happens to special needs families practically on a daily basis, and 90% of the time we will smile kindly with an “it's ok” look while hopefully setting the example for our kids that “it's really ok”. The other 10% of our reactions depend strongly on the vibe we're picking up.
When you are a special needs parent out and about without your kid you are far less visible, yet you still manage to get attention, as you are perusing the educational books section at a book store for example, people will automatically think you are a teacher, and since they are also in the section it’s likely they are teachers as well and all of a sudden you are being asked: “what grade do you teach?” This has happened to me more than a handful of times, and on the majority of the encounters I have simply answered: “oh no, I’m just looking for my son”, and that’s the end of the conversation.
One day at one of our favorite stores (Target), a day that Gil wasn't with me, the following scenario took place: I had an armful of books that I was considering buying when I caught the attention of a very nice lady who said to me: “your class kids are really lucky”, and for whatever reason my response was not my usual answer. It might have been the moment of being overwhelmed with options, or the nerve that Gil was starting preschool, or it might have been the tone in which this kind stranger talked to me, so I turned to her and said: “it’s actually for my son, he has Down syndrome”. I don’t know what look she saw on my face but it made her put down the book she had in her hands and make her way over to me. She looked at the books I was carrying and suggested one in particular, and said: “start with this, after that you will know what he needs”.
She didn’t bombard me with questions, instead she told me her story. Turns out she was a retired special education teacher. She worked with special needs kids when “special ed” didn’t exist in a formal matter, back when it was believed that people with disabilities were unteachable. This curious stranger was happy to share her knowledge. She stood there in an aisle in Target for more than 30 minutes talking to me, easing my concerns for my child who was about to begin the long road of a formal education.
Never once did she say “I’m sorry to hear that” or “I hope he´s ok”, and as I listened to her and took note of her generous tips, I realized the unspoken message she was sending: “He is going to do great”.
And the wisdom she bestowed upon me that day was “never let anyone tell you he can’t”. And I never do.