At 3:10 PM, he clomped up those steps to the library, not with his usual enthusiasm. He plopped down in the yellow chair, right by our second-story fireplace, right across from my light blue Lazy Boy where I sit reading, waiting for him.
I sensed him.
Something was wrong.
”Hi! How was your day?”
“Not so good.”
I was right.
“Oh. Did you get your math and science tests back?” I asked, hesitantly. His face fell, eyes stuck on the carpet.
“I failed both of ‘em, pretty bad.”
His mid-face—that part of his face showing how his brain and more was broken before he was ever born—by alcohol ingested—that face I love—it just fell down. And carpet couldn’t muffle the sound.
I stopped breathing. Where was the air?
Might as well have sucked it all out of the room, straight up through the chimney.
I hurt for him.
I know how hard he works—how hard he studied for these two tests—how hard he works at everything academic—how he didn’t even learn to read till he was in fifth grade because of severe dyslexia that has had him in intensive tutoring since first grade—how he’s trying his best as a junior in high school, in the Algebra I took in eighth grade and aced without studying—how he’s struggling to read the text and understand the concepts in Environmental Science—how we spend hours doing homework together when I spent none with my parents because I didn’t need their help.
He’s lost and he knows it.
Left behind by the smarter, the quicker, the “more”-abled.
He’s been holding on for weeks now, drowning in the deep of classes where he can’t swim, refusing to give up just yet, even though his resource room teachers and we, his parents, have told him we can adjust his schedule, his classes. He can grab the life ring and LIVE! But he wants—so—bad—to succeed—like others.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry! I know you did your best. That’s what counts.”
Is that what counts? Trying your hardest?
Is that ALL that counts?
How about when you do not try your best—you do not try your hardest—and you get the “A+” anyway?
What counts, really?
Then, he told me how one of the teachers had counted in class—A, B, C, D, F.
He told me how his teacher went to the white board and wrote A, B, C, D and F in a column. And then, next to each grade—each letter—she posted the count—the number of students who had received A’s and B’s and C’s and D’s and F’s. The whole breakdown of 25 students.
I could practically feel his heart. I could hear the choke back. Eyes still stuck on carpet, he blurted . . .
“I was one of four F’s. Most of the kids got A’s and B’s.”
“How did you feel when she put up the numbers?”
I had a feeling, but not wanting to impose, I asked instead of assumed. My intuition was correct . . .
“I felt hurt.”
Three short words.
How they can sting.
Especially when you have a kid who you think has been born happy and seems never to see anything but the good. In fact, I’ve never heard him say, “I felt hurt.” Ever. And I, being the feeling thermometer in our home, am always checking emotional temperatures, intuitively and actually.
“Oh Nick! I would feel hurt too! I’m so sorry! So sorry!”
I tried to pick up the pieces of broken spilling out, scattering randomly about the room.
“But that wasn’t the worst. After she put up the grades and the numbers, she asked all the kids who got A’s and B’s to stand up. There were a lot.”
Well, a mother’s heart just plain aches when her kid, no matter their age, feels shamed, no matter the intent of another, which I’m sure was not to shame the “less”-abled. She’s a nice person. But I thought to myself . . .
It’s the way of the world, to honor the smart, the talented, the successful, the beautiful. It’s the way of the world for the ones the world loves to attract attention while their “less”-abled audience sits in their shadows, unseen. How many times are the over-shadowed shamed by the values of our world?
Could I—Should I speak my thoughts to my son who has five disabilities qualifying him for special education? Could I—Should I say this to my son who probably works harder than most who get their attention-getting A’s and B’s?
I racked up mostly A’s from kindergarten through college and beyond. Hardly had to study. When I graduated grad school, I received highest honors. Studied somewhat harder there. But mostly, school was always easy and recognition came often for academics as well as several other talents loved by the world.
So, I never thought about how the “less”-abled might have felt about all the attention and applause and honors the “more”-abled—like ME—received. I wanted MORE attention. Not just honors but HIGHEST honors. I wanted—needed—something more to puff up my pride, something to shoot me up higher, like a drug . . .
Yeah, those heroin addicts are such losers. Three dead. This month. In our tiny town of a few thousand. Too bad drugs have finally found their way here, in this little enclave of spirituality where “good” people live. Forget them. Who even knows? Unless you read the local paper. Then, maybe you’ll pity them, those who are NOT like US, the spiritual. And maybe you’ll say a proper prayer for them and the babies they’ve left behind, cuz that’s what us spiritual people do. And maybe you’ll thank God you’re not ONE of them. So then, let’s get on with our own business, shall we? Let’s get addicted to all that applause, shall we? Let’s shoot up with pride, shall we? Cuz we’re so spiritual, you know? And being our best gives God so much glory, you know? Yeah. Let’s keep puffing up our pride in the name of Jesus till we overdose. And if WE can’t get enough applause to puff up our pride, let’s make sure our CHILDREN get it good, right? Yeah. Shoot ‘em up. Let’s get them addicted too. That’s how we do it, don’t we?
I wanted to be PRAISE-worthy. HONOR-able. That’s what got you the “high” in your family and friends, right? Yeah. I was an addict. Hard core.
Because that’s what gets you ahead.
That’s what gets you a BIG head.
And the bigger the head, the better you feel, right?
Nothing like getting high on yourself—or your kids.
That’s what I thought, back then.
Back then . . .
Never thought of the “less”-abled?
Until I had three (by worldly standards) . . .
Three kids with a host of learning disabilities as well as other cognitive, physical, emotional challenges.
There have been no award ceremonies for our kids in school. Even outside of school. Not one.
Higher education? Out of reach.
Sports? We’re used to last place—warming the bench—serving the water—encouraging the “able”.
I’ve struggled, to be sure. I am no saint.
I’ve wanted to applaud success in my kids when sitting in awards assemblies or on bleachers where other parents are clapping. I’ve wanted others to applaud our kids too—to help them feel good, to help them feel important, to help boost their SELF-esteem.
Because, you know, SELF-esteem is what’s REALLY important. (Forget about MY-esteem.)
When parents are proud of their kids and their accomplishments—when your friends and family applaud all the things the rest of the world applauds, it’s easy to feel left out, less-than, when your “less-than abled” kids don’t sparkle enough for notice.
Like some are some diamonds with defects passed over for the sparkling VVS (very, very successful?), paid for by SELF and sitting on the hand of the beloved.
Funny, isn’t it—how we parents want our kids to succeed—how we want them to be noticed and recognized and applauded—how WE feel good when our kids succeed in the ways WE think are important—the ways the WORLD thinks are important—because we want THEM to FEEL good, right?
And when our kids don’t succeed with intellect or talents or fame or money or relationships—when they actually don’t even perform in the average range compared to others? When actually, they’re not even noticed?
How quickly feelings can come tumbling down—down—down.
Funny, isn’t it?
No, it’s not funny.
It’s heart-breaking. You know.
And why do our hearts break?
Because somewhere in our deepest, we know, the ways of the world are not—God’s—ways.
Grieving is ok.
And grieving and healing of a broken heart takes time, especially when it takes time to realize what you’re grieving, what needs healing.
First fragmented, like jigsaw puzzle pieces dumped on a table, there’s confusion—internal chaos.
Nothing makes sense. Nothing fits. You can’t see a coherent image of your kids, yourself, your God.
You flail like the drowning far from shore, blown over with a sudden wind out of nowhere , desperate for grounding, gasping for air.
I feel the broken brains in my own broken heart. Do you feel your broken?
I want to fix them. I want to fix myself. I want to fix all that’s not right. Do you?
But I realize I can’t. Do you?
I wonder if any of us will ever, miraculously, be put back together again—all our Humpty Dumpty, fallen from the wall.
In my grief, I gave up. I, most likely to succeed, had no more energy. How about you?
So, like me, maybe you come to the point where you give up your expectations, even your hopes.
You let go.
You open your hands, scared though you are.
And you wait . . .
You wait for God to give whatever he will.
And you learn to be grateful for your new normal.
It takes time.
For slow learners, like me.
Sometimes there are no happy endings, by the world’s definition.
But God gives sight to the blind and faith to those with too little—to those who seek him because he’s all they’ve got. Like you? Like me.
Over time, you start to see a holy image—a gospel picture forming from the fragments of the shattered.
You start to see how the Holy defines purpose and meaning, love and truth, value. Your value. Your kids’ value.
You start to realize that what you thought you never wanted—all this brokenness—what thought you could never bear—all this grief—is exactly what you needed to tear your heart apart—to fling open the door of your inner imprisoned self, bound by worldly ways, trapped by what the world deems important, HONOR-able, PRAISE-worthy.
You start to praise your God to whom all praise belongs. You start to honor his ways—the only ways that count for eternity.
You start to realize that honor-grabbing and praise-greedy people have received their reward in full.
You want MORE. You realize, little by little, that those who sit in the shadows, unrecognized and unappreciated by the world, have crowns coming with jewels saving all the sparkle they’ve not had in this life.
And the King of kings and Lord of lords will personally set that crown of glory upon the humble heads who have placed their faith in him alone. And they, in turn, will take those crowns set upon their heads and cast them at the feet of the only One who deserves such honor and glory and praise.
You start to rest.
All is well.
No matter what.
God gives all gifts.
Only God deserves glory. Only Jesus—the one who made himself nothing—near naked—so WE could be lifted from the pit of despair—from all addictions of SELF—no matter how HONOR-able in the minds of man and woman.
Today . . .
I still applaud high honor students in assemblies. I still applaud winners of contests. I still applaud greatness wherever I see it. Because I will forever applaud the greatness of God bestowed upon humankind.
But now, success has different meaning to me. Expanded meaning. Inclusive meaning.
For me, the one who had straight A’s, the hardest class I’ve ever had is Kingdom Economics 101.
I’ve failed too many times to count.
In fact, I’m still studying hard and hoping and praying that one day I’ll just pass this class.
For he is my instructor.
And he knows my desire.
For now, I’m practicing the little I’ve learned so far.
Know what I REALLY like to applaud these days?
I applaud “differently”-abled kids like our Nick who texted me from school two days ago, asking if he and one of his other “less”-abled friends could go over to a classmate’s house. Her grandmother is dying and she’s feeling down. They wanted to sit with her, comfort her, even give her a hug.
I applaud him for earning the nickname “Kleenex Boy” in first grade because he’s the one who senses emotional clouds moving in, the tears ready to pour. And he wants to be ready to offer something soft to dab those grief drops.
What has he failed, really?
I applaud our daughter who spends her afternoons cleaning urine-dripped toilets and mud printed floors and dozens of dishes at a childcare center. As she scrubs, she prays for the little ones. She knows them by name, just like God, her maker, who knows her name. And she feeds the lambs’ souls with silent requests of her heavenly Father who knows all—their—names.
What has she failed, really?
I applaud our other son, the one who survived outside of the womb when he wasn’t supposed to—when he was supposed to be easily, discreetly disposed of—like the ones behind the doors of Planned Parenthood—the ones sold—the ones who still live—the ones with so many invisible challenges.
He stops every time he sees a motorist in distress. Wants to know if he can help. The one who works hard in a factory. Asks for overtime.
So what has he failed, really?
Eighteen years and three children later, a holy image is forming in each of us here on this farm—in this family.
And outside this family?
I now notice the “less-abled”. And like the Grinch who stole Christmas, my heart has swelled. I can’t by-pass anymore. I can’t ignore. I stop. I linger. I remember their names and I speak them. I thank them when they pack my grocery bags. I don’t take for granted any more how hard it is for some to remember that eggs and bread go on top. I spend a little extra time listening to them. Because they need a little extra time—a little extra patience. And they take the time to ask me how I am. To really listen. To respond. Like they’ve really heard me. Like they’ve really cared. Because they do. And they remember my name.
So guess who is blessed most?
I’m guessing it’s both of us.
I’m guessing there is no “most” in God’s economy.
Because God loves all, notices all, and applauds all who love him and lives his ways.
I think I’ve begun to see the gospel picture. I think the pieces are coming together . . .
I once was blind. But now, I’m beginning to see God’s upside-down economy.
Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4
For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” Luke 9:48
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. James 2:1